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As medical device industry grows, local manufacturing sector could see boost

Benjamin Cher
Benjamin Cher • 7 min read
 As medical device industry grows, local manufacturing sector could see boost
(Oct 16): As a diabetic, Angie Foo needs to monitor her blood sugar levels closely. Recently, the housewife acquired a device that allows her to do so at home.
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(Oct 16): As a diabetic, Angie Foo needs to monitor her blood sugar levels closely. Recently, the housewife acquired a device that allows her to do so at home.

“I’ve got quite used to using the device to monitor my blood sugar levels. [Initially,] I used it quite frequently, on a daily basis. But now that I monitor my food intake and exercise and find that they help, I sample my blood with it much less frequently — maybe every three to four days, or sometimes once a week,” she says.

Having the device at home means Foo does not have to go to a clinic to check her blood sugar levels. It also allows her to seek medical attention should her blood sugar level increase.

“It’s definitely more convenient to do it at home because it takes just a few minutes. Only on certain weeks or days when my sugar levels are unusually high, would I require a trip to the hospital to follow up on my condition,” she adds.

Such devices are increasingly part of physicians’ prescriptions for patients with chronic diseases, says William Chew, managing director of myHealth Sentinel. The company provides network-based solutions that integrate patient device data with electronic medical records.

“The numbers [that doctors] were getting [from patients] were somewhat unreliable, because some of the patients don’t take their measurements when they are supposed to,” says Chew. “They will write down something so as not to be scolded by their doctors.”

This in turn can lead to increased insurance premiums or additional prescriptions.

“This is why things like patches, smart clothing and environmental sensors that detect movement and activity [are significant],” Chew adds. “[They] hold the promise of being able to gather the data without placing an additional burden on the individual.”

James Lim, co-founder and CEO of medtech start-up NephTech, says connected medical devices are also more useful than unconnected ones.

NephTech is developing wearable technology that will adopt big data analytics to monitor and manage kidney diseases.

“These days, it is [more about] an integrated solution: hardware and at the same time some form of data analytics, or even a reminder to take their medication,” Lim says. “Broadly speaking, these backend data analytics are starting to get more and more impactful in this space, which is really helping patients and even doctors.”

As Singapore faces an ageing population and a rise in chronic diseases — hallmarks of a developed economy — an array of medical devices may be necessary to manage the resulting bed and manpower crunch at public hospitals. And opportunities may arise for companies in the right manufacturing and medtech sectors.

“After you build hospitals, clinics and the various pieces of infrastructure, and you staff them, how do you generate more productivity? How do you scale that to take care of the growing numbers of elderly and the explosion in chronic diseases?” says Chew. “The solution is not to build more hospitals and train more doctors. The solution is to be able to get more efficiency out of the healthcare system, by creating a continuum of care in which people can be taken care of in the right environment — and not always in hospital emergency wards.”

Opportunities for companies big and small
Singapore is home to the manufacturing plants and regional headquarters of more than 30 medtech MNCs, says Steven Pang, managing director and Asean lead for life sciences at Accenture. The country has also attracted 12% of Asia’s healthtech start-ups.

“Singapore is facing a rapidly ageing and growing population, an area in which medical technologies can be further leveraged to deliver more efficient, affordable and quality healthcare. In Sweden and Australia, for example, stroke prevention via mobile devices has proven to be cost-effective,” Pang says. “Such programmes could also be implemented in Singapore. This will be consistent with Singapore’s Healthcare 2020 plan, with a focus on prevention rather than caring for the sick.”

Medical device companies are therefore looking to tap this market.

“Because Singapore has a reputation of providing medical care and being technologically advanced, in a way [it is] a showcase environment,” says Chew.

Luka Fajs, co-founder and CEO of Biosensorix, says Singapore also offers more funding support for medical device start-ups than the rest of the world.

Biosensorix is currently working on devices to make laboratory tests easy and accessible to everyone.

Fajs says, “We didn’t see this much support anywhere else in the world. The company was founded by two foreigners with no link to Singapore, and we were able to get that funding just based on merit and the project.”

Meanwhile, big players see Singapore as a good regional hub.

Medtronic, the world’s largest standalone medical equipment development company, opened a facility in the city state in 2011. Bob White, Medtronic’s Asia-Pacific president, says the country has excellent infrastructure, stability, open business policies and skilled manpower.

“We opened the Medtronic Singapore Operations to ensure that our manufacturing capabilities can better address the growing epidemic of cardiovascular diseases and meet the increase in demand for cardiac devices in Asia-Pacific and around the world. MSO also serves as our Asia-Pacific distribution hub for cardiac devices that are implanted within our region and elsewhere in the world,” says White.

In 2013, Medtronic expanded its presence with a centre of excellence for business model innovation. “The COE is responsible for designing, testing and scaling new business models for the rapidly growing developing markets across Asia,” says White.

In 2015, Medtronic chose Singapore as its Asia-Pacific headquarters.

Another international medical device manufacturer with operations here is Illumina. “We can optimise a 24-hour operations workforce, owing to excellent infrastructure and a high level of intellectual property protection,” says Derric Lee, vice-president and general manager of Illumina’s Singapore operations. “Not to mention the high growth in the biomedical cluster, support from the government and political stability, [which have] helped Illumina expand our manufacturing business here.”

Growing economic pillar
Manufacturing has been an important pillar of the economy since the government adopted its export-led industrialisation policy post-independence.

In the 1980s, the country was the world’s leading producer of hard disk drives. Later, it also became a major player in the semiconductor sector.

These days, however, the hubs for electronics manufacturing are in countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Could the medtech industry be Singapore’s next driver of growth?

For 1H2017, medtech manufacturing output increased 13.5% y-o-y. Last year, it rose 13% — outpacing the overall manufacturing sector’s 3.6% growth.

The Economic Development Board continues to see opportunities for the local medtech industry, with the global market growing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.1%, from US$398 billion in 2015 to US$537 billion in 2020.

“The medtech manufacturing output stood at $9.8 billion in 2015, a sixfold increase from 2000,” says Ho Weng Si, EDB’s director for biomedical sciences. “The medtech manufacturing workforce grew threefold in the same period, to 12,000 in 2015.”

Ho highlights Singapore’s strength in the area of scientific instrument manufacturing.

“We have established strong leadership positions in key products such as next-generation sequencing platforms and mass spectrometers, with Singapore manufacturing over two-thirds of the world’s microarrays,” she adds.

To support the growth of the industry, the government has set aside $3.2 billion for the development of advanced manufacturing and engineering technologies under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan, Ho says.

In time, diabetic patients such as Foo may well have access to stick-on monitors with connected apps that prompt them to eat when their blood sugar levels are low. Some of those devices may even be developed and produced right here.

This article appeared in Issue 801 (Oct 16) of The Edge Singapore. Get your regular copies at

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