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Singapore’s R&D Ecosystem

What this Southeast Asian island nation lacks in size and natural resources, it makes up for with a plan for scientific and technological progress.

Nations across the globe know that progress in the realms of science and technology is essential to keeping their economies robust and attractive to international talent and investors.

Over the last decade or two, biotech neighborhoods around the world such as Toronto’s Discovery District, Boston’s Kendall Square and Hyderabad’s Genome Valley have sought to take research and development to new heights, integrating laboratory facilities with residential and leisure infrastructure. As they blaze new trails in science and technology, they also increase jobs, revenue and prestige for the cities they call home.

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, which was habitable as of October 2010, has followed this blueprint, with plans to be one of the most environmentally sustainable R&D communities in the world. Nairobi began construction of Konza Technological City in January 2013 and hopes to announce completion around 2030. Nusajaya’s Central Hub, Shanghai’s Zhangjiang Hi-tech Park and Geneva’s Health Valley are all also part of this new wave of highly planned, specialized R&D zones.

Within the last 15 years, Singapore has likewise entered into the planned intersection of science, technology and lifestyle with its own biotech neighborhood called one-north, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid. Unlike many other developed nations, this island-state has no natural resources, so the impetus for a specialized, knowledge-based economy is vital.

Since the 1960s, the manufacturing of electronic goods has led Singapore’s economic growth, contributing to 5.2 percent of its GDP in 2012. However, Singapore is facing increasingly stiff competition in this sector — from neighboring Southeast Asian countries and farther afield — and the city-state might not be able to maintain its dominance in electronics for long. To stay competitive, it recognizes the need to venture into more advanced fields of manufacturing and development. The Singaporean government is therefore prioritizing development of its chemicals and biotechnology industries.

The government raised the R&D budget for science, technology and enterprise by 20 percent until 2015, says Terence Gan, director of electronics at the Economic Development Board Singapore, “with the aim of making Singapore one of the most research-intensive countries in the world.”


City within the city

Imagine a microcosm of scientists, inventors and academics from around the world living and learning together in a futuristic R&D neighborhood. At one-north, sleek skyscrapers, luxury apartment blocks and a mall that looks like a spacecraft coexist with pockets of old colonial houses in a landscape of hilly parkland.

Because the neighborhood is a young one, there is much more physical space, peace and quiet here than in other parts of Singapore. The roads feel wider and less congested, and the greenery around the shiny new buildings softens up what could otherwise be a very futuristic and slightly robotic-looking environment.

JTC Corporation, the government body responsible for the neighborhood’s development, launched one-north in 2001 as a “city within a city” — a research business park with an exciting work-live-play-learn environment that would attract global R&D activities and talents.

“The 200-hectare site is at the heart of a technology corridor [that will be] developed in phases over a period of 40 years,” says a JTC Corporation spokesperson.

At present, the built landscape consists of three distinct building clusters: Biopolis, Fusionopolis and the soon-to-be-opened Mediapolis.

Biopolis is home to biomedical and life-science government institutes such as A*Star (Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research) and private companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and P&G. Here, public-sector institutes sit side-by-side with corporate labs, fostering a culture of collaboration. The buildings that form the Biopolis cluster even have scientific names: Chromos, Helios and Genome, for example. Currently, more than 4,000 scientists from all corners of the world carry out research at Biopolis.

Dr. Kathikeyan Narayanan, a senior research scientist at the A*Star Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, lives in one-north. “The researchers or scientists here are from different parts of the world — mostly Europe, China, Japan and India,” he says, “and this diversity helps in the creativity.”

Dr. Narayanan, who is an Indian citizen, explains that scientists from other countries come to one-north because of the substantial and sustainable support from the Singapore government. The government grants give them more freedom to pursue new research projects, he says, and the remuneration packages offered by companies are also enticing. “In most cases, housing will be covered for at least six years,” he says, “and for scientists with children, their children’s education expenses will be paid for as well.”

Home to more than 2,000 researchers, Fusionopolis brings infocomm technology, science and engineering together with tenants like Autodesk, Seiko Instruments and the Media Development Authority of Singapore. A self-contained development to be completed later this year, Fusionopolis includes everything from a supermarket and a theater to restaurants, gardens and serviced apartments. The residents will even have their own mass rapid transit station.

Mediapolis — slated to open in 2020 — will house private media companies like Lucasfilms and Infinite Studios as well Singapore’s national broadcasting network, Mediacorp. Also in the pipeline for the second phase of one-north’s development is a fourth cluster for electronics and emerging industries.

Altogether, more than 7,000 researchers within one-north are granted access to state-of-the-art facilities, specialized services and infrastructure. According to the Economic Development Board, such access allows companies to cut their R&D costs significantly and achieve their goals more rapidly.

Higher-learning institutes such as The National University of Singapore, Singapore Polytechnic and the Singapore Science Park are all located in close proximity, further enhancing one-north’s academic and discovery-oriented character.

The lifestyle component to the neighborhood presents itself in the form of residential areas like Wessex Estate and Nepal Hill, where Unilever’s Four Acres global leadership development center is located, and Rochester Park — a chic restaurant and bar enclave with a business hotel, condominium and shopping malls. The auditorium of Star Vista, a 15-story mall, welcomes a 30,000-strong church congregation each Sunday.


Great minds

This coexistence of academia with industry, as well as the vibrant mix of international researchers, first drew scientist Shigeki Sugii to one-north. An assistant professor at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Sugii spends his time at Biopolis studying the molecular differences in the stem cells of different types of fat.

“Scientists from different disciplines are encouraged to work together,” he says, “which is often the key to invention and innovation. There are ample places here to eat and meet together across different sectors. Researchers in academia are also strongly encouraged to work with businesses, with various support mechanisms available on the campuses.”

Beyond the physical infrastructure, JTC also promotes innovation in one-north through its EXCITE (Experiment, Commercialize, and Innovate in a Test-Bedding Experience) program, which provides companies with opportunities to test and showcase their new ideas.

Indeed, over cappuccinos at Jimmy Monkey Café or while taking a brainstorming stroll along one-north park, ideas are formed and new scientific leads reveal themselves.

For example, Sugii and his co-workers discovered two cell-surface markers that can be used to identify healthy and unhealthy fat during medical exams. A second research discovery led him and his team to establish a commercial enterprise called LipoStation Pte Ltd, which specializes in adipose tissue and adipose stem-cell banking services.

“Being located in one-north,” Sugii says, “we were able to receive various forms of support from different parties in commercializing and setting up the company. This would not have been so easily accomplished if I were working elsewhere in Singapore.”

Dr. Narayanan shares a similar appreciation for the neighborhood, where he enjoys being in close proximity to his work. “I can always visit the laboratory during the weekends to continue my research without having to waste time traveling back and forth. And that’s important as a scientist,” he says, “as you never know when you will be inspired.”

Though it may be too soon to tell whether one-north will indeed help Singapore attain its dream of becoming “the most research-intensive country in the world,” Dr. Narayanan touches on an important element for making that happen. Far more than just a scientific hub, one-north is an incubator for ideas and a place where great minds can meet, play with and — perhaps most importantly — inspire one another.

Michele Koh Morollo is a Singaporean living in Hong Kong. She was editor for WHERE Singapore magazine and has been freelancing for print and online publications across Asia, the U.K. and North America for the last 17 years.