A steaming hot bowl of wanton noodles and a plate of pan-fried dumplings, served with a side of philosophical discussions, made up my lunch on a muggy, wet Wednesday afternoon. Across from me, Ng Choon-Peng wolfed down the aforementioned dishes with gusto. We had just completed a gruelling two-hour cover shoot and the CEO and co-founder of Immunoscape was the consummate professional, complying with the art director’s instructions without complaint. “I spent a long time in the army, so I’m excellent at following orders,” the 49-year-old Ng joked after shifting his pose for the umpteenth time.
Being in the limelight is nothing new for Ng who has been interviewed a number of times by different news organisations in a pharmaceutical career spanning close to two decades. This time, however, the glare of the global spotlight is just that bit more intense. His three-year-old biotechnology company Immunoscape is working with multiple institutions including Massachusetts General Hospital, Duke NUS, University of Parma and Arcturus Therapeutics, and is in talks with four more, most of whom are in the midst of researching or developing Covid-19 vaccines.
The Hero’s Path
Although he would probably say that a higher force was at work, guiding him in specific areas so that he could make “that little bit of difference in someone’s life”, Ng’s journey into medicine and biotechnology was more happenstance than calculated strategy.
“We are all given time on earth to accomplish the things we are supposed to do. And all of us will have our own journey; a lifelong pursuit to find out what our purpose is. To me, life is an adventure and as it progresses, your purpose will reveal itself a bit at a time,” says Ng, in between mouthfuls of wanton mee.
After leaving the army in 2002, Ng moved to the US to pursue a master of business administration at the University of Michigan and joined pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) after graduating in 2004. It was a considerable career transition in more ways than one. Ng traded the green of the fatigues he donned for 13 years for a suit and a tie – and another type of battleground, one where warfare was usually waged in the shelter of a boardroom instead of the outdoors.
For many people used to a life of public regiment, the elastic nature of private organisations can potentially drown them. Ng, however, thrived in the pharmaceutical sector. His leadership ability and organisational skills proved to be valuable assets and he soon realised that he had a knack for connecting the dots that are often invisible to everyone else around him. And while leaders always harp about the bigger picture, Ng is already turning the picture over to look at the back.
After stints at Scios Inc and Janssen Cilag, both subsidiaries of J&J, Ng was tapped in 2008 to head the Asia division of Leo Pharma, which specialises in dermatology and critical care. Within four years, the former army major more than doubled sales figures, grew the team from 125 to over 300 and set up divisions in China, Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Ng was a force, constantly venturing into unchartered territories. So, when Lim Chuan Poh, then chairman of A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) and his former mentor in the army shared with him the agency’s exciting plans, Ng decided it was time for his next adventure. His mission: drive the ecosystem to commercialise the research findings and cutting-edge technologies that A*STAR creates.
“Research and development (R&D) is great. But when you cannot find applications for these findings that can turn into products or services you can sell, you cannot convert the money spent on R&D into economic outcomes for Singapore. You’re essentially holding a presentation in your hands,” explains Ng.
Silicon Valley start-ups might have popularised the “fail fast” mantra, but successful pharmaceutical companies had embraced this maxim long before it became part of the entrepreneurship lexicon. “Failing fast is just as important as starting a new project because it helps you to understand what you are trying to achieve. It’s also cheaper,” Ng says with a smile.
He formulated and instituted screening processes and set up multiple panels that helped to identify as well as speed up projects with a lot of promise. More importantly, Ng documented the reasons for those that didn’t make it past the screening process and panels.
“I’ll deliver the bad news to the scientist and the research institute director, but I’ll also tell them why the project was not selected. The ‘why’ is important because then you can learn and think about what you want to do differently the next time. If we don’t learn why we fail, we’ll always make the same mistakes again and again,” Ng remarks.
After just over three years of working with A*STAR and advising different organisations on the commercial aspects of R&D, Ng began flirting with the idea of starting a firm himself. He was motivated by the organisation’s supportive policies that encouraged staff to form their own companies.
