Singapore Bets Big on Talent

It was springtime in Paris when Judith L. Swain flew there in 2005 from her home in San Diego for what amounted to a high-class job interview. Swain was 56 at the time, with more than a lifetime worth of achievements as a molecular cardiologist in a string of senior-level appointments, most recently as dean for translational medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Her husband, Edward W. Holmes, then 60 and vice chancellor of health sciences at the university and dean of its medical school, accompanied her.

Their host was Philip Yeo, the mastermind of the Biopolis, a new biomedical research hub in Singapore. Yeo was in the process of building a roster of marquee names and had suggested they each travel halfway around the world to spend a weekend in Paris discussing the project. The three were already friends — the husband-wife team had been consultants to Singapore for 10 years on creating an international scholarship program for young Singaporeans and other endeavors.

Now Yeo wanted to hire them as full-time employees and was prepared to offer attractive perches. Swain could set up her own medical research institute focusing on growth,development, metabolism and the immunological response to infectious disease. Holmes would head the National Medical Research Council. Yeo’s proposal would have had plenty of appeal even without a fine French dinner and a trip to the Louvre.

With similar flair, Yeo has recruited about 100 other stars from academic medicine, persuading them to leave family, friends and colleagues to work in a tiny city-state with an oppressive tropical climate. Among those recruits are the British experts Alan Colman, who helped clone Dolly the sheep in 1996 and now focuses on diabetes, and David P. Lane, who discovered the p53 tumor-suppressor gene.

Compensation packages are generous without being exorbitant. Pay is typically 15 percent to 20 percent more than star performers could command in their home countries. There is also a housing allowance based on the size of a family, an education stipend for children through high school and tax subsidies so that scientists will be no worse off financially than if they were working in their home country.

But Yeo’s power of persuasion has very little to do with lavish soirées, salaries or executive perks. The greatest lure is intangible and goes to the heart of what motivates creative and innovative people: the chance to do leading-edge work in the company of leading-edge colleagues and under the auspices of managers who value their work. In addition to salary, star performers at the Biopolis receive a five-year research budget, freeing them from having to live from grant to grant, as many scientists must do in the United States. With an ample travel budget that enables them to take 10 to 12 trips home per year, they can move about the world, maintaining contacts that are crucial for their work.

Edison T. Liu, recruited to the Biopolis in 2002 from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., likened his Singapore colleagues to members of a symphony orchestra. They want “an environment to practice their craft, a place where their work is going to be appreciated and where there are others if they need assistance,” he said.

Today, about 10,000 people from more than 50 nations are employed at the Biopolis, which has grown to seven buildings since 2003. Singapore, which has a population of less than 5 million, has made an enormous financial investment in the research center. Construction costs during the first phase, from 2001-6, were $400 million, and the operating budget for the same period was $1.5 billion. An additional $129 million has been spent since then just on construction.

Singapore is betting that the investment will ultimately work to its economic benefit. So far, no blockbuster drugs have been developed — the cycle of research, development and approval takes at least 15 years. The biggest payoffs, whether in the form of cures for cancer and other diseases or job creation, may be far down the road.

Yeo compares the investment time frame to planting a durian tree, which takes seven years of nurturing before it bears the notoriously stinky fruit that is a Southeast Asian delicacy. Short-term thinkers should confine themselves to growing bean sprouts, which are edible in a matter of days but offer far less substance, he said.

Competitive Strategy

The impetus for the Biopolis was unique to Singapore but analogous to competitive pressures that cause private enterprises around the world to expand their products or services. Unlike many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Singapore is not rich in natural resources, so it must look for other market advantages. Yeo, who was chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board from 1986-2000, saw opportunities in biomedical research and drug manufacturing.

His idea, when he became head of what is now known as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in 2001, was to nurture a fledging pharmaceutical industry and develop future industries that could create jobs — “a whole food chain, from innovation to production, marketing and sales,” he said. He also wanted to improve medical care by bringing research from the laboratory to the bedside in areas that were underserved. Colon and other cancers that are especially prevalent in the various ethnic, racial and genetic groups that populate Asia were a particular concern. The Biopolis, which emerged from these aspirations, opened in 2003.

