Representative Reflections: After iGEM at The Techsauce Global Summit 2019
Jul 02, 2019
The Techsauce Global Summit is the largest tech summit in the APAC region, bringing together 15,000 attendees from all industries to see what the latest technology is and how they are being implemented into future contexts of urban lifestyle, economy, infrastructure, communications, etc. Here, the attendees also have the opportunity to meet and network with other guests including startups, investors and delegates of companies across all sectors.
I have worked with Techsauce before during the summer of 2017 after I graduated my undergraduate studies. Helping the project coordinator, I organized a significant fraction of the talks by coming up with the themes of the talks based on previous discussions with the invited speakers and panelists. I also had the opportunity to work with Mitr Phol Sugar Group, one of the largest agriculture conglomerates in Asia, to set up their activities at the Summit and to invite startups and entrepreneurial scientists in biotech and agri-tech to come collaborate with the company.
Based on my experiences then, I realized that Thailand had the potential to become a leading bio-economy as it enjoys an abundance of natural resources, which can be used for bio-based products. Research in Thailand has also been focused on the more local problems, which remain drastically underdeveloped compared to the research done in developed countries. For example, there are a number of institutes looking into the biology of cassava, grown in tropical climate and sustainable bioreactor alternatives such as cyanobacteria that thrive in the aforementioned climate and an abundance of sunlight. In the past year, I actually got to meet with one of the startups, Energaia, making spirulina using cost-efficient photobioreactors installed on the rooftops of urban buildings. I have tried to connect them with the lab at KMUTT which I worked in at the time. From what I have seen, there is a lack of funding for biological research and also a lack of infrastructure that enables technology to be effectively transferred from the lab.
Working with Techsauce, the biggest media platform for tech and entrepreneurship news allows iGEM to access the majority of stakeholders in the Southeast Asian and also some of the global ecosystem. As part of the mission of After iGEM to promote synthetic biology and its sustainable development as a field, I thought it was most appropriate to target regions in Asia that are primed as developing economies to integrate bio-based solutions into their industries in the future. There has been demonstrated interest of Thai students to participate in iGEM (a few people I have met from various years taking part in teams from Imperial College London and University of Copenhagen); however, there has yet been no official team from Thailand until this year. As such, my main mission to participate in Techsauce was to raise awareness of the field and iGEM’s mission and engage interested stakeholders (particularly large corporates with interest in bio-inspired open innovation) to connect with future iGEM teams to support them.
I participated in the event as a Speaker on two different Vertical stages.
First on the FABTech (Food, Agri, Bio) stage, I gave a keynote originally titled “Synthetic Biology: Engineering and Democratization and Bio in the Context of Southeast Asia”. While preparing the slides and practicing the presentation, I decided a more personal, anecdotal approach was appropriate for the session and thus changed the title to “Biotech Beyond Borders: How Synthetic Biology is making science accessible”. I told my personal story of when I competed in iGEM with my team, Edinburgh_OG 2018, and my impressions of the competition throughout the summer. Tying in with a bit of background regarding how synthetic biology has been propelled by lowered cost barriers of DNA sequencing and synthesis, I demonstrated how synthetic biology was becoming accessible to people beyond the biosciences/biotechnology (with community labs and biodesign) and how teams of students can come up with crazy and innovative solutions to local problems within the community. Right after this talk, I was approached by a couple of people from SCG Chemical’s accelerator SPRINT, which is focused primarily on startups within science and technology. They were interested in future collaborations with iGEM or its alumni companies in order to build up a support network for biotech startups who take part in their accelerator.
Second on the DeepTech stage organized by Hello Tomorrow Singapore, I joined a panel titled “Deep Tech for Deep Impact – Solving the World’s Toughest Challenges”. On the panel with me were:
Szeki Sim: Head of Brand at SGInnovate, a government-owned early-stage investment “venture-catalyst” firm that supports Singapore-based and Southeast Asian deep tech startups to bring technologies and products to market. They often with entrepreneurial scientists to build and scale their companies.
Attawut Khumkrong: Partnership Manager and Head of Open Innovation at SCG Chemicals, the largest chemicals and materials conglomerate in Thailand. The Open Innovation unit collaborates with a global network of partners in academia and industry including foundations such as the Gates Foundation. The most recent project Attawut worked on was the reinvented toilet, a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative that can be made more accessible in underdeveloped regions that do not have adequate sanitation.
Adebayo Alonge: CEO and Co-Founder of RxAll, a startup company seeking to build Africa’s largest digital pharmacy platform. With a proprietary handheld spectrometer device and a digital app powered by AI, RxAll provides a drug-screening platform for counterfeits but is working to expand beyond just small-molecule medicines.
Xinyi Tow: Director of Partnerships at Hello Tomorrow Singapore, working to drive sustainable deep tech innovation and building a robust ecosystem in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. She is also involved as COO in Slate Alt, an early-stage investment firm seeking to help bring technologies to market sustainably.
On the panel, we shared our perspectives (as an investor, entrepreneur, corporate, academic) about various challenges that startups face in bringing a viable product to market and successfully scaling up. One of the concluding remarks I made on the panel was that aspiring biotech entrepreneurs should be willing to pivot their ideas when their products do not have product-market fit. One of the things discussed was how scientists who seek to spin out do not necessarily have a strong understanding of how their technology solves a problem and thus require partnership with more business and managerial-oriented experts.
This could be achieved by forming the right network and with the proper infrastructure for support from lab to bedside or market, depending on the technology. I mentioned that iGEM provided the proper training for aspiring scientist-entrepreneurs through Human Practices – to engage with stakeholders to learn how the problem is defined and how to best address it with their project.
After the panel, I also had a lengthy conversation with Attawut, who works closely with the aforementioned accelerator SPRINT as they both under the same company. As he is in charge of innumerable partnerships, he has access to wide network and would love to work with iGEM to transform certain aspects of SCG Chemicals to bio-based. The team at Hello Tomorrow Singapore are also staying in touching and would love to hear more about how iGEM is expanding their mission to Asia.
Moving forward, I would love to collaborate more with Techsauce on behalf of iGEM. Hassnain and I have talked regarding writing articles to be published via the Techsauce platform. If possible, in upcoming Summits it may be possible for iGEM to organize the talks on the FABTech stage or DeepTech stage, so that we may be able to bring more speakers to share of synthetic biology and its impact on the world.