June Cover Story: Deep Tech
The hottest Southeast Asian startups in AI, Biotech, Blockchain and NewSpace. And why they make everyone else look boring.
Andreas Schmidt, Co-founder of AyoxxA Biosystems Photo Credit: Company Courtesy
Having trouble reading this? Age-related macular degeneration typically starts affecting people in their 60s (older than Inc. Southeast Asia’s average reader), and is the result of chronic inflammation leading to abnormal vascularization or atrophy of the retinal layers in affected eyes.
By analyzing biomarkers within the eye’s aqueous humour, doctors can potentially determine the extent of the disease and suggest possible therapies. However, because it has hitherto been a technically laborious process, treatment has tended to follow the “one drug for all” model, says Andreas Schmidt, co-founder of AyoxxA Biosystems (AyoxxA henceforth).
AyoxxA, a translational proteomics company, is changing that. How? Partly through a technology conceptualized in 2006 at the National University of Singapore (NUS) by Dieter Trau, an associate professor at its department of biomedical engineering and AyoxxA’s co-founder.
Traditional protein analysis is done on palm-sized microtitier plates by observing the reaction between the sample and an antibody in each “well”. At NUS Trau conceptualized a way to embed microbeads—each a fraction of the diameter of a human hair—into microcavities within each well and encode its location.
As each microbead can be theoretically coated with a different antibody, the technology, which AyoxxA developed and commercialized, allows researchers to obtain exponentially more information than through the old way. AyoxxA sells each unique plate along with a little USB key that contains the decoding data.
Schmidt grew up in Bad Salzuflen, a small town in northern Germany. He studied biology at the University of Cologne, where he first dabbled in biotech as an intern at startups. He then won a scholarship to do an undergraduate year at the University of Oregon before finishing his masters in Cologne, and then returning to the US in 2004 for a PhD in molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
When he found out about Trau and his work, Schmidt decided to move to Singapore in 2009 to help commercialize the technology. It was his first full-time job. “I didn’t know if it was going to work. I had to convince my wife to move with me from San Francisco to Singapore,” he says. “Sometimes being naive helps you.”
Schmidt cheers the availability of non-dilutive grant money in Singapore: AyoxxA received $160,000 from the National Research Foundation, $190,000 from the SMART Innovation Centre (Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology), and $380,000 from SPRING’s Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme.
However at the time there were relatively few “experienced biotech lead investors that have brought companies to exit and know the game.” As a result, it was a VC from Germany, Wellington Partners, that in 2012 injected $5.7 million in the firm’s Series A round. It later raised $15 million from multiple investors in a 2014 Series B round.
(Schmidt has chosen to fundraise and develop his second biotech start-up in Singapore, partly he says because the VC funding situation has since improved).
In 2012 AyoxxA established its corporate headquarters in Cologne where it performs things “Germans are good at”: engineering, quality control and automation of production. AyoxxA also has an office in Boston, the “biggest hub of pharma and life sciences in the world.” This is largely to be near its customers.
And it retains a sizeable presence in Singapore, partly to be near its original collaborator, the Singapore Eye Research Institute. Ophthalmology proved the perfect beachhead customer vertical because of the preciousness of each sample: “You cannot go back to the patient saying ‘Oh, we want to poke your eye one more time’,” says Schmidt.
Philip Wong, Cardiologist & Co-founder of Web Biotech Photo Credit: Joel Lim
Soon we might all have doctors in our pockets. “The smartphone is going to be the cornerstone of healthcare in the future,” says Dr. Philip Wong, a cardiologist and co-founder of Web Biotech, which has created what it calls the world’s first cloud-based, tether-free continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring machine.
Gilmour Space Technologies
Adam Gilmour, Founder & CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies Photo Credit: Joel Lim
For bankers keen to beat those mid-career blues, consider becoming a rocketeer. “I went from spreadsheets filled with derivative calculations to spreadsheets filled with rocket calculations and it was an easy transition,” says Adam Gilmour, founder and CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies (Gilmour Space henceforth).
Emma Weston, CEO & Co-founder of AgriDigital Photo Credit: Courtesy Company
Forget cryptocurrencies. Look at supply chains to understand blockchain’s magic. In December 2016 an Australian farmer sold 23 tonnes of wheat to a wholesaler and received payment in an hour—in what is believed to be the world’s first live settlement for a physical agricultural commodity using blockchain.
Doug Parker, COO at nuTonomy Photo Credit: Joel Lim
Driving can be deadly. In 2017 the automotive sector saw 1.4 million deaths globally; while the commercial aviation sector saw zero. Part of the reason for the relative safety of the skies, according to evangelists of autonomous vehicles (AVs), is that people travel on planes operated by companies obliged to keep them safe. The operators try to ensure, among other things, that their vehicles are serviced and their pilots competent. Contrast that with automobiles: some 95% of road accidents are due to human error.