But Singapore lacked the intellectual capital to drive Yeo’s economic plan. Training a scientist takes 12 years, from earning a bachelor’s degree through postdoctoral study. There was a dearth of talent in the pipeline, and there were not enough senior scientists to train younger ones on the way up. Yeo addressed both sides of the equation — young scientists in the pipeline and senior scientists, referring to them as “guppies” and “whales.” The guppies are talented young Singaporeans given scholarships to complete their undergraduate and graduate science education overseas. In exchange, they must agree to a “bond.” It requires they do a one-year salaried internship in a Singapore research laboratory between their bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. programs and work in Singapore for five years after completing their doctorate. This program, funded from 2001-10 to cover 1,000 scholars, costs about $720,000 per student, including tuition, travel expenses and stipends. So far, 900 of the scholarships have been awarded.

The whales in Yeo’s metaphor are the internationally renowned scientists whom he recruited to be mentors to the Singaporean scientists trained abroad. In their Singaporean laboratories, whales are free “to pursue what they think are great ideas,” said K.C. Nicolaou, an expert in synthetic chemistry. Singapore does not require research proposals, he explained. “The hope is that economic growth and innovations will flow from there,” said Nicolaou, whose specialty is the foundation for drug discovery and development. Profits from intellectual property emerging from any of the 12 Biopolis research institutes are split between the individual institute and A*STAR.

Nicolaou, who has a child with a disability, was not willing to relocate when Yeo invited him to come run an institute. But Yeo proposed a compromise: he asked Nicolaou to recruit his own No. 2 to run the institute and Nicolaou would come to Singapore occasionally, offering his expertise for the most part remotely. Nicolaou could maintain his chairmanship of the chemistry department at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., along with his laboratory there, and his appointment as a chemistry professor at the University of California, San Diego. With this offer, Yeo had him hooked. “You can’t say ‘no’ to him — he’s irresistible,” Nicolaou said.

Pairing Singaporeans with foreign scientists is a tool for transferring knowledge.

Benevolent Kidnapper

Yeo refers to himself playfully as a “kidnapper of talent.” An engineer by training, he reads voraciously, consulting Singaporean doctors when there is something he does not understand in a scientific journal. Sydney Brenner, a South African biologist and 2002 Nobel Prize winner, helped Yeo compile his initial list of whales to recruit.

In addition to the professional rewards, Yeo could offer an attractive international experience. Singapore has a reputation for efficiency and is a melting pot of cultures, including Indian, Chinese and Malay. Yet English is the dominant language, and Westerners do not tend to experience the culture shock there that occurs elsewhere in the region; Singapore is often referred to as “Asia lite.” In a 2009 ranking by HSBC Bank International of the 10 countries worldwide that are most hospitable to expatriates, Singapore was eighth. 

Yeo is also sensitive to the role that family plays in making overseas assignments successful. David Lane had two teenagers when Yeo first approached him and was not ready to move. In response, Yeo offered him an advisory role, supervising the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. After both children had gone to college, Lane and his wife, Birgit, also a scientist, came to Singapore in 2004.

Keys to Retention

Yeo does not equate physical presence with star performers’ commitment or productivity. “So long as they’re running the institute well, I don’t care where they are,” he said. Managers who demand that their recruits “be at their feet like slaves of the pharaoh of Egypt won’t get talented people — they’ll get slaves,” Yeo added.

Yeo acknowledged that this approach to managing talent depends on a high degree of loyalty and adherence to the honor system, but said it has worked in most cases. Still, there is no tenure — scientists are reviewed every three to five years. And those who do not measure up are let go. Scientists at the Biopolis are aware of a major U.S. university that had its funding from A*STAR cut because it did not deliver on its goals and milestones. And one institute director was fired for not following the rules on human experimentation, which are just as strict in Singapore as in the United States and Europe.

