Health Investor Asia – The Serial Entrepreneur: Interview with Steven Fang

Originally published in Health Investor Asia – view PDF article here.

Steven Fang understands how to set up a healthcare company. Not only is he chief executive and founder of ASX-listed oncology company Invitrocue, he was also the founder of Singapore-based Cordlife Group, a healthcare company which provides cord blood and cord lining banking services.

The number of awards he has under his belt is legion. These include the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for New Enterprise, Spirit of Enterprise and the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Award’s Outstanding Entrepreneur Award.

But the environment for establishing a healthcare company has changed beyond all measure between Cordlife, which was set up in 2002, and Invitrocue, which he founded in 2012. “The climate is different,” he says. “In 2000 we were coming out of the global financial crisis.” The global economic conditions were not ideal and it is hard to underestimate the challenges he faced. On top of economic headwinds, “for Cordlife we had to build an industry,” he explains.

Invitrocue was set up in 2012 to commercialise proprietary 3D cell culture technology developed by Hanry Yu and colleagues at A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore. “Invitrocue reflects a lot of lessons that we learned. How we position ourselves in the industry, for example,” he says. He describes the firm as a personalised oncology company. “We provide information on what drug to use on to the right patient,” he says.

What is the same is that Fang describes both firms as healthcare services companies. “We don’t put aside a budget for r&d. For Invitrocue all of the work was done in the previous six years,” he says dryly. The knowhow came from the Singapore government and from grants. “We licensed that.”

The conversation turns to that crucial support from the Singapore government. The environment for a healthcare/biotech company could hardly be better. What happens, though, when the sector is no longer flavour of the month? “I am a realist,” he says. “I have been in the biotech space for last 27 years and I have seen biotech boom and bust. Biotech was and is the original internet bubble.”

It is refreshing to see his pragmatism. He describes the climate at the moment as a pendulum and admits that at some point it will start to swing the other way. That description of the company as healthcare rather than a biotech company offers some protection to the winds of change, but he says that he has learned lessons from other economies for how they have gone through the r&d investment cycle.

Invitrocue is listed on the ASX. It is natural to ask why he is listed there, rather than on the SGX. “As much as the Singapore government supports companies, they have to stand on their own two feet,” he says. “You can’t have a child and never allow it outside. You can’t keep it indoors.”

He describes the ASX as a primary and secondary school while he sees the SGX is high school and university. But analogies aside, there is one major difference. “The ASX has a deeper appetite for risk,” he says.

His flotation in Sydney was admittedly fast – the process took under two years – but Fang emphasises that it not an exit. “Listing was no different from raising Series A and B financing. It is the start of another phase of growth,” he says. It is notable that Fang has the characteristics of the really successful chief executives that HealthInvestor Asia has talked to in this series when he adds that if you see an IPO as an exit, then there is only one way for your company to go.

The challenge for Invitrocue as it grows is how to manage the team. The company has teams in Australia, Hong Kong, China and Germany. “The way we have expanded is to find partners that not only believe our story, but have skin in the game. There are investors from these markets that have put money into the company,” he says.

He admits that he tends to centralise decisions from Singapore. It is where management decisions are taken and from where communications come. But for those looking for quick answers, there aren’t any. Invitrocue’s success comes from hard work.

“We just did training from German team, did it in Singapore. But I spend a lot of time on the road. I have to spend time with local management.”