“Malaysia is one of Asia’s great success stories.”
Launched November last year, the “OECD Reviews of Innovation Policy: Malaysia 2016” said that our high economic performance was based on a profound transformation into a diversified economy and that Malaysia has benefited much from her participation in global value chains.
The Review also urged Malaysia to rely more on innovation-driven productivity gains, which means translating domestic innovation capabilities into sustainable growth in productivity and gross domestic product (GDP).
The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) plays a primary role in supporting research and development (R&D) at the commercialisation and start-up stages.
In particular, two medical innovation projects developed by local firms which were partly funded by MOSTI caught my attention.
The first is Cervisafe, a medical device that helps women to detect cervical cancer early. It comes in a kit where women can collect their own cervical cell samples and send them for screening instead of visiting a hospital.
Another advantage of this self-diagnosis is the screening method at the laboratories; the conventional screening procedure in the lab is Pap smear that detects pre-cancerous or cancerous cells, rendering it too late for prevention.
With Cervisafe, the screening would focus on detecting the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) itself. If HPV is present, the woman can then consult a doctor on treatment before the cancer progresses.
Mr Romli, director of LaDIY Healthcare whom I met last year during the launch of the product, said that one fatal cervical cancer incident happens alarmingly every 14 hours in Malaysia, although ironically it is the only cancer we can prevent.
Prior to this form of self-testing, women may have felt embarrassed, afraid or unable to find time to go to the hospital for a Pap smear. For some, hospitals may not even be easily accessible.
The company has reached out to around 500 women in the country to use the kit at its pilot phase. Results from the lab showed that almost an astonishing 10 per cent of the women were at high risk of developing cancer!
In Sabah, out of the 80 samples collected, 12 were at high risk.
Now that women are empowered to conduct sampling on their own in the comfort of their homes, we hope to encourage early detection and eventually save more lives.
The road to bringing the idea of self-sampling for cervical cancer to the market was of course no shortcuts. By collaborating with Universiti Putra Malaysia, they started the R&D work in 2011, followed by successful clinical validation in 2014 and a publication in the Asia Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention in 2015.
A large fraction of their early capital was from Bioeconomy Corporation, a MOSTI agency. At the later stage they received a Commercialisation of Research and Development Fund (CRDF) from the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), also under MOSTI’s purview.
Romli shared that the application process was straightforward without much red-tape. Our grant panellists would agree that he is one of the most persistent entrepreneurs they know.
Although the concept of the device is not novel, the design is unique and therefore they have applied for Intellectual Property in the country and worldwide.
In the near future we could see their presence in South Africa, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Oman.
The second innovation is the digitization of autopsies by a medical informatics company iGene. Their system could scan and digitise a dead body to reconstruct a detailed three-dimensional model using a unique, proprietary software.
The company had received R&D grant from MOSTI in 2005 and an investment by Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd (Mavcap) in 2007, among the several financial aids they received from the government.
This non-invasive Digital Autopsy is expected to revolutionise autopsy practices. It is seen as a more humane approach and often a religious preference when finding out the cause of death of the deceased.
It set up its first facility in Hospital Kuala Lumpur. In the UK, iGene has already partnered with Sheffield City Council to establish a Digital Autopsy Facility and a network, and is in talks with a number of countries in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East to establish its presence globally.
Its long-term plan would be to penetrate the U.S. market.
These are just two examples of our home-grown innovations in the medical field. They both addressed economic and societal issues, and leveraged on partnerships in R&D such as with a university to pursue technology transfer and eventually commercialisation.
MOSTI acknowledges the gap between research and technology transfer. We attempt to bridge it by facilitating the researchers and industry at various stages of the commercialisation process, including providing funding.
The link between our public research and industry can be improved to aid technology transfer. Until then, Malaysia may be a great success story in Asia, but we should strive to be the greatest.