If Daphne Teo and Jeffrey Lu have a motto, it might be that a couple that works together, stays together. Beyond just being co-founders of Engine Biosciences, a technology company that pioneers network biomedicine, the pair have also invested in a combined portfolio of about 15 different companies over the years.
The secret to their success, they say, is having each other as a trusted confidante and sounding board.
“Being married, there is a lot of trust, so we can talk freely and be honest when sharing our perspectives on business,” says Lu, Engine Biosciences’ chief executive officer. The company harnesses advanced technologies such as gene editing, data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence to accelerate the discovery of efficient therapies and treatments for cancers and other diseases.
While some might set boundaries to prevent work from creeping into every aspect of life, Teo and Lu have no such qualms.
“At breakfast, dinner and even on weekends, we’re together, so naturally we talk about work,” says Teo, who is also the founder and CEO of NSG Biolabs, a co-working laboratory space. “It is nice to have a second opinion where you don’t have to schedule a call or worry that you are asking a stupid question. For us, we can talk any time of the day.”
The last year and a half, she notes, has been particularly gruelling work-wise because Covid-19 related restrictions have prevented them from indulging in travel, their main form of rest and relaxation. In the pre-coronavirus days, the jetsetting duo — Teo is Singaporean while Lu, a permanent resident, is Taiwanese-American — would carve time out of their frequent business trips to unwind, such as by dining at a nice restaurant or retreating to the mountains.
Instead, they have been hyper-committed to growing their business endeavours in pursuit of the greater good. “It has made us think a lot about what we want to achieve in the future,” she says.
By this, Lu hopes to have as much impact as possible by being at the forefront of discovering drugs and diagnostic approaches that can help save lives.
“We are also proud to be playing our part in growing the biotechnology and biomedical ecosystem, which is really accelerating in its development. If we could look back and see a lot of great companies and products coming out of Singapore and know that we had a part to play in it, I think that would be really special.”
The future of medicine
The duo are well on their way to achieving this. At press time, Engine Biosciences had just closed a new Series A funding round, taking total funds raised from seed and Series A to around $70 million. Its investors comprise top-tier biotechnology and technology focused venture capital and later-stage crossover investors across the US, Singapore and North Asia. This is believed to be one of the largest Series A rounds in Singapore.
This feat was achieved through “a lot of Zoom”, says Lu with a laugh. But it is also an affirmation that Engine Biosciences, which has offices in Singapore and Silicon Valley in California, is on the right track in its approach to developing medical therapies. Founded in 2014, its founding members include luminaries who are faculty members at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Mayo Clinic and the University of California San Diego.
One of the company’s key focus is in a field known as precision medicine. Instead of the more commonly used one-drug-fits-all system, precision medicine means tailoring treatments to match a patient’s specific disease biology, which Lu likens to a targeted “drone attack” on a precise area.
This level of precision is now possible because of technologies such as CRISPR gene editing as well as machine- and deep-learning algorithms, which Engine Biosciences is using to create cutting-edge medicine.
“This allows us to generate new and more precise insights on disease biology to guide better drug development. There have been promising results showing this can both address major bottlenecks by shaving years off of research and development timelines and, more critically, identify the specific critical biology to target with precision medicine,” Lu explains.
Making lab space accessible to start-ups
While Lu has taken the lead at Engine Biosciences, Teo has devoted much of her time to driving the growth of NSG Biolabs, a co-working laboratory that came about when the pair had trouble finding a lab space to accommodate the rapidly growing Engine Biosciences. Ultimately, Teo was inspired to start a lab of their own.
“Other CEOs came up to tell me they were also facing space issues so I thought, why not build a bigger one and make it a co-working lab space,” says Teo, noting that the high cost of equipment is often prohibitive to fledgling companies. “I think a lot of other residents really appreciate that because just about everything that they need is in here as it is actually designed from the real-life perspective of a research-heavy biotech company.”
So in November 2019, NSG Biolabs launched at Biopolis Road featuring a fully-equipped scientific laboratory shared among its research-based start-up tenants. It quickly reached full capacity and currently has more than 20 resident companies including ImmunoScape, which is currently studying the immune response to Covid-19, biotechnology start-up PairX Bio and Ants Innovate, a cultivated meat company. Demand is not letting up: by the middle of the year, the space will be expanded to 22,000 sq ft to accommodate up to 50 companies. There are three other co-working labs in the NSG network, one in Boston and two in China.