Although some recruits have become Singaporean citizens, that is not one of Yeo’s goals. Nor does he aspire to build a team of scientists that is 100 percent Singaporean. Ideally, 50 percent of the scientists would come from other countries, he said. An international team provides links to overseas networks and “keeps local people on their toes,” Yeo said. Yeo has been known to occasionally ask recruits whether they are happy; he realizes that those who are not, will not stay. The key to retention is to “make sure these people feel wanted and valued,” he said. It is the soft side of nurturing talent that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

The global financial crisis has expanded the talent pool for Singapore. Young postdocs are finding job opportunities in Singapore that do not exist elsewhere. The same is true for veteran scientists who see their options diminishing once they attain a certain age. Yoshiaki Ito, who has focused on the role viruses play in causing diseases, especially cancer, was nearing his 63rd birthday and the age of mandatory retirement from Kyoto University when he met Yeo in 2001. Yeo invited Ito and all nine members of his laboratory to join the Biopolis. Ito, who thought the offer seemed too good to be true, recalled asking Yeo what he expected in return. Yeo’s answer was “ ‘good science,’ ” Ito said.

Pharmaceutical Partners

At the Biopolis, academic scientists are intermingled with researchers from pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis A.G., Eli Lilly & Company and GlaxoSmithKline PLC. The goal at the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases, which came to Singapore in 2003, was to develop drugs to treat tuberculosis, malaria and dengue fever close to where these diseases are most prevalent, said Paul Herrling, head of corporate research at Novartis International A.G. This work requires an understanding not only of molecular biology, but also of the cultural environment that may impede prevention and “how doctors in the region think and use medication,” he said. Singapore offered access to local talent — 40 percent of the institute members are Singaporean — and an attractive environment for research scientists recruited from around the world, Herrling said.

In this endeavor, Novartis is a financial partner with the Singaporean government, which has agreed to pay 50 percent of the operating costs and suspend corporate income taxes for 10 years. Under the arrangement, Novartis owns the patents on any drug production technique, but if the company decides not to produce a particular drug, Singapore is first in line for development rights. A major institute goal is to create the first drug for dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus present in Singapore and many other tropical countries. And there has been progress on a next-generation malaria drug to treat strains that are resistant to existing remedies, Herrling said.

A more immediate and unanticipated payoff for both parties has been two $20 million grants that Novartis was awarded for research in Singapore. One, to fund malaria research, was awarded by the Wellcome Trust, a charity in the United Kingdom. The other, for tuberculosis research, came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition to bringing money into the country, these grants have created jobs, Herrling said. Lately, Singapore has faced some competition for talent from China, which is trying to lure back some of its best native-born scientists who have been educated in the United States, Herrling noted. Novartis is currently setting up a research facility in Shanghai, much larger than the one in Singapore, to focus on certain cancers that are more common in Asia than in other parts of the world.

Longitude and Latitude

Managing innovative, creative people is an art. The best way to nurture their independent thinking is to afford them more latitude than you might give other employees. At the same time, you should be mindful not to spawn a work force in which everybody is a solo act rather than a member of a team.

Philip Yeo, the brains behind the Biopolis in Singapore, is a master at managing star performers. Robert E. Kelley, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has studied them in many different corporate settings. Here are their suggestions about how to create a work environment in which innovators will thrive.

• Reconnoiter before making assignments. Whenever possible, ask for other perspectives rather than making assumptions about the best person for a particular assignment or taking a one-size-fi ts-all approach.

• Build connections. Provide star performers with the time and budget to network so that they can create a bridge between your company and others.

• Give them free rein. Do not assume that because star performers are not within your line of sight that they are not working; sometimes getting out of the usual work environment expands their horizons.

• Observe traffic patterns. Arrange physical space to create opportunities for interaction, for example by providing lounges, conference rooms and large tables in cafeterias or food courts that encourage people to eat together.

• Make sure you are on course. Periodically ask your star performers, “Are you happy?” or “Are you bored?” That will give you a chance to correct problems early on and avoid surprise departures.

Collaborative Environment

Both the physical plant of the Biopolis and activities within the community are designed to foster the exchange of ideas between various disciplines and between research scientists from industry and academia. All the buildings, situated in a parklike setting, are within walking distance of each other and connected by skywalks. Like the molecules that are the subject of their laboratory work, scientists have occasion to bump into each other, either in the course of moving about or, more often, in the Biopolis’ restaurants and traditional Singaporean food courts that bustle at mealtimes.

