Asia Inc July 1994

INTERVIEW: Chris Tan Yin Hwee, molecular biologist

Building Asia's Biotech Roots
Chris Tan Yin Hwee, Director, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Singapore


After 26 years in North America, Dr. Chris Tan Yin Hwee in 1987 responded to a call from his native Singapore to head a Southeast Asian first: an institute devoted to basic biotechnology research. Educated in Singapore and North America, the 52-year-old Tan has been a faculty member at the medical schools of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Calgary. His ground-breaking research into the human interferon system helped lead to the development of a new drug to fight multiple sclerosis.

Since returning to Asia, Tan has worked with the National University of Singapore to establish the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. In a wide-ranging conversation with Asia, Inc.'s Salil Tripathi, Tan exuded unbridled optimism about the emergence of Asia as a global player in the biotech world:

What you see in Singapore is truly amazing -- putting money in basic research. That implies long-term goals. It means building our own technology here. When we began the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, it was difficult to convince most people that it could be done here. Even Japan did not realize the importance of basic research until recently.

All Asian countries go through this mode. What this shows is that you don't have your own technology. You can, as in automobiles, reverse-engineer some products. Japan did well in applying the basic research of the West and focusing on improvements in gadgets that people find useful. But can you keep doing just that?

Basic research is a different ball game because it stresses fundamentals, from which you derive royalties. Japan knows that. The same country that borrows technology is the one that is very careful about giving technology to others. Look at the complaints Korea and Taiwan have about Japan. The Japanese only give the product, not the process know-how, to their Thai or Taiwanese subsidiaries.

For Asia to develop its own technology, it must develop its own science. Singapore has taken this leap of faith. We lead all the tigers in biotech research now. The quality of our science is comparable to the best in the West. We are not reinventing the wheel; we are inventing the wheel.

We are proud of our research. I keep in mind that our research must be better than (the West's) to gain acceptance in their journals. In the last four years we have had a good record of getting published in top journals. It would be foolish to say we are the best in the world, but we have aspirations to build a very competitive and research-oriented establishment in the area we have chosen. We have to keep the pipeline of discoveries going.

You cannot buy good technology off a supermarket shelf. You have to develop it. Building technology is like building people. But discoveries are by their very nature rare. Out of the 2,000 American companies engaged in biotech, how many have succeeded in coming up with a good product? A dozen? Fifty? Mind you, I'm not criticizing the effort there. It just shows how difficult the work is.
Today America is No. 1 in biotech. But its biotech industry is largely financed by venture capital. What returns do venture capitalists feel comfortable with? Twenty-five percent? No biotech firm can guarantee that.

I see the emergence of the old hare-and-tortoise race, where America is the hare and Asia is the tortoise. I will be sad to see that happen to the West -- a glorious lead frittered away by a short-term view. The West has truly contributed to Asia by training people like me; we are grateful for that. And the West has done it without any sense of selfishness.

More and more partnerships between industry, government and academia will happen, and that is the strength of Asia. Venture capital does not exist in the region yet, so it will be institutions with deep pockets that finance it.

You think Asia won't get the money? Aw, come on! The world is truly borderless now. If an idea is good, if it originates here, money will flow, from venture capitalists in America and institutions in Asia. And local Asian money is not stupid.