The Chinese market for herbal medicine is expected to grow to US $160 billion by 2020. While a lot of money has been expended on investigating traditional medicines, the scientific evidence to understand the active components of these remedies remains a mystery, something which is going to change with ChemoPower’s technology.
Traditional medicines pose special challenges for analysts. As ‘natural’ products, they contain many complex compounds, some of which are unknown, especially those that only occur in small concentrations. Separating and analysing the individual compounds using conventional methods is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.
ChemoPower’s solution is to apply mathematical analysis. This method is particularly helpful in enabling easier and faster detection of the unknown molecules that cannot be identified by conventional methods such as gas or liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.
The company’s story goes back to the start of the decade, when founder George Zhang was working on an initial phase of development in chemometrics at the research institute A*Star. After leaving the organisation, he continued to develop his processes and algorithms prior to setting up ChemoPower to exploit them. His core team now consists of eight people, five of whom have PhDs.
This process requires a very large amount of computing power. While this need can be accommodated in a number of ways, the company’s current priority has been to host its software in the cloud and make it available as a service known as OCAS (Online Chemical Analysis System), which is now available for use.
ChemoPower’s process also requires an excellent understanding of competing methods of analysis, their advantages and shortcomings. Rather than attempt to replace the entire process, the technology starts from the data that can be obtained from standard instruments. As Business Development Manager Adec Thng explains, “we then process these samples in a way that enables us to derive more detail on their chemical composition. Part of this is achieved with a very unique algorithm, which we maintain as a trade secret – it is not contained in our patents, which are concerned with the end-to-end methodology.”
Strong patent protection in the key territories (China and the US in particular) has been important to safeguard the business model. In this regard, ChemoPower was confident that its work was novel and inventive. However, given the amount of activity in the chemical analysis and traditional medicine markets, it was vital for the company to determine whether the patent was likely to grant, and if so, if it would also give the company freedom to operate.
“We applied for, and received, a grant from SPRING Singapore to conduct the necessary patent searches. This was very helpful in confirming that we have ‘room to innovate’. The searches only identified one patent in a similar field which had already expired, and which was not particularly close to our technology. This helped to validate our business strategy”.
The company’s first patent relating to its method for analysing mixture components has now been granted in China (with a second family filed there in 2015). “Going forward, now that we have our fundamental patent applications in place, we will be filing more. For example, we have opportunities to protect our work at the application level, and cover new compounds that are now discoverable using our core technology. So we expect to be using the IP system a lot more.”
The company is exploring a number of different ways to generate long-term revenues. It has decided not to license the core technology contained in its patents, though it may license the large data bank of traditional medicines it is compiling, which will be a valuable asset in its own right. It is most interested in becoming a qualified centre where traditional medicines will be certified.
The company is also attracting interest from multinational corporations. This will increase its visibility, and act as a form of technology endorsement.