Meet the Scientists Working to Eradicate Late-stage Cancer-related Deaths in Asia
Dr. Lihan Zhou and the team at Ark have developed a gastric cancer blood test and secured a US$40 million funding for regional expansion
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
There’s a start-up origin story that has been told and retold often enough, it has become somewhat of a trope: a bunch of aspiring entrepreneurs, huddled over coffee, come up with a brilliant idea and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Totally not true for us,” Dr. Lihan Zhou says with a laugh.
Zhou, who has a PhD in biochemistry, is co-founder and co-CEO at Ark, a medtech company based out of Singapore that’s working towards the audacious goal of eradicating late-stage cancer-related deaths through early detection.
“We actually call ourselves ‘the accidental entrepreneurs,’” he adds.
The journey from scientist to entrepreneur has taken more than a decade for Lihan and the core team at Ark, and what began in 2003 as a research group at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has evolved into a thriving business, with a name that boldly conveys its messianic mission, and a recently-secured US $40 million Series A funding that will let the company set sail for the rest of Asia.
From research tool to clinical application
In 2003 the NUS-based research group was busy developing the technology to detect microRNAs, a very small type of molecule that was only found in humans in 2001, says Zhou, and which has recently emerged as a promising biomarker for cancer. Zhou and his colleagues were doing this, however, without a specific clinical application in mind.
In 2010, the group was approached by the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*Star), Singapore’s leading public sector research agency, and asked if they could develop the technology for potential commercialization. By 2012, Zhou says they said to themselves: “Ok, [we] have a good technology. Now what do we do?”
What they had then was a research tool. “But we've always wanted to develop an application to translate from bench to bedside. So since 2012 we’ve been working with different clinical groups in Singapore, China, Japan, Korea, as well as later in Europe and the US, to look at developing clinical applications.”
US$40 million Series A
Ark was officially founded in early 2018 through the merger of MiRXES -- Zhou’s group that was spun off out of A*STAR -- and venture capital firm Venturecraft, the company said in a statement.
To date, Ark is present in Singapore and China, with a research and development (R&D) lab, a manufacturing site, and a growing commercial team.
“The US$40 million will be split into a heavy R&D and clinical study budget, where we develop additional products and conduct Asia-wide clinical studies” with upwards of 50,000 participants, says Zhou.
“[F]or each test that we develop, we undergo validation studies involving thousands of cancer and matched control subjects, to ensure that we have the reproducibility and robustness required before we roll any product out to market,” he adds.
The decision to focus on blood-based cancer screening isn’t random.
“We’re in this because almost every single person in the core team of the company has lost someone to cancer. And we really wanted this to be a product where 10, 20 years down the road we will be proud to tell our friends, families, [and] children that we worked on a project that saved lives,” Zhou says.
He adds, “It’s not so much about making money. There are easier ways of making money.”
A very Asian problem
Ark’s first product is a gastric cancer blood test, developed in collaboration with the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium, A*STAR’s Diagnostics Development Hub, National University Hospital, and Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
About 75% of the disease occurs in Asia “because it’s a very lifestyle-driven cancer,“ Zhou says. And because it’s less prevalent in the West, there has been a dearth of research on developing diagnostic markers for it.
“So we actually saw an opportunity to address a very Asia-focused problem.”
Zhou says the price of the tests will differ from market to market but could cost less than US$150 in Singapore, and maybe even cheaper in China.
Public sector vs. company setting
The point where they became entrepreneurs, he says, was when they realized that turning their technology into a full-fledged product “has to be done in a company setting.”
“We could continue to work in a very comfortable position within a public sector research institute, develop technology, publish papers, file patents, but the public setting does not really enable you to develop a product,” he adds.
There are two ways of achieving that goal, he says: license the technology to another company, or do it on their own.
Cancer screening, however, is not something that a lot of companies are interested in. According to Zhou, “It’s challenging, it’s a very long commercialization journey, and it doesn't quite fit the typical [profit and loss] that CFOs look for within a year or two years.”
“So we did explore a joint venture and some licensing models but we realized that, maybe for the first step of commercialization, we have to do it on our own. So we thought, why don't we give that a shot.”
There are trade-offs in choosing to do this in a company setting, but Zhou says they’ve been fortunate enough to have had more pros than cons.
“We do have to worry about paying the bills by the end of the month. The journey in developing a clinical product is long… [But] I think we've had a fairly smooth ride so far, and now with the Series A, we can go much further in building our capabilities to test our commercialization model in a few select countries.”