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Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Scientists the new hot commodity in Singapore

MOVING ON As China, with its cheap work force, steals market share from Singapore's electronics makers, the government is looking to biotechnology to take up the slack


A bus, painted in futuristic swirls of green and blue, picks up scientists from Singapore's top university and chugs past a row of ageing factories before dropping them off at a gleaming new bioscience park.

The trip highlights a transition in Singapore's convalescing economy as policy-makers gravitate towards biotechnology and away from the electronics industry that catapulted the island from third world to first in three decades.

The free, air-conditioned ride to the Biopolis complex is also a reminder of the first-class treatment afforded the nation's hottest new commodity -- scientists.

Singapore's success in remoulding its economy to one powered by research and exports of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, rather than hard disk drives and computer chips, hinges on how quickly it can lure and groom scientists.

China, India, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia and Taiwan are also pouring money into biotech, with varying degrees of success.

"Singapore has been very, very quick moving in establishing an environment that is very favorable for biotech," said Susan Ward, managing director of Health Resources International, a consultancy specializing in Asian healthcare.

Luring scientists and developing a niche focus is essential to Singapore's Biotech ambitions, Ward says, noting that the island trailed China and India in biotech entrepreneurialism.

Singapore accelerated its courtship of the world's scientific community this month with the opening of Biopolis, a S$500 million (US$288 million) high-tech neighborhood of research facilities designed as a base for scientists and their families.

The seven shiny buildings with space-age names such as Chromos and Proteos house a sprawling medical library, 500-seat auditorium, lecture theaters, offices, cafes and a lab housing up to 200,000 mice bred for medical research.

To draw scientists and biotech funds into its 40,000m2 Biopolis park, Singapore is offering a mix of tax breaks, grants other incentives worth US$1.3 billion -- and one of the world's most relaxed legal climates for research.

Facing fewer restrictions than in the US or parts of Europe, scientists can clone human embryos and keep them alive for 14 days in Singapore to produce stem cells -- master cells that can grow into almost any tissue in the body.

This is fast turning Singapore into the world's capital for work on stem cells, which can be harvested from aborted embryos, embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization or embryos cloned for the purpose.

Alan Colman, who famously cloned "Dolly" the sheep, moved to Singapore last year when his European funding slowed.

Some scientists say stem-cell research could yield a cure for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, but the Catholic Church believes destroying embryos is murder -- a position backed by US President George W. Bush.

Steven Fang, chief of Cordlife Pte Ltd, which is involved in stem-cell work, chose Singapore over Cambridge, Massachusetts as his group headquarters after a merger with Cambridge-based Cytomatrix in April, drawn by a combination of tax breaks, relaxed laws and its proximity to fast-growing China.

"We had a lengthy internal discussion over whether to base in Singapore or Cambridge," he said. "Our key investors were from Asia, and that was another reason."

The potential for explosive biotech growth in China and India means forging a quick niche is essential, Philip Yeo, the head of the government agency that runs Biopolis, said.

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