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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Story of A Biotechnopreneur

You might be thinking: "For a Singaporean biogeek you seem to only write about American computergeeks."

Well, I admit that there's been a bit of an availability bias so far.

But it's all OK now - Fresh Brainz brings you the exclusive story of a Singaporean Biotechnopreneur!

Yes "biotechnopreneur" is one whole word. I'm a fan of German.


Anyway, back on topic.

This is a story about Dr. Rosemary Tan, founder and CEO of Genecet Biotech and Veredus Labs, based on her lecture on 4th Sept 2006.

Born to an upper middle-class family, Rosemary wanted to be an air stewardess as a kid, but her parents wanted her to be a medical doctor.

When she went to the University of Calgary in Canada, she initially enrolled into pre-Med, but in the third year she decided not to continue. Instead, she volunteered to work as an unpaid technician in a biology lab, eventually graduating with a degree in molecular biology.

After her bachelor's she went to Osaka University in Japan on a government (EDB) scholarship to pursue her twin interests in biology and Japanese.

She was the only girl in class. Her first three months adapting to life in Japan was so difficult, that it helped to build her determination to succeed. When an opportunity arose to enroll in the prestigious University of Tokyo, she did a 5-hour entrance exam completely in Japanese, just like a Japanese applicant.

And she was accepted!

After her studies in Japan, she returned to Singapore where she finished her PhD at the National University in a frenzied two-and-a-half years. She wanted badly to be independent and create her own ideas, but a one-year stint at the National Cancer Centre made her realize that, as a young researcher, she had to be realistic.

Rosemary was very impatient and decided not to continue her postdoc. Her dream was to start a company.

But what sort of company would that be? She worked briefly for a consulting firm and discovered a market need - education! At the turn of the century, the Singapore government had just embarked on the Life Sciences program for secondary schools. She used her own savings to start a company, Genecet Biotech, which would concentrate on providing educational molecular biology kits to schools.

From a simple beginning in a small factory space with 2 staff members, Genecet grew from strength to strength. It diversified from making educational kits to making educational card games and other products. In four years it had grown to incorporate its own lab and was involved in 70 programmes.

Rosemary always targets the top schools for her initial product release because she knows that they are trendsetters. All the other schools will simply follow (that happens a lot in Singapore *wink*).

With the success of Genecet she set her sights on a higher goal. A medical diagnostics company called Veredus Labs.

After fending off a number of challenges from powerful competitors, Veredus has found a niche selling field-usable diagnostic kits to detect a number of infectious diseases, including the feared H5N1 bird-flu virus. This kit has been tested to be highly accurate by the World Health Organization (WHO) in January 2006.

To continue to produce high quality products, Veredus has collaborations with research institutes that study the basic science behind the disease. It also has its own in-house R&D which is working on future innovations such as the Lab-On-A-Chip technology.

So what are the take-home messages of her experience?

1. Dr. Rosemary Tan's personality

- She wasn't a top student, and has never been exceptional academically.
- In Tokyo she found out the difference between the best scientists and mediocre scientists: the best never take breaks. While in Japan she worked every day and never went for a single movie.
- She is very hardworking, independent and aggressive.

2. Regarding entrepreneurship

- You should start a business based on what your strengths are. For her it was education in biology.
- Your company must make money, it must be sustainable.
- Don't buy everything, you should build slowly and watch the bottom line.
- You should employ capable staff and avoid relying on "friends".
- Rosemary stresses an attitude of extraordinary service.
- You do not go to the same market as your competitors.
- You should look for novel ideas to solve the problem.
- You need reliable partners and collaborators to help you succeed.

3. Should YOU become an entrepreneur?

- Are you willing to risk it all? Entrepreneurship demands all of your time, resources and effort. Rosemary has not gone out for lunch for years.
- Is it worth it? She does not regret becoming an entrepreneur, but as a working mum when she has to leave her kids at home to travel the world, she can't look back or she'll never leave.

In the Q&A session I asked Dr. Tan if her science training was ever a liability to her entrepreneurial work. She said yes and she felt that the scientists are too detailed and too stubborn.

I then asked her what characteristics does the industry look for in a potential employee. She replied that you should be:

- aggressive, eager, willing to learn and apologise for your mistakes.
- able to multitask.
- able to acquire broad-based knowledge.

It is also helpful if you have some experience working in a multinational corporation (MNC).

Before she concluded her talk, Rosemary said only half-jokingly: "Don't be an entrepreneur."

That immediately reminded me of what Jeff Hawkins said in his lecture: "Entrepreneurism is a tool of last resort."

So what do I think?

I think that she is an important person doing important things for this country. I, on the other hand, am an ordinary student who doesn't know how the world works.

Which is why you get to read cool articles like this for free!



Anonymous said...

Yes everything in life is a drama

Xisla said...

The question remains: is your life a good drama or a super boring one?

Anonymous said...

i am stydy in biotechnopreneur program at Thailand. This program just establish in this year(2006) at KMUTT. When i read your story, its make me feel to learn how can i get the biotechnopreneur much more. Please suggestion to me at or , Thank a lot.

Anonymous said...

I tot you are not supposed to blog!!!