In the second of a six-part series on innovative start-ups, biomedical firm Biochip Devises tells Francis Chan how it is taking a concept from lab to market with help from SPRING Singapore's Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme.
MEDICAL laboratories across the world were scrambling during the 2003 Sars outbreak to test genetic material in a bid to detect strains of the deadly virus.
It was the same again when the H1N1 influenza hit last year. Staff at testing centres spent hours, sometimes days, completing thousands of DNA tests using the standard procedure - called the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.
It was an unnerving period, lives were at stake, yet the testing procedures seemed to take forever.
Enter local biomedical start-up Biochip Devises, which has invented a portable device that reduces such testing time.
Dr Johnson Ng, 33, one of Biochip's two pioneer research scientists, said the firm's Rapid Automated Portable Detection of Nucleic Acid (RAPDNA) device can cut testing time to 15 minutes, down from an industry benchmark of about three hours.
The company is working with the National University Hospital to validate the device before rolling it out into the market in June. If everything goes according to plan, RAPDNA may soon be used to detect viruses at hospitals, private clinics, immigration and Customs checkpoints, or even in far-flung areas where an outbreak has occurred.
Biochip has come a long way with its device from when the idea was mooted in 2008, but the road has been paved with technical and financial potholes.
Broadly, a PCR process involves collecting DNA samples, preparing the genetic materials manually for testing and then repeatedly heating and cooling the sample before a diagnosis is made.
The multi-stage process, typically performed by medical or laboratory personnel, is both time-consuming and costly. For example, a test for the H1N1 virus here costs about $60. The company aims to bring this cost down to $5 to $8 with the RAPDNA device.
Biochip executive director Francis Chua, 60, saw the need at the time for a portable detection device that not only reduced testing time, but also made sampling considerably easier and cheaper.
The challenge for the veteran private equity investor was to raise sufficient funding for research and development and to get the right people with the relevant expertise to create such a device.
The first piece of the puzzle came when a mutual friend introduced Mr Chua to Dr Lars Thomsen, 45, a Dane who studied biological warfare.
"Lars had already developed a technique to detect anthrax, so the challenge was to modify it for things like H1N1 and Sars," said Mr Chua.
Dr Ng, who has a PhD in bioengineering, joined later, after completing a study on platforms for detecting DNA.
The three men wanted the device to also be easily deployable, even in remote locations like immigration checkpoints or epidemic hot spots.
More than $1 million of private funding has been invested in the project, said Mr Chua. The start-up was also awarded $750,000 in two separate grants from SPRING Singapore under its Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme.
Biochip was one of the first start-ups under the scheme's proof of concept phase to complete their project, said the enterprise development agency.
"We did all kinds of crazy experiments as we tried to figure out how we could integrate the entire PCR process so we have a fully automated test," said Dr Thomsen, who relocated here 18 months ago to start Biochip with Mr Chua.
Since then, Biochip has been able to cut testing time with RAPDNA prototypes during lab trials, by integrating the entire PCR process into one seamless system and using proprietary techniques to change the parameters and speed of the device.
The test is now so simple even non-medical personnel can run it, said Dr Ng. "All the user does is take a sample, for example, with a swab from the mouth, and insert the sample onto an interface capillary before popping it into the device."
Biochip can also customise capillaries to test for specific viruses like tuberculosis, H1N1, Sars or sexually transmitted diseases. "It's so easy to use, we can put them in general practitioners' clinics or even at Customs checkpoints to quickly determine if a person having a fever is infected with swine flu, bird flu or other infectious diseases," said Mr Chua.
"We even embedded functions to transmit detection results to the health authorities directly."
Despite its rapid progress, Dr Thomsen said there was still room for improvement to the RAPDNA prototype, which already has two patents filed.
"We have not exhausted the number of tests we can perform on it, but that's what we are still exploring," he said.