alumni features   selected feature        
  7 October 2013  
  Ong Siew Hwa, Ph.D.  

IMCB 1995-2000

The Natural Next Step

I graduated in 1995 from NUS Faculty of Science (Biochemistry & Chemistry). Every year during the long term-break, I went to work as a summer student at laboratories in the IMCB – so IMCB has a very special place in my heart. Upon graduation, I took “the natural next step” of pursuing postgraduate studies in cell signaling in cancer.

From 1995-2000, I was a postgraduate student at Dr Graeme Guy’s lab at IMCB. During this period of my postgraduate studies, I spent 1 year (1997-1998) working as a visiting student in Dr Joseph Schlessinger’s laboratory at New York University Medical Center. Upon completion of my graduate studies, I joined the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada as a postdoctoral research fellow in the laboratory of the late Dr Tony Pawson. Working in these laboratories were invaluable learning experiences. After my four-year postdoctoral stint, I returned to Singapore in 2004 and joined the IMCB as an Assistant Professor and concurrently as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at NUS Faculty of Medicine. All these time, I had focused deeply on mechanisms of cancer signal transduction, ranging from receptor tyrosine kinases to protein interactions, GTPases and genetics. I also have been giving lectures on Cancer Biology to Year 4 students till now.

In 2007, I applied to work as a Senior Research Scientist at Eli Lilly and went to work at Lilly headquarters in Indianapolis. By that time, I had been doing basic research in cancer for 12 years and felt strongly to move into “the natural next step”.  To me, “the natural next step” was to work in the industry. At that time, tyrosine kinase inhibitors began to be successfully developed and approved as anti-cancer drugs. I strongly wanted to create drugs from my knowledge in cancer. At Lilly, I was extremely excited to be able to apply my research background in cancer drug discovery and development. It was during this time where I learnt a lot about pharmaceutical R&D and doing business in the biomedical industry. In 2008, when Eli Lilly wanted to expand its R&D operations into Asia, I returned to Singapore to help set up a new Oncology drug discovery research unit for the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery. I gained a tremendous experience from this move, having been involved in hiring about 50 people, developing the local R&D program and forging many partnerships with local research institutions. Fortunately or unfortunately, in 2010, Lilly chose to shift its Singapore operations to Shanghai in order to gain access to the Chinese market.

At this turning point, I again chose to embark onto “the natural next step”.  I decided to set up a contract research organization (CRO) to ride on the major trend of pharmaceutical companies outsourcing R&D to save cost and tap into diverse expertise. In early 2010, Acumen Research Laboratories was born. We are unique in the CRO industry because Acumen provides customized contract research services involving the early phases of pre-clinical drug development. Most CROs are specialized. Over the course of 3 years, Acumen has evolved from being a company that does only contract research to one that is also engaged in R&D to develop a diagnostic kit for an infectious disease.

Being an entrepreneur was not an easy journey but never once did I ever regret starting Acumen Research Laboratories. When Acumen was just set up, we took 1 year to negotiate and eventually sign our first contract with a Polish company. The whole process was very challenging because of the language barrier and the huge difference in business culture. However, with sheer hard work and a never-give-up attitude, we delivered all the project milestones on time and kept within the budget. I even learnt how to speak conversational Polish in the course of this project.

Other than the above experiences, the people in my life have influenced and shaped me to become who I am today. I am thankful towards A*Star and Dr Graeme Guy, for giving me the opportunity to work in the fascinating field of cell signalling at IMCB. My mentors, Professor Joseph Schlessinger and the late Professor Tony Pawson, whom I met at New York and Toronto respectively, have both played a role in influencing my career track and inspired me to start Acumen. Not only are they leaders and experts in cell signalling, they are founders of biotechnology companies who have developed and commercialized intellectual property that was produced in their laboratories. My father, who passed away during the busiest period of setting up Acumen, was a successful entrepreneur himself. He was a good role model who led by example, instilling in me values of diligence, resilience, courage and generosity.

On this note, I would like to encourage current IMCB staff and students to treasure their research experiences. It may not be smooth-sailing at times but with perseverance and passion, you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labour. There are many challenges in the area of healthcare, energy and the environment that need to be solved urgently and some of these solutions would come from many years of research in the laboratory. The Singapore government’s initiative to increase focus on applied research without minimizing that on basic research helps to nudge research institutes into a more meaningful direction. I feel that researchers should appreciate this excellent environment to break through existing research frontiers and forge new ones. The way to achieve this is to be creative and stay ahead of the innovation curve, because this is a space where there are boundless opportunities to make a positive impact on the lives of people globally.

I would also like to encourage researchers to make full use of the opportunities available to venture out into the world, step out of your comfort zone and pursue your dreams. For those thinking about becoming an entrepreneur in the biotechnology industry, I encourage you to take that leap of faith, to bring your research to greater heights and make a difference in our society.


(C) Copyright 2012 Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, A*STAR Singapore.