For A*STAR, it made business sense. Privately-owned companies could receive external funding from venture capitalists and other organisations, which then act as market validation of the work they do.
Ng saw a gap in the biotechnology market, so he scoured his extensive network to find scientists who shared his vision. The first was Alessandra Nardin, an experienced immunologist he’d worked with in A*STAR. Evan Newell and Michael Fehlings followed soon after, making up the founding team.
The Business of Social Good
The four assembled a dream team of scientists and advisors, and soon, Immunoscape was formed. The biotech firm discovers insights on how the immune system responds to certain diseases by identifying relevant immune cells that target the antigens – proteins found on a cancer tumour or virus. Think of it like a sniper taking out a specific target.
Before Covid-19 took over his life, Ng was working on developments in the field of immuno-oncology, which studies and develops treatments that take advantage of the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Immunoscape leverages on its unique immune profiling technology to partner with companies developing immunotherapy.
Ng witnessed the miracle first-hand when his uncle was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. “My uncle asked me to look after his daughter who was still in kindergarten when he was gone,” he shares. Undeterred, Ng referred his uncle to a collaborator in the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS). “My uncle was found to have the PDL1 protein, a biomarker that indicates that he was more likely to respond to immunotherapy.” Four months later, the large tumours in his lungs and hip shrunk. Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky. At the moment, 70 per cent of patients do not respond to treatment.
For Covid-19, Ng and his team have been studying two sets of patients. The first are convalescent patients or those who have recovered. The second: those who still have it.
The heat is on for pharmaceutical companies working on a Covid-19 vaccine. Usually, these companies are in an arms race. The first to apply for and receive a drug patent, which usually lasts 20 years, has carte blanche to tag the medicine at a price it desires. This allows the company to recoup the R&D costs and earn some money afterwards. The mechanics of the free market ensure companies usually price the medicine fairly.
A case in point: remdesivir, marketed under the name Veklury by Gilead Sciences. The antiviral drug has so far proven to be the only effective medication against Covid-19 and is now being used in a number of countries, including Singapore, to treat the more severe cases. The price? US$390 (S$542) per vial or US$2,340 for the full course of treatment.
It might sound like a lot of money, but Gilead Sciences CEO Daniel Day has said that the price is well below the amount hospitals will have to spend – about US$12,000 – on a patient who has not been given Veklury.
Due to the pressing nature of the task, many of the companies Immunoscape is working with are less concerned about the nitty-gritty of the business negotiations and more about the outcome.
Of course, the company that emerges from this arms race victorious can make a lot of money, but receive countless brickbats if it chooses to make too much money. Therein lies the medicinal dilemma or the modern Hippocratic Oath if you’d like. How do you balance the social good of medicine with business objectives? “It’s tough,” says Ng. “But I’m glad my colleagues are cognisant of the social responsibilities they have. At the same time, society knows that it needs to incentivise companies to take a huge risk to discover things that will move society forward. Eventually, there will be a certain level that everyone will agree on.”
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Moving Forward, One Bit at a Time
Beyond Covid-19, Ng is already looking at other chronic diseases – the big one being cancer. A cure is the 21st century medicinal equivalent of the proverbial pot of gold, but it has proven elusive so far. Ng recalls lamenting about it to his friend, Dr William Hwang, director at the NCCS. The doctor’s reply? “But we have been curing cancer. Not everyone is cured, but we are getting better at it every year. Patients are living longer and getting better quality of life because of the advancement of medical science.” It made Ng realise that if his efforts could just move the needle forward a little each time, he would have made a difference.
“I’m reminded of the story of the bricklayer. Someone says to the bricklayer that he is laying bricks and he says, ‘No, I’m building a cathedral.’ All of us have our own little role in society and if we each do our part to the best of our ability, the world will be a better place for all of us. It makes you think about the purpose of living. We are all living on borrowed time. We can’t see the deadline, but we know that it’s coming. Therefore, I think the quality of your life and what you choose to do with that life is important,” Ng philosophises.