If you have a brilliant idea, you won’t think twice before embarking on an entrepreneurial journey

Dr. Zhou Lihan, CEO – MiRXES

Recalling how an unknowing choice between Geography and Biology at secondary school where he chose Biology and one thing led to another, finally leading to a career in Life Sciences & biochemistry, Dr. Zhou Lihan, CEO at MiRXES shares his perspectives at the changing industry dynamics in this interview.

“I took keen interest in life sciences a few steps further and completed my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at NUS in 2012. My passion is translating science and technology to save lives – that’s as simple as it is”, he adds.
Inspired by the MiRXES team and the many passionate people they collaborate with, he shares that the earliest inspiration is undoubtedly the research findings during his NUS and A*STAR days where he & his team developed the technology. Some more interesting thoughts in the interview below.

What is the story behind MiRXES?
We call ourselves accidental entrepreneurs and that is the truth. The MiRXES journey started with a professor of biochemistry and his team of graduate students at NUS. We pride ourselves in developing technologies that can detect the smallest pieces of genetic material. The team was then incubated by A*STAR ETPL and BTI to develop the technology into a versatile platform for broader research and clinical applications. Working with the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium, we showed the first proof-of-concept use of the technology in discovering non-invasive blood biomarkers for early detection of cancer.

We were encouraged to take a leap of faith and formed the startup MiRXES in 2014. MiRXES was born at a fortunate time with the strong commitment of the government in growing the high tech startup sector. The ecosystem was bustling with startup grants, venture capital and great interests from both public and private sectors in technology and business model innovation. 
In the first week of spinning off, we secured major contracts with MNC pharma and clinical institutions. That was our point of no return and MIRXES is still going strong after 4 years.

A startup story is the story of every single person in the startup, no matter when you join. In life science terms, I’d say that the DNA of a startup is written by every single member and we always invite mutation into the company. That is really the story behind MiRXES.

What are few things that don’t cause cancer, but people think they do?
Mutation. I’d like to qualify that mutations do not equate to cancer. With genetic analysis becoming more and more common in our lives, it is crucial that we interpret the genetic test results objectively. Certain mutations can elevate one’s risk in developing cancer over the lifetime, but no single mutation by itself can lead to 100% certainly in cancer. Below is a statement by the National Cancer Institute of the US on BRCA1/2, which is arguably the most well-known genetic mutation, for Breast and Ovarian cancer.

What do BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic test results mean?
BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation testing can give several possible results: a positive result, a negative result, or an ambiguous or uncertain result.

Positive result. A positive test result indicates that a person has inherited a known harmful mutation in BRCA1or BRCA2 and, therefore, has an increased risk of developing certain cancers. However, a positive test result cannot tell whether or when an individual will actually develop cancer. Some women who inherit a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation never develop breast or ovarian cancer. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet

While understanding that mutations are an important risk, getting the information right on the consumer’s side is also essential. The interpretation of genetic mutations is even more crucial than the results by themselves if we want to make genetic screening work as part of cancer early detection. DNA mutation does not necessarily cause cancer. My advice would be to get checked regularly, but it is also important what you do after those tests.

At MiRXES, we want to deliver actionable test results. Whether the test comes back positive or negative, there must be something you can do based on that information. There is no point to tell someone that they have a disease but not being able to help.

Do scientists look up to see entrepreneurial experience as valuable, as compared to before?
There are two ways of looking at this. To me, it was natural. We did not spin-off for the sake of spinning-off. Furthermore, we have reached a stage where we felt like we needed to deliver the technology to more people, not just the fellow researchers we were working and collaborating with in a lab.

You have to take this beyond the academic arena where most of us started. It is about entering into the next phase of technology development and application. We are very used to the idea of passing the baton to biotech or pharma companies, but why not try taking our technologies a little further down the journey ourselves? Ultimately, whether a scientist is working in an academic lab or a big pharmaceutical company, the principle is the same – you keep innovating in technology and solutions so that one can deliver greater value to the greatest number of people.

Again, the phrase “accidental entrepreneur” also comes to my mind here. Many times, scientists don’t plan to be entrepreneurs, but are simply guided by the need to take the technology to the next level.

This question is particularly relevant to Singapore because the economy is currently undergoing a phase of transformation. People are shifting from working for the government and big corporations to wanting to make something out of the knowledge they’ve accumulated. I do think that over the last few years, with the excitement over entrepreneurship and the success stories we have had, more scientists are thinking about the entrepreneurial experience and starting a company. If you have a brilliant idea, you will consider leaving a comfortable day job and embark on the entrepreneurial journey.

What is the high-reliability challenge in Healthcare?
The most constant challenge in the industry, and I believe, this applies to every nation, whether developed or developing, is struggling with finding a way to deliver precision healthcare in the most cost-effective manner. Healthcare cost is skyrocketing in US, EU nations, Japan, China and Singapore too. With an increasingly aging population, an important prerequisite for new innovation, whether in diagnostic tests, drugs or healthcare infrastructure is to save cost while delivering greater value.

Another challenge I see is regulatory framework. Healthcare is a space that is heavily regulated, which is right – it has to be safe for patients. The question is how do we strike a balance in a regulatory framework to concurrently safeguard the patient safety while nurturing innovation and disruption. This is a tough job and I salute the regulators in every nation for working with the industry in developing such framework.

What is the best thing to say to someone who just found out they have cancer?
Be hopeful. By today all of us would have had experience with very close friends or relatives having cancer. However, we are living in a time where it’s getting much better. Cancer is becoming more and more like a chronic illness, and not an ultimate death sentence. Deal with cancer as a challenge, because when we give up hope, that’s when cancer beats us.

What is your mantra for success?
To know is to act. We’ve been following this ever since we started off in the research lab at university. You can sit there and drink coffee while having the most brilliant idea, but if you don’t act on it, you would never know whether your idea has value or whether it needs to be modified.

To act, you really have to persevere as every day in a startup is different and challenging. 
Lastly, every collaboration, every disease and every patient sample also gives us more knowledge. So, in a way, to act is also to know.