Zee Upton is a biochemist and director of the Institute of Medical Biotechnology at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore. Previously, she was senior research leader at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Her research in molecular, biochemical and cellular growth factors, tissue engineering and wound healing is internationally renowned and well-known. Upton graduated at the University of Adelaide, Australia in 1994.

Zee Upton is a biochemist and director of the Institute of Medical Biotechnology at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore. Previously, she was senior research leader at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Her research in molecular, biochemical and cellular growth factors, tissue engineering and wound healing is internationally renowned and well-known. Upton graduated at the University of Adelaide, Australia in 1994.

Progress through collaboration

Companies are searching for creative solutions and new ways of doing things in interdisciplinary teams with customers and with partners from the scientific world. Evonik cooperates with research institutes, universities and other companies to quickly absorb the latest findings in chemistry, biology and physics. Evonik regularly organizes the "Evonik Meets Science" forum, in which its experts and researchers exchange ideas with leading scientists from a wide range of disciplines and institutions.

TextDeborah Lippmann

Among the guests at "Evonik meets Science" in Singapore is Zee Upton, biochemist and head of the Institute of Medical Biology at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A-Star) in Singapore. We talked to her about the importance of collaboration between science and industry.

Innovation and value creation have for a long time been taking place in cross-organizational, international networks. To what extent can business and science benefit from each other?

Certainly, it is a two-way dialogue. We can inform each other and also influence each other. I have found that after interactions with industry we often do better-targeted research. When we get information that we usually don’t have access to as academic scientific researchers, we ask better research questions. Exchanging information is helpful for businesses too. Sometimes industry is not aware of the latest results we have on a certain topic or the findings we are getting. They might see opportunities that we perhaps can’t see, because they have knowledge on their side based on the actual context they are working in. Having that dialogue early means that whatever you do produce, create or co-create is more likely to be useful and taken up for the end product.

What significance do you attach to working with a company like Evonik, or more precisely with the Tissue Engineering Project House?

Well, it is great having Evonik here because we really hadn’t been thinking too much about the specialty chemicals side of our research at the beginning. We hadn’t expected that a company like Evonik would be interested in wound healing for example. It is good that a company like this is involved though, because we are working on a lot of different questions that need to be answered, for example, how do we help patients living with non-healing wounds.

How did you get to know about the work of Evonik?

The cooperation started when the scientists of Evonik Project House asked us what we are doing in terms of characterizing the processes going on in a healing wound versus a non-healing wound and the specific reasons for that. The scientists of Project House want to find materials that can influence the metabolic profile of a wound so that a non-healing wound transitions into a healing wound. And so for us, this was perfect timing. The timing of Project House coming to Singapore coincided with A*STAR increasing its interests in tissue engineering and with the the Skin Research Institute of Singapore being established. It was a very good fit.

You then decided to set up a joint research project. What is it about?

Wound healing is a complex process which is modified in different pathologies such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This can lead to the formation of non-healing wounds such as diabetic foot ulcers or chronic venous ulcers. Currently we do not fully understand the mechanisms responsible why some wounds heal, whereas others don’t. We are working together investigating these differences at a metabolic level and will apply our learnings to develop products and technologies that improve wound healing in synergy with the expertise of Evonik.

In some countries, such as Germany, cooperation between industry and science can be viewed critically. The fear is that research institutions will lose their independence. Are you aware of reservations such as these in Singapore as well?

Singapore has less reservations than any environment I have worked in before.
One of the things I love about being in Singapore is the fact that there is a lot of industry present, along with many scientific institutions, co-located together in a small geographical footprint. Collaboration with industry means that you can often progress discovery and technology development faster, plus it helps you keep an eye on what might be required in the downstream manufacturing pipeline. I think it is great and should not be viewed critically at all. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it should be viewed as being critically important as it ensures there is relevance in the research that is undertaken and also in the products that are being made. I think there is a co-dependency. Industry cannot usually do all the research needed internally and so it has to work with scientific partners. You do need a balance though. Getting the balance right in any ecosystem is always quite difficult but having both there is definitely important. I love the ecosystem in Singapore. Everything is co-located and it’s very vibrant. It produces very good science which all of us benefit from.

Photo: Evonik/Norman Ng

PUBLICATION DATE

26 September 2019

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