The Edge Singapore
With an eye on aesthetics, NSG BioLabs’ Daphne Teo provides co-working space for biotech firms
Co-working” and “biotech” are words that do not seem to go together. The former calls to mind images of open-plan office spaces with motivational quotes in neon lights on the wall, and the latter, people in laboratory coats hunched over expensive lab equipment.
Daphne Teo, founder of NSG BioLabs, begs to differ. Drawing on her entrepreneurial experience, her latest venture brings together these two concepts: a co-working space for biotech start-ups.
NSG BioLabs’ creation can be attributed to a reason that sounds familiar: The startup founder was trying to solve a problem.
Prior to NSG BioLabs, Teo co-founded biotech start-up Engine Biosciences, which deals with machine learning and drug discovery. She found out that there was a need for an intermediate space that biotech startups could occupy, between being based out of premises such as Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) lab space and building their own labs.
“We were actually looking for lab space and there was none in Singapore that was suitable. I spoke to a few people and realised there was a real need in Singapore. I decided to build this co-working space for multiple companies to be based in,” says Teo in an interview with The Edge Singapore.
“Although Engine Biosciences raised quite a large sum of money from seed financing, it is not at a point where it can spend millions building its own lab space. It is growing fast; next year, it may grow to 30 people, and the space may not be big enough anymore. It [may have] to build another lab.”
While A*StartCentral is the only other player with co-working space for biotech start-ups, Teo says NSG BioLabs is a transitional space for these start-ups. It provides a bigger space that they might need without building their own labs.
“The location is pretty important, because we are very close to A*STAR. If the start-ups have a collaboration with A*STAR to use their very expensive equipment, for them to take their samples from [Ayer Rajah, where A*StartCentral is located] to [Biopolis] doesn’t make sense, but from [NSG BioLabs] it’s a three-minute walk,” says Teo. “I won’t say we are competing with each other — [A*StartCentral] serves a very different pool of companies and [these companies] graduate into our space.”
Focus on the research
To be sure, the concept behind NSG BioLabs is not unique. In the US, for example, a Cambridge, US-headquartered company called BioLabs has a network of nearly 10 co-working lab spaces in cities such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Diego. The locations tend to be near or at major R&D centres, to cater for the demand.
NSG BioLabs takes up a 15,000 sq ft space. It is sited within Biopolis, an international R&D centre for biomedical sciences at one-north in Buona Vista and close to the National University of Singapore.
Upon walking through the front door, the office space looks like a typical co-working space, with desks, meeting rooms and telephone booths. However, on opening a door to the right, you will see racks of lab coats and another set of doors leading to the lab space, fitted out with lab equipment and chemicals.
According to Teo, the take-up rate at NSG BioLabs has been good. About 30% of the space was spoken for at its launch earlier this year. The tenants include ImmunoSCAPE, Acumen and, of course, Engine Biosciences. “I thought it would be a year before the second [start-up] came in, but within a week, even before construction was done, ImmunoSCAPE and then Acumen moved in,” she says.
Teo believes that, by mid-2020, NSG BioLabs should be between 60% and 70% occupied — faster than she had anticipated. “It just shows that the ecosystem is growing and thriving, and there’s a need for something like this in Singapore,” she says.
The fee NSG BioLabs charges its tenants varies. Besides a base fee, it charges for a range of specialised services it provides. For example, tenants are given access to all the lab equipment and their own lab bench. They are also provided with bio- and chemical-waste removal service, and also gases such as carbon dioxide and dinitrogen needed to conduct their research.
NSG BioLabs can also help these biotech start-ups order their chemicals. In addition, it has an app for tenants to book meeting rooms and sign up for co-working events such as networking sessions and talks by CEOs of huge pharmaceutical or biotech companies.
The specialised fittings and furnishings NSG BioLabs has put in place do not come cheap. They constitute the bulk of its capital expenditure, to the tune of millions of dollars. The gas pipes into the rooms, for example, cost more than $100,000 in total. The co-working space even has its own back-up power system that will kick in within five seconds of a power disruption. More than a year was needed to fit out the place. A grant given by Enterprise Singapore helped defray some of the cost, but by any measure, it was a significant commitment to get NSG BioLabs up and running.
The way Teo sees it, the extra facilities and services provided by NSG BioLabs will be well appreciated by the tenants, all of which are under time and money pressure to generate results. “They should be focusing on research rather than capital expenditure,” she says.
Attention to aesthetics
How did Teo come to be involved in a co-working space start-up in the niche biotech industry? She was an investment banker at HSBC Holdings and, later, Goldman Sachs. Her first job was as an analyst with Sapphire Corp, a steel and mining company that her father, Teo Cheng Kwee, used to run.
In 2012, after she left Goldman Sachs, she helped her father establish a property business in Myanmar, which was then just opening up to foreign investors. As the chief investment officer of an entity called D3 Capital, she was involved in the Golden City mixed-use development in Yangon. It was positioned as a high-end project and extra attention had to be paid to the fine details to attract well-heeled buyers and tenants.
“Aesthetics are important, and in real estate, that differentiates one condo from another. This space used to be a lot of rooms and not much sunlight. I know how important light is to a space, so I cleared out the rooms and located the pantry [by the windows], so it’s inviting when people come in,” she explains.
“When I saw this space, I knew it was [good] because of the view; you don’t look into another building, you see greenery. Everywhere, I added green plants and inspirational quotes. Attention to detail, that’s what my past experience in real estate taught me — the little things that make the difference make people a bit happier even if they don’t notice them.”
Teo’s real estate experience also extended into planning — she decided to open up the lab space instead of squeezing in as many rooms as possible. She thinks a more open environment will be conducive to collaboration — after all, scientific discoveries stand a better chance of being made by scientists working together instead of toiling in isolation. “This is a co-working space; you’re not supposed to build walls around you and try to hide what you’re doing,” she says.
The specific nature of scientific research also means that there are hardly any competitive concerns among the tenants of NSG BioLabs. As biotech start-ups focus on niche areas, for example, a specific type of liver cancer, there is often no other start-up working on the same type of research. This means there is more room for collaboration, notes Teo.
Furthermore, as these companies are doing patent-protected research, there is protection against intellectual property theft as well. “You have no reason to hide your research because they don’t care what you’re doing, but there could be collaboration opportunities,” she reasons.
By end-2020, Teo hopes to fill up the space at NSG BioLabs. She is on the lookout for a second site, as she believes this is a concept that will work. “The great thing about this business is that, unlike [the usual] co-working space, for any company to move in here, it will take some time. It needs to stop its experiments [in its previous premises] and then start experiments here. That’s a four- to six-month process [to relocate]; it’s much stickier, unlike in the [usual] co-working space, where they can move out tomorrow,” says Teo.