#SgGoesGlobal - Curiox BioSystems:
How a tech startup with a great idea finally got the world's attention
Curiox BioSystems had an innovative and game-changing product, but they struggled to find success. As a start-up, they lacked the financial means and necessary track record to expand successfully in competitive key markets. But IE, recognising the significance of their technology and the their tremendous growth potential, bolstered the company’s efforts. Today, Curiox is thriving.
Walk into any Starbucks or MacDonald’s worldwide, and you’ll be sure to find them by the counter: The plastic drinking straw is ubiquitous the world over as the tube of choice via which to slurp up liquids.
Now, imagine if you were the guy who had to come up with an alternative product to the plastic straw — a conduit that would be as inexpensive, convenient and easy to use. You’d already seen others develop paper straws, and metal ones, and even bamboo versions; but none had succeeded in usurping the popular plastic variety.
It’d be quite a conundrum, wouldn’t it?
About a decade ago, that was exactly the challenge facing scientist Mr Namyong Kim, who wanted to invent a technology that could compete with the biomedical industry equivalent to the plastic straw: A tool known as the Microtiter plate.
“This plate has been around for over 40 years. It was the gold industry standard,” said Mr Kim, CEO of Curiox BioSystems. “Many people had tried to develop products that would replace or outperform the Microtiter plate, but nothing came close.”
A Microtiter plate is a tool used widely in research and clinical diagnostic testing laboratories. It’s essentially a small flat plate with multiple “wells,” which are each used as mini test-tubes to hold sample liquids.
As Mr Kim explained, the Microtiter plate is, in general, a “simple and efficient platform.” It, however, isn’t entirely without flaw.
The main issue with it is unnecessary wastage. Each well of a Microtiter plate can typically hold tens of nanolitres to several millilitres of liquid — often way more than is necessary for an experiment.
As samples for these experiments can be very expensive (a single filled late can cost between $1,000 to $4,000 U.S. dollars), this waste can translate into hefty financial losses.
In addition, said Mr Kim, sample liquids tend to cling to the walls of the plate’s wells — a phenomenon that can cause uneven experiment results.
“Overall, the Microtiter plate is very good, which is why it’s been so popular. But there are issues that make it less than perfect,” Mr Kim said.
Curiox’s Drop-Array Wall-less Microplate (left) pictured next to a Microtiter plate. As the photo shows, the DA plate is flat with “dots” on its surface. The Microtiter plate, on the other hand, has rows of wells.
In 2004, Mr Kim, a South Korea native, moved to Singapore from the United States to conduct research at A*Star. There, he and a group of Singaporean colleagues, perfected the technology for an innovative and disruptive product — a tool that would give the Microtiter plate a serious run for its money.
The Drop-Array Wall-less Microplate (or DA plate for short) is, as its name suggests, a wall-less platform. Instead of wells, like those of the Microtiter plate, the DA consists of a hydrophobic (water-repelling) surface with rows of hydrophilic (water-attracting) “dots.”
To use the plate, an experimenter merely has to place a tiny bead of sample liquid into each dot. Thanks to the water-attracting nature of the dot and the water-repelling quality of the rest of the plate, the bead will stay in place no matter how the plate is moved — even if it’s flipped upside down.
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With the confidence that he’d figured out a truly useful and game-changing product, Mr Kim launched Curiox BioSystems in 2008.
“Compared to the Microtiter plate, we’d managed to reduce the volume of each plate by 5 to 10 times,” he said of his DA plate technology. “The data we got was also better. Without the wall, there’s more consistent handling and better reproducibility. When it came to sensitivity, we got similar results or up to a four-fold improvement.”
But though they knew they had a solid product, Curiox faced a slew of challenges from day one. As a start-up, they didn’t have the financial means to hire the best talent, and to expand aggressively or successfully. They also didn’t have the necessary track record to break into competitive key markets, like the U.S. and Europe, where the bulk of their potential customers were.
“We knew we had to go overseas from the very beginning, but to be honest, we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Mr Kim. “We didn’t know the business, we didn’t know the market. We didn’t know how to approach the market, and we didn’t have the talent either.”
“As a Singaporean company, when you go overseas, you also face an unfair playing field,” Kim added. “There’s a 12-hour time difference, a 20-hour flight difference. We were also working with limited resources to connect with customers. It was extremely straining. Even very profitable companies in Singapore encounter difficulties when venturing overseas. For a small company like ours, it was 10 times more challenging.”
With these hurdles in their path, Curiox floundered for years, unable to gain a significant foothold in any market.
But then in 2012, the company caught the eye of International Enterprise (IE) Singapore. IE saw tremendous potential in Curiox and its technology, and began working closely with the company to support its global growth.
“We were a very small company that wasn’t well-established domestically,” said Mr Kim. “Yet IE took a risk in supporting us.”
In the years since, IE has supported Curiox in multiple ways, both financial and otherwise. An IE initiative, for example, allowed the company to secure several “very important” patents for their technology, said Mr Kim. “Without these patents, we would have quickly been overtaken by bigger companies.”
IE’s Global Company Partnership grant also allowed Curiox to better execute their overseas expansion plans. Some funding, for instance, was used to hire top-notch employees, said Mr Kim -- a critical element of the company’s growth.
“Talent is the key pillar to success,” he quipped.
IE also advocated for the company in various markets, and opened doors to distributors in the U.S. and Europe.
“Without IE’s assistance, we wouldn’t have been able to make it,” said Mr Kim.
Most startup tech companies have products that are born to go global, so internationalisation should be part of their plan from the get-go. With our extensive global network, market insights and influence, we can help companies get a leg up in even the most competitive markets.
A Drop-Array Wall-less Microplate (left), Mr Namyong Kim (right)
Today, business is booming for Curiox.
Nine of the world’s top 15 pharmaceutical companies have already adopted their technology.
Curiox's clients have reported slashed costs of up to 70 percent and sample savings of up to 80 percent; and Mr Kim said sales have ballooned 300 percent in the past two quarters.
“One big lesson I’ve learned from all this is that business is not easy,” said Mr Kim of his company’s journey. “We scientists think that invention is the greatest thing in the world. In my mind, it was invention 80 percent, business development 20 percent, but it’s exactly the opposite. Ideas are everywhere. But you need the talent to transform those ideas into viable businesses.”
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