For lovers of Southeast Asian cuisine, Singapore is a gastronomic delight, and many international scientists have become enthusiastic connoisseurs of the local cuisine. “A lot of great collaboration is being done over lunch,” Herrling said. The presence of various research institutes, each with its own specialty, also creates an intellectually stimulating academic atmosphere, said Jonathon D. Sedgwick, managing director and chief scientific officer of the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery, which occupies 50,000 square feet of space at the Biopolis. There are frequent lectures by guest speakers, all of which are open to the public — something that pharmaceutical companies could not duplicate if they were operating as standalone entities.

More formal collaborations are encouraged as well. Although each institute has its own agenda, a few of them might work with each other and with pharmaceutical companies towards a common research goal. In this respect, relationships between academics and companies are “very positive,” said Swain. An expert in translational medicine, the specialty of turning laboratory discoveries into practical drugs or therapies, Swain noted that every laboratory breakthrough must go through a drug company before it can benefit the patient. By working with pharmaceutical companies, research scientists are in a better position to ensure that their discoveries are accessible to their ultimate customer. As in the United States, there are conflict-of-interest rules in Singapore that prevent researchers from having direct contact with patients.

Next Steps

With young scientists in the scholarship program and experienced ones to train them, both Yeo and the Biopolis are taking the next logical steps. Yeo left A*STAR in 2007 to head a new government agency, the Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board, known as SPRING Singapore — a richly funded version of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Through grants, it will fi nance start-up enterprises, encouraging young scientists to commercialize their ideas.

Scientists recruited by Yeo said their lives have not changed since his departure, and he maintains his infl uence and friendships with many of them. But it is also clear that the Biopolis is going through a transition, from the heyday of talent buildup to a more mature stage of collaboration and striving to realize returns.

Lim Chuan Poh, who succeeded Yeo as the head of A*STAR, has a math degree from Cambridge but spent most of his career as a soldier, rising to the level of chief of defense — Singapore’s counterpart to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff . Before joining A*STAR, he did a four-year stint in the Ministry of Education. Lim said A*STAR’s next focus will be fostering collaboration both globally and within Singapore. It involves “a hugely complicated process to ensure that all these diff erent capabilities can work together,” he said.

Lessons From the Biopolis

On many levels, Singapore’s Biopolis provides a valuable model for private companies that want to maximize the economic value of workers whose job it is to advance knowledge. Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School, called Singapore’s emphasis on human capital a “refreshing contrast” to the norm. Lerner wrote about Singapore in his new book, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Eff orts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed — and What to Do About It” (Princeton University Press, 2009). It is more common that eff orts to promote entrepreneurship focus on what Lerner called “pure hardware,” like a building or fancy offi ce park, or “fi nancial engineering,” through the handing out of money to entrepreneurs. Singapore understands that entrepreneurship “is not just about real estate and not just about money,” but about creativity and innovation, he said.

The nurturing environment at the Biopolis also bucks the growing contemporary trend of using metrics to quantify productivity. And there may be some merit to that contrarian approach, Lerner said. Studies suggest that long-term, openended grants lead to more scientifi c output than ones for which people have to frequently reapply, he said. “A big part of it involves the scientifi c and creative process,” he said. While many managers think that standardization leads to effi ciency, workers trying to break new intellectual ground crave variety, said Robert E. Kelley, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied star performers in many diff erent settings, though not at the Biopolis. These individuals have clear notions of the kind of work that is meaningful to them, Kelley said. They relish the chance to try new things and abhor repetition.

At a time of widespread layoff s, when so many talented people are losing their jobs, the Biopolis may seem almost utopian. But it is also a reminder of the immense satisfaction star performers derive from work and the power of their intellectual capital. Although the fi nancial results can be hard to quantify, the potential is enormous when the chemistry is right.

Deborah L. Jacobs has written for The New York Times, BusinessWeek and many other national publications. Her new book is “Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide” (DJWorking Unlimited, 2009).