SINGAPORE - Start-up co-founder Jeffrey Lu knows all too well the looks he gets at meetings with potential investors or partners and comments like, "Oh, you're so young to be a CEO".
Mr Lu, 37, says the age gap is especially stark in the biomedical sciences industry, where developing a drug can take many years and there is a general sense that younger or less experienced people may not appreciate the difficulties of the problem or in generating a solution.
But Mr Lu, co-founder and chief executive of Engine Biosciences, says that what he does not have in years, he makes up for with the strength of his team.
For example, its chief scientific officer has more than 30 years of experience and has been involved in two drugs that received approval from the United States' Food and Drug Administration approval and made it to the market.
"I'm never going to be the same type of expert scientist or drug developer as the people I brought into the team, but that's not what I need to be," he says.
"What I need is to have a fundamental understanding of some of the drivers of the science, how people approach making major decisions, how to engage at the right level with both our internal scientists and also investors and potential partners... I make sure my role fits what I do well."
Mr Lu, a Taiwanese-American and a permanent resident here, started out in consulting before moving into innovation and entrepreneurship, including building an online travel business as a joint venture between airline AirAsia and travel firm Expedia while he was head of strategy and group head of commercial strategy at AirAsia, and then head of strategy and analytics at the joint venture.
He also co-founded venture capital firm Goodman Capital with his wife Daphne Teo in 2013.
Mr Lu wanted to focus on developing products with a human impact and started Engine Biosciences in 2016 with his brother Timothy, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other professors.
The firm applies machine learning and large-scale biology testing to develop new therapies and precision medicines. Large-scale refers to testing tens of thousands of various combinations of genes turned "on" or "off" through gene editing.
Mr Lu is based here but often flies to San Francisco, where part of the team is located.
"I'm really proud of what we've been able to achieve. I'm proud of having set up a strong foundation, meeting milestones and having proof points. I certainly don't think the mission is anywhere near done," he says.
Q: What do you do at work?
A: I set and continue to refine our short-term and long-term strategy so that the entire team can be working towards the same goal.
We have about 40 people operating in different functions, like drug discovery experts, biologists, chemists and data scientists. I make sure that there is a lot of interaction between the teams and that we're in sync.
The other part of my role is externally focused. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders, so I spend time engaging investors, strategic partners in the industry, academia or governments.
On a day-to-day basis, I attend a lot of meetings, but I also make sure there is enough time for me to think about strategy and our corporate plans, to make sure we are progressing.
Q: How much do you earn?
A: Enough to have a comfortable lifestyle, but the majority of my compensation is based on stock options in the company.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue this career?
A: The broader theme of innovation and getting involved in building companies early has been around since I was growing up. My father, my uncle and a lot of my family were or are entrepreneurs in technology so that's something that was always talked about around the dinner table.
Coming out of university, I felt I wanted to get some business experience. Consulting is a very nice option because it allows you to very quickly see different industries and learn how companies strategise.
I had the opportunity to meet very senior executives. One of the people I worked very closely with in consulting was (AirAsia co-founder) Tony Fernandes. He offered me the opportunity to join the company, to think about creative ways to expand the business and the broader group.
Later, with biotech, I wanted my career to be about something bigger than simply delivering great financial returns. I wanted to feel like we were building products that had a level of impact, and hopefully improve human health and treat disease.
Q: What is your educational background and how have you upgraded your skills along the way?
A: I graduated with a liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in English with a minor in Asian studies. I also did some classes at Wharton to get exposed to business and some science classes as well.
When transitioning to the biotech sector, I took out my old biology and chemistry textbooks to get primers. It took about one to two years before Engine's foundation really solidified, which I spent attending conferences - which sometimes offered courses for people who are making career transitions - and speaking to experts in the field if I could get time with them.
Right now I'm trying to upgrade my business, management and leadership skills, and my knowledge around new scientific discoveries.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you've faced in getting to this point in your career? How did you overcome them?
A: Any entrepreneurial journey is challenging because you're trying to do something differently and better. That means you have to convince a lot of people that what you are trying to do is not crazy and you have a plan to do it.
