Fluidigm’s fab anchors Singapore’s biotech hub
By Candace Stuart
Gajus Worthington knew three years ago that he needed to find a manufacturing site for Fluidigm Corp. The San Francisco Bay-area company had already released its first generation microfluidic biochip for analyzing proteins and was poised to ramp up production.
Worthington, Fluidigm’s co-founder and chief executive officer, eliminated San Francisco quickly. It offered a skilled workforce but its costs were too high. He explored the possibility of Boston, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, the UK and Europe and found them lacking.
At the prompting of a board member, he contacted the Economic Development Board in Singapore. He was well acquainted with the tiny nation; in a previous position at Actel Corp. he helped set up a fab to make integrated circuits.
“I worked closely with the folks in Singapore,” he said. “It turned out to be our best fab, with the highest yields, and it came up quickly.”
That was one reason that Worthington decided to place the company’s first commercial plant in Singapore. Fluidigm became the first company to open a biochip fab in Singapore last fall. It is expected to be an anchor for Singapore’s developing medical technology industry.
Fluidigm plans to use the state-of-the-art fab for making chips based on its soft lithography techniques. The new fab takes advantage of Singapore’s expertise in semiconductor processes, according to BEH Swan Gin, director of the Singapore Economic Development Board’s biomedical sciences group. Fluidigm also fits into the nation’s goal to build a knowledge-based, high tech economy.
Chips go through various fabrication and verification processes in the Singapore facility. Photos courtesy of Fluidigm.
“Fluidigm is recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the biomedical field,” Gin said in an e-mail interview. “Its products address the needs of biomedical researchers, which lead to synergies with Singapore’s growing base of drug discovery and other biomedical research.”
Fluidigm will invest more than $23 million in the facility. The company likely will be eligible for economic breaks or incentives, although neither Worthington nor Gin would provide details. Fluidigm already had received venture capital funding in 2004 through an investment fund managed by the Economic Development Board.
Grace Yow, Fluidigm’s general manager in Singapore, located the fab in a former semiconductor facility vacated by a company that had moved to China. “We could almost move in and start,” Worthington said.
Worthington expects to begin production of Topaz, which the company promotes as a fast and simple biochip system for research or drug discovery, in the Singapore site. Eventually the fab may produce Fluidigm’s latest product line, dubbed Dynamic Array Integrated Fluidic Circuits.
The arrays are high-throughput devices that can detect DNA in low concentrations - what Worthington terms “needle in a haystack problems.” The arrays could be used for clinical applications or for cancer detection. The California office will continue to conduct all research and development.
Fluidigm may get more than a quality fab in a welcoming country that offers a trained workforce. Being part of Singapore’s biotech cluster will allow it to rub shoulders with what may be the makers of the next blockbuster products. Early collaborations could lead to lucrative business opportunities in the future. “That’s an added benefit,” Worthington said.