Like the communal spirit that other co-working spaces like We Work and The Great Room are known to foster, there is an atmosphere of conviviality at NSG Biolabs. This is due in part to Teo’s effort to ensure there are no direct competitors occupying the space.
“There’s actually a lot of synergy and there have been partnerships formed between the companies and also sharing of equipment among them. They are also open to sharing what they are doing with each other — I think what we have here is pretty special,” says Teo.
Some of the companies, such as PairX Bio and Enleofen Bio, have even attracted Lu and Teo’s attention and they have subsequently invested in them.
In many ways, the pandemic emphasised the need to invest in a robust infrastructure to support the burgeoning growth of the biotechnology industry, Teo observes.
“Covid-19 was really a catalyst for the biotechnology sector and there is now a lot more attention and emphasis on it. Together with the healthcare industry, the biotech sector has been experiencing double-digit growth during this time.”
In fact, during last year’s circuit breaker, while most people transitioned to working from home, NSG Biolabs stayed open so researchers could continue their essential work on Covid-19 and other ailments such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Beyond medicine and treatments, the biotechnology sector is also disrupting many other industries for the better. For instance, Singapore is currently a hotbed for biotech-based food companies that are developing plant-based or cell-cultured alternatives to meat — another key focus of the government. There are also industrial biotechnology companies that are tackling climate change issues by innovating more efficient, cleaner and greener solutions for various aspects of industrial processes.
For the duo, this is the ideal time to contribute to this burgeoning sector. “The time is right for some of these new technologies to come to the fore,” says Lu. “And from an end-user perspective, these innovations are not going to make a maximal impact if they remain as academic studies. They need to be developed from the discovery or conceptual stage to something that will actually impact lives.”
Investing in the future
For Lu, his interest in delving into the new and unknown has been a common theme throughout his life. Named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, the University of Pennsylvania alumnus recalls having a childhood fascination with Nasa and space exploration.
“The unknown and, hence, the possibilities always captures people’s attention. And for me, this is also the case with biotechnology because biology is fundamental to human health and many industrial applications, so the solutions can be so meaningful and there are such complexities and unknowns out there,” muses Lu, who began his career as a management consultant at Bain & Company. This background, notes his wife, has equipped him with the ability to take a long-term and strategic view of the companies that he is now involved in building and investing in. Prior to Engine Biosciences being seeded, he also helped build and finance bio-therapeutics company Enleofen Bio, whose assets and platform were eventually sold to Boehringer Ingelheim.
“Science is just so intellectually fascinating, the opportunities are endless and you can spend a lifetime in this and hopefully make an impact,” he says.
At NSG Biolabs, where this interview was conducted, the space, cheerfully decorated with cheery prints by Takashi Murakami, showcases Teo’s finely honed flair for design, influenced in part by her background in real estate. An engineer by training — she received her master’s from Stanford University’s School of Engineering — she has been involved in multi-million dollar investments in real estate in the US, Indonesia and Malaysia as the chief investment officer of D3 Capital. Most recently, she was the co-founder and investor in the 3.6 million sq ft Golden City integrated development in Yangon, Myanmar, and helped drive the sale of the company at a valuation of US$110 million ($146 million) in 2016.
To differentiate the co-working lab from a standard, sterile laboratory, she made it a point to incorporate design elements such as pastel toned walls, a light-filled pantry and even an IG-friendly recreation corner complete with a foosball table and vertical garden.
“We wanted the space to be fun and colourful so that the scientists have a conducive space to chill in. The lab itself is black and white and does not have sunlight as it could affect experiments, so we wanted to make the other spaces bright and cheerful,” Teo says.
After all, the aim is to play a role in sparking the next big biotech innovation in the little red dot, which has its eyes firmly set on the future.
Adds Lu: “Singapore has invested in building a core backbone of research and infrastructure, and that has resulted in knowledge that is unique and differentiated and a diverse talent pool. There is a powerful ecosystem here and we hope to contribute in an intelligent way for as many biotechnology companies as we can.”
ART DIRECTION CATHERINE WONG
PHOTOGRAPHY DARREN GABRIEL LEOW
FASHION STYLING CHIA WEI CHOONG
MAKEUP AMY CHOW USING NARS
HAIR JUNZ LOKE USING KEVIN MURPHY
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANCE MELVIN LEONG