By SGN | 2 July 2020
When Carolyn was offered the chance by her firm to move to the US office three years ago, leaving friends and family behind, she did not hesitate to seize the opportunity. She is no stranger to major international moves in her life. At the age of 12, Carolyn left her family in Malaysia to attend a boarding school in Singapore and eventually received her PhD in molecular oncology in her new home country. Since then, her career has allowed her to work in London, Basel, Tokyo, and New York in addition to Singapore. She reflected, “the most important lesson is to be open-minded about new cultures and new ways of doing things, and just be an open vessel when you meet new people.”
Today, she is Managing Director at Vertex Ventures HC (San Francisco, CA), the largest Singaporean early-stage venture fund network that invests globally in healthcare and was the youngest to be promoted to co-head a healthcare VC fund from Singapore. Vertex has a few hundred million USD under management. In 2019, the first biotech investment that Carolyn had led in 2017, a company founded by Nobel Laureate Sir Greg Winter, went public on NASDAQ. She then also became one of the youngest directors on the board of a NASDAQ listed public company in the biotech sector.
“I saw the great opportunity to professionally develop myself and be exposed to the brilliant biopharma talent pool [in the US],” Carolyn recounts. She shares that she has a strong passion in her career to create a positive impact for patients, where she would ultimately want to see cancer and other serious diseases being addressed with biotech innovation.
Driving returns by championing for diversity and gender equality
As a leader, Carolyn is a firm believer in championing diversity in the workplace. The underrepresentation of women continues to be an ongoing issue in traditionally male-dominated sectors, and Carolyn has been driving change from the ground up. She contributes to the Women in Bio Boardroom’s Ready Program where she acts as a mentor to help cultivate new women leaders, including many outstanding female biopharma executives who are more senior in age than herself.
“Studies have shown that business organisations that have more diversity perform better and stronger than those which do not. And this is particularly important for leadership roles and in the boardroom,” Carolyn says. She has been at the forefront to intentionally ensure that she builds an ethnically and culturally diverse team – which may not be a common sight in the industry.
“I would raise questions to the management teams of our portfolio companies such as, “have we conducted a gender equality compensation analysis?” or “have we made sure that all women and men in the same role, performing at the same level are getting paid equally?” I call out numbers if I see disparities and I request for explanations,” she says. When hiring for her own team, Carolyn and her co-partner were very intentional in making sure that they were networking with candidates of different demographics.
On the job, Carolyn is responsible for co-managing the Vertex HC fund and leading a team to invest in life sciences companies with a strong focus on biopharma, medical devices, and digital health. “Our role is to make intelligent choices in picking the right investments which we think are going to create the most value and returns by bringing about the best clinical outcomes for patients,” she explains. Post-investment, the team would also work closely with these companies to help them thrive and succeed.
As a fundamentals-driven fund, Carolyn explains that the team generally does not do momentum-driven “quick flips”. Instead, they have a long-term, realistic, and patient view on how they deploy their capital into drug development that usually takes a long time. In other words, the team will be here for the long haul with these early-stage companies if there are grounds for a solid investment thesis to believe that the innovation is a real breakthrough that can create significant clinical impact.
Having Singaporean roots has also helped to distinguish the Vertex HC fund from other strong-performing funds as it holds a uniquely global perspective. Singapore’s geographical location lends critical insight into Asian business dynamics while staying culturally adapted to western practices. Carolyn explains that they collaborate with well-established top-tier US funds by lending a global perspective on how things could be done differently or improved upon.
“Singaporeans are perfectly positioned to play that cross-cultural and cross-border role because of our unique roots. Some of us may be ethnically Asian, but we receive a westernised education in Singapore, with English being our medium of instruction – that makes us an effective bridge between the East and the West,” she says.
COVID19 putting a spotlight on healthcare innovation
The biopharma sector and more broadly, the entire healthcare industry, have been at the forefront of battling the COVID19 pandemic. Specifically, biopharma and diagnostics players have been instrumental in contributing to the rapid development of diagnostic kits to diagnose COVID-19 patients, antibody tests to detect the presence of antibodies in patients, therapeutic drugs for the treatment of COVID-19, as well as vaccines to protect the masses from the virus.
The pandemic has unveiled critical unmet needs in the healthcare industry, and Carolyn reckons that it is now prime time for healthcare and biopharma because of the sector’s important role in advancing science and innovation to derive important solutions. She also shares that the recent pandemic has pushed for the digitalisation of healthcare solutions.
The biopharma world has introduced creative changes to the traditionally lengthy R&D process of drug development, as exemplified by how rapidly various companies have brought COVID19 vaccines into clinical trials. Even non-COVID19-related clinical trials are now conducted differently to allow for more remote monitoring.
Carolyn remarks that the open-mindedness of the government and regulators of Singapore has contributed to it being an early adopter of telemedicine and digital solutions during COVID-19. “That puts us in an advantageous thought leadership position for novel tech-enabled healthcare solutions of the future,” she says.
She highlights that there has been an expansion in the talent pool of next-generation local Singaporean entrepreneurs who have received international exposure, as well as access to new ideas and information from all parts of the world, including Silicon Valley and other ideation hubs.
In terms of funding, Carolyn shares that there has been a significant surge in VC funds investing in Southeast Asia, and that Singapore is always going to be a hotspot because of strong government and political stability, making it conducive for start-up companies to get funding and IP protection.
On that note, Carolyn maintains her stance that she is “bullish” about Singapore’s health tech ecosystem. She says, “Singapore will continue to play an important role in fostering a robust tech ecosystem in the next 10 years,” and that “hopefully there be more Singaporeans like myself who will be involved in biopharma innovation on the global stage in years to come”.
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About Carolyn Ng
Carolyn is always interested in meeting other healthcare entrepreneurs, innovators, start-ups, investors and organizations/individuals championing for diversity and gender equality. If you are interested in connecting with Carolyn, please send your request here. SGN will be happy to make the introduction.