As healthcare systems across Asia modernize, health tech companies are racing to capture new opportunities. Their business models and target markets vary, but many have one thing in common: they’re setting up shop in Singapore, one of the region’s most dynamic healthcare innovation hubs.
Many are drawn by Singapore’s efficient operating environment and reliable legal framework. The city-state routinely ranks as one of the world’s most business-friendly countries. It’s a place where health tech companies can get going quickly, find talented employees, and generally trust that their contracts will be enforced. And in a region not known for strong IP protections, it’s one of relatively few Asian countries where innovators can feel comfortable conducting original R&D.
Another advantage is proximity to some of Asia’s most exciting growth markets. Singapore is just a short flight away from Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, all of which have large populations of emerging middle-class consumers and massively underdeveloped healthcare systems with significant disease burden. It’s also near to frontier markets like Myanmar and Cambodia that present fertile ground for health tech innovators focused on the world’s poorest.
Singapore also serves as a commercial healthcare hub for the broader Asia-Pacific region. Many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical, medical device, and healthcare services companies have their Asia regional headquarters in Singapore. Same goes for Asia-focused health tech startups and the growing number of investors that are chasing them. The result is a thriving community of healthcare professionals that provides a fertile supply of funding, ideas, and strategic partnership opportunities to health tech businesses.
To build this community even further, a group of healthcare professionals got together last year and started Galen Growth Asia, an association dedicated to connecting stakeholders and building momentum in Asia’s health tech ecosystem. “We believe health tech will play a major role in significantly improving the standard of care in Asia,” says Julien de Salaberry, Galen Growth Asia’s Managing Director. “Singapore has the potential and capability to lead health tech innovation in the region.”
The Singapore government also wants to build this potential. Long known as a champion of innovation, it recently committed over $13 billion USD to a five-year R&D plan that puts heavy emphasis on health and biomedical sciences. While some of this money will fund basic and clinical research, some of it will go directly towards research at the intersection of healthcare and IT, and all of it will help bolster Singapore’s already-impressive research community.
Singapore’s government agencies also work closely with the private sector to promote health tech innovation. Its Economic Development Board, for instance, actively works to strengthen the local health tech ecosystem. It has a dedicated investment arm called EDBI with several promising health tech companies in its portfolio. EDBI also recently partnered with Philips to co-invest in digital health companies serving the Asian market. The partnership will focus on mid-to-late stage companies doing work in tele-health, population health management, and related areas.
“Our partnership with Philips marks the first of many investment alliances to support open innovation by large corporations in Singapore,” says Heng Tong Choo, EDBI’s Executive VP of Investments. “It will create business opportunities, advance the local healthcare ecosystem, and strengthen Singapore’s position as the leading biomedical sciences hub in Asia.”
This partnership is the latest in a series of digital health initiatives by Netherlands-based Philips in Singapore. In 2013, it chose Singapore as the regional base for its Hospital to Home business, which uses tele-health, remote monitoring, patient portals, and other digital health technologies to integrate inpatient and outpatient care. In November 2014, it partnered with Changi General Hospital and the Eastern Health Alliance, a major Singaporean provider network, to pilot a tele-health program for heart failure patients. The pilot is ongoing, but early results suggest it will help bring down re-admission rates by encouraging self-monitoring and more efficient engagement with care providers.
These new programs highlight opportunities in Singapore’s domestic market. With one of the world’s most efficient and high-tech healthcare systems, the city-state serves as a major clinical hub for the region. Its multicultural population, along with a constant flow of medical tourists, endows it with a diverse patient base that allows health tech businesses to test new products and services with different cultures.
“Singapore’s clinicians are well acquainted with the latest medical technologies,” says Fredrik Nyberg, CEO of the Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association, a trade association for medical device firms in Asia. “They are constantly working to ensure that their care centers are state-of-the-art.”
To be fair, Singapore isn’t Asia’s only health tech hub. “Many Asian countries contribute to digital health innovation,” says Unity Stoakes, President of Startup Health, a global healthcare innovation community. “India, for example, has exciting business model innovation. China has active investors. Korea has amazing technology.”
Yet for many health tech businesses with an eye on Asia, Singapore offers the best available platform for regional expansion. Some of its most promising health tech startups may even achieve global impact.
Will Greene is a digital health entrepreneur and researcher based in Vietnam. You can find him on LinkedIn.