Singapore: Small nation, big dreams

We have spent the last few days here in Singapore visiting governmental economic-growth agencies and several medical SMEs and start-ups. (See the recent Medical Edge e-newsletter, which covers the first day of our journey.) A main theme that pops out over and over: Take a holostic approach to development, whether it be a product or a whole nation's economy. This was really evidenced by our visit to A*STAR, a government agency which has created a holistic medical-technology (MedTech) platform in which companies and physicians collaborate to come up with new products to address macro changes such as an aging population happening here and elsewhere around the world. According to agency director Dr. Tan Wee, the organization chooses projects to fund on an agnostic basis and then helps take firms through the complete product-development cycle. The program targets start-ups and companies creating IP that will be licensed internationally. This IP can come from anywhere in the world; it does not have to be indigenous. We visited other agencies too, which all seemed to support high-value, high-mix, low-production manufacturing. Stay tuned for future stories on this topic in Machine Design and Medical Design. And check out this Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) site for good business-related facts and figures.

We got a kick out of visiting all the companies, but contract manufacturer Meiban was one of the most fun. It has 22 years in manufacturing experience and has won awards such as the Red Dot award for industrial design and a Forbes magazine award for being one of the "Best Under a Billion (dollar)" companies. The company makes products such as small motors that run over 100,000 rpm. It also does JIT injection molding in 10K cleanrooms and can do insert molding and gas-assist molding, even put "wood effects" on plastics in the mold. We liked the R&D, industrial design arm of the firm. Its metaphor: a designers "hive" of bees in which bees (engineers) make honey (great designs). Honey is good for you, and good design is like honey.

The innovation going on here is truly amazing. Case in point is Merlin MD, a local start-up company . founded by executives and engineers from medical OEMs including Boston Scientific, Guidant, and Micrus. President & COO, Mike O'Connor,says when they looked around to start the company, they didn't even consider the U.S. because of all the regulatory hassles and lack of government support. The choice came down to Switzerland, Mauritius or Singapore, and the latter won-out due to the availability of government funding, support and the local infrastructure. The firm is presently doing clinical trials in Europe (Spain and Germany) and is awaiting approval to begin in Mexico for their Intra-cranial stent it has invented and developed. The device is coated with a polyurethane-base polymer and surface-treated with a proprietary technology to be biocompatible. (The proprietary polymer technology was invented in Berkeley, Calif., Merlin incorporated into a medical device and now has exclusive licensing rights for its application. The stents are laser-cut in the U.S., but the polymer application processing is done in Singapore.) Basically, the stent is deployed across a diseased portion of an artery, providing a structure or scaffolding for new tissue growth while the stent itself re-directs blood flow thereby, causing the aneurysm to occlude and then disappear completely within a few months. The technology is a great improvement over current surgical clipping or endovascular coiling of the aneurysm— comparatively cheaper in terms of the overall cost inclusive of hospital charges, minimally invasive, and arteries that have been treated remain clear with no incidence of aneurysm re-growth.

As I mentioned earlier, "integration" is a big theme here. So employee quality of life is also deemed important. Companies such as CEI Contract Manufacturing Ltd. focus keenly on employee work-life balance. CEI encourages employees to exercise by providing an in-house fitness center. It also encourages employees' hobbies, by doing things such as providing a venue for an employee band.

    The view outside of the Economic Development Board shows the Singapore skyline in all its variety.

  • Singapore manufacturing companies try to promote employee work-life balance. These CEI employees have formed a band, with the company providing a venue.

  • Opening ceremonies at the first-ever MedTech show featured industry movers and shakers.

  • The MedTech show floor rapidly filled up with attendees.

  • It is hard to leave this beautiful place. This view from the hotel patio shows where I had breakfast on the last day of the trip.

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