In biomed, in particular, this is an industry that values or puts a lot of emphasis on how many years of experience you have. As a young founder there is always this sense that as the younger person in the room meeting with someone who has many more years of experience, you have to engage at the right level and build your personal credibility.
Other challenges are needing to get a good level of familiarity with the science, which is constantly evolving, and also building a strong team.
Q: What are the best and worst parts of the job?
A: We know it's a very long-term journey to get to the point when the drugs are getting to the patients, so when we get a good readout, a good set of experimental results and scientific data, and rationale to show that the direction we're taking makes a lot of sense, that's the coolest thing.
The other best part of the job is I find what we're doing meaningful in terms of the outcomes and also some of the processes. I entered the industry knowing it's a difficult and constantly evolving space, and continuing to evolve our strategy to solve problems is something I find very intellectually stimulating, just very fun.
On the other hand, it's not easy because we are in a global industry and have sites in Singapore and Silicon Valley, so we work across early mornings and nights.
Q: What are your tips for people who want to start or grow their careers in this field?
A: For biomed, people may join the industry as scientists or as people like me who are more business-oriented.
Build your network. In the early stages of your career the upside is really more than the title or the pay cheque. Find out who's doing the things that are going to impact the next 20 to 30 years of innovation. Go to places where you can get positive experiences and on-the-job learning.
For entrepreneurship, it's always important to fundamentally understand and define a problem that really is meaningful and worthwhile, not just to you personally but that which you can also get a team and investors excited about.That means the problem has to be big but also well-defined enough that you can think of a practical way to go about solving it, and the solution is something you can articulate, start on and show progress in in a reasonable amount of time.
Jobs in biomedical sciences
About the industry
Singapore has a vibrant life sciences industry, with a growing biomedical sub-sector comprising pharmbio, digital health and medical technology.
Biomedical sciences manufacturing is a key pillar of the manufacturing sector here.
The biomedical innovation ecosystem has grown fast over the past decade, with the number of biomedical start-ups as well as small and medium-sized enterprises increasing sixfold to around 360 today, says Ms Audrey Lok, Enterprise Singapore's director for health and biomedical.
This is coupled with strong investor interest - last year, the local industry saw a record $820 million in fund-raising from January to September, she says.
As companies start to scale, there is demand for talent from different fields. Local biomedical companies surveyed by EnterpriseSG have been looking to fill around 350 roles since 2019 with about 100 people hired so far, says Ms Lok.
Here are some biomedical jobs posted on the MyCareers Future portal, the monthly salary range offered and minimum experience required.
• Laboratory technician (one year's experience): $2,000 to $2,600
• Medical sales associate (two years' experience): $3,000 to $4,000
• Research fellow (post-doctoral): $5,000 to $7,000
• Quality control manager for cell products (five years' experience): $6,000 to $8,000
There were 26,200 people employed in the biomedical sciences sector in Singapore as at December last year.
How to join the sector
• SkillsFuture Biopharmaceuticals Manufacturing Skills Framework: Information on trends, career pathways, occupations, job roles, skills and competencies and relevant training programmes for the life sciences industry. Visit this website
• Singapore Biodesign: Mentorship and on-the-job training for medtech and healthtech innovators.
• SGInnovate PowerX: Sponsored full-time traineeship programme equipping mid-careerists with essential skills in tracks such as robotics, and software and product development. Participants can attain professional certifications and access opportunities with start-ups across emerging tech fields, including biomed tech.
• Duke-NUS Centre of Regulatory Excellence (CoRE): offers a graduate certificate in hkealth products regulation for working professionals.
CoRE is also collaborating with the Diagnostics Development Hub to offer training on medical device product development based on the Total Product Life Cycle framework.
• Career Conversion Programmes: They help mid-career Singaporeans reskill to take on in-demand roles in growth areas. Relevant schemes include those for advanced biopharmaceuticals manufacturing professionals and executives, as well as those for medical technology engineers, assistant engineers and operators.
SOURCES: ENTERPRISE SINGAPORE, WORKFORCE SINGAPORE, MINISTRY OF MANPOWER, MYCAREERSFUTURE WEBSITE
Article source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.