Wednesday 21 Feb 2024
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on November 15, 2021 - November 21, 2021

Advances in medical technology have always been mankind’s best bet for the future, not only for its potential for rapid economic growth but, more importantly, to save lives and allow us to thrive.

But what most do not know is that the medical technologies behind many of the world’s medical breakthroughs are actually decades in the making. The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, for example, was modelled after Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Karikó’s idea in 1990: a messenger RNA (mRNA) approach to vaccines, which has today helped the world turn the tide against this pandemic.

According to the Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre’s (Mastic) National Survey of Research and Development, the medical and healthcare sector forms about 9% (RM135 million) of the total gross domestic expenditure on research and development for Malaysia, which was estimated at RM1.5 billion in 2018.

However, despite growing demand and potential, the medtech ecosystem in Malaysia’s “economics of medtech innovation” is somewhat lacklustre. We have a few bright spots, but there is a huge opportunity to take this industry to the next level, and to be a recognised world player in medtech.

For this reason, Malaysia’s newly launched agency, the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI), will be driving three areas of speed, scalability and synergy, which are interlinked — and when enabled, will help take society forward — for our collective wealth and well-being, through medtech and a host.

Speed: Fast is better than perfect

Right now, through Technology Park Malaysia’s (TPM) role in the National Technology and Innovation Sandbox (NTIS), we have begun our mission to accelerate commercialisation of tech and innovation. Soon, this will be undertaken via MRANTI. In the NTIS, companies are able to secure the necessary approvals faster, and live test their products to fast-track their innovations to be commercialised.

One success story is Biogenes Technologies Sdn Bhd, Malaysia’s first company to develop a new Covid-19 In-Vitro Diagnostic Kit, which is a rapid antigen-based test kit for Covid-19 and other infectious diseases.

The NTIS facilitated Biogenes’ discussions on regulatory procedures with the Malaysian Medical Device Authority (MDA), and coordinated approval with the Ministry of Health for a live test site to collect samples, which then allowed the company to validate the market readiness. As a result, its test kits have now undergone preclinical and clinical trials at Pusat Perubatan Universiti Malaya. What would have ordinarily taken at least a year was accomplished in several months. Biogenes also received funding through the NTIS within six months, to enable its operations to expand.

Additionally, through the NTIS, there are sandboxes testing the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas and to deliver essential goods and services particularly to remote and rural areas.

However, we are still not moving quickly enough in some areas. Attracting more international players is one area that could do with improvement. The Institute for Management Development’s World Competitive Ranking 2020 still ranks Malaysia No 52 in ease of starting business, with an increase in “start-up days” from 13.5 days in 2019 to 17.5 days in 2020 to set up business here.

Today, many start-ups still find it difficult to know which agencies to approach, as some have overlapping functions. Having multiple sources of information and numerous agencies impedes Malaysia’s potential as a preferred destination for start-ups.

To ensure that we do not get left behind, moving with speed is absolutely essential. To do this, we need to streamline our processes, get rid of any overlap or “legacy” inefficiencies and utilise technology to digitalise or automate for efficiency.

For society’s sake: Scale up

The ability to scale is perhaps the greatest lever for technology towards commercialisation. For innovators in medtech, however, scale is more than a business decision — it is a moral decision.

Scale for them means the ability to reach and impact as many people as possible, in the shortest time available, so that these solutions are affordable. As medtech is inherently a matter of impact and benefit, commercialisation and scale are imperatives that interlock.

One indicator weighing us down is Malaysia’s low commercialisation rate. Recent data from Mastic shows that commercialisation rates are between 5% and 10%, based on previous reported figures of 8.3% from 2005 to 2015. This is despite the fact that Malaysia has increased its scientific research output 4.5 times between 2008 and 2018.

A key gap is the disconnect between what happens in the research labs, and how it translates into the real world. Researchers say that funding is difficult, and navigating regulatory processes is tricky.

Synergy for security of supply

While we look to harvest more medtech inventions at the end of the funnel, we also need to expand our supply pipeline of ideas. How can we invigorate our best minds from the 20-plus public universities and private universities active in R&D into the innovation ecosystem?

Simply put: increase our security of innovation supply.

This calls for multiple parties to work in concert — the enculturation of innovation, to foster the growth of early-stage technology and innovation companies, and provide necessary support to mature their products into viable solutions for the market.

Public-private partnerships, such as that between TPM and ScaleUp Malaysia, is one way to accelerate this. Such collaborations bring out the best from both sides, for the benefit of medtech companies.

The NTIS also provides assistance with funding through several providers and funding mechanism options including grants, seed capital and others to help companies scale more quickly. It also has the weight for 19 innovation acceleration network partners — including the likes of Microsoft, DHL, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), AirAsia and more — which work with participants to provide regulatory support, technical support, facilities for sandboxing and more.

A sustainable system to take us forward

Groundbreaking medtech will not be impactful if it is not also profitable enough to keep itself up and running.

Unfortunately, our lack of comprehensive data means we do not know if our best and brightest are flaming out, or if they go on to commercialisation and profit.

We do not have the answers to that yet, but we have a strategy: We know a key to the long-term success of an invention is intellectual property (IP) filings; patents are the key to ensuring longevity, security and sustainability.

So, one of the first things we need to do is to conduct IP audits on the IPs filed within Mosti (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation) agencies, and through a structured review process, evaluate how these can be brought to market.

Through MRANTI also, there will be a convergence of continuous innovation and a streamlining of the medtech ecosystem.

For the future, for the people

With the development of our medtech industry, medical access will no longer be a barrier, no matter where we live, nor what our economic or social status is.

A study by Harvard found that innovation capacity is largely determined by the number of scientists and engineers in the country, the stock of knowledge that the society has accrued, the public policy environment and the maturity of business clusters.

We have great innovators in our midst who will use medtech for good. All we need is a robust ecosystem for them to thrive in.

Research shows that Malaysia’s healthcare sector itself is expected to grow to RM127 billion (US$30 billion) by 2027, with potential in the areas of medical tourism, the manufacturing of medical devices, pharmaceuticals and clinical research.

Medical technology has never been more urgent, and it has never been more exciting, offering huge potential for Malaysia to be an innovative nation. After all, to develop this sector is to have its impact felt across the board, in every part of the rakyat’s lives.

Dzuleira Abu Bakar is CEO of Technology Park Malaysia

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