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The Peak Interview: Cellresearch Corp CEO Gavin Tan Intends to Heal the World

Singapore stem cell research company CEO turned down untold fortunes to allow company's technology to help more people.

Glitzy buildings housing big-name banks surround and tower over this 16-storey office tower in Market Street. Up on the eighth storey, through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Gavin Tan’s office, glimpses of the far horizon peek out between the skyscrapers that obstruct the view. Morning light bathes the office in its warmth, gently illuminating the man’s salt and pepper hair.

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In one corner of his office, where we meet this Wednesday morning, two black and white framed photographs of his wife and their three children sit proudly on top of a drawer cabinet. Then a familiar sight catches my eye. Partly obscured by the family pictures is a framed photograph of a young Michael Douglas in his Academy Award-winning turn as Gordon Gekko, the protagonist in the 1987 seminal film Wall Street about financial fraud.

The caption on this photo reads: “Never be tempted, always behave as though god is watching.” It is a far and incongruous cry from Gekko’s infamous “Greed is good” catchphrase, but it is one that is etched deeply in Tan.

The chief executive of local stem cell research company Cellresearch Corp says: “Every day in finance, there is some quick buck that you can make. But I’ve found there is no shortcut. When I was growing up, Gordon Gekko was cool. But the reality is that every day you have to make decisions. If it will hurt someone, it will not work out, and the money and success will be short-lived.”

He refused to be lured by a multi-million-dollar buyout offer by an unnamed pharmaceutical company, because accepting it would have meant pricing upcoming product Corlinex, which helps open wounds heal faster, “at $10,000 to $15,000, which is not really helping anyone”, he says.

(RELATED: These 10 successful CEOs/Founders took the hard way out, too, and came out on top.)

The company’s latest launch, Calecim, a skincare range featuring stem cell technology, is priced from US$130 (S$175), which is far more affordable than some luxury beauty products. “We have been given not just the ‘cup’, but a roomful of this stuff(stem cells) and we have to make sure everyone has access to it. We’ll still make money – a lot, in fact – but that’s not the point.”

“If [your decisions] will hurt someone, it will not work out, and the money and success will be short-lived.”
Gavin Tan

He is clearly passionate about the company’s purpose. As the interview starts, the bespectacled 48-year-old offers to give a slideshow presentation to explain the ins and outs of the company’s various projects. Despite having done this very talk multiple times, he shows no sign of weariness or boredom, explaining complicated scientific concepts about stem cells and their myriad uses eloquently and simply enough for a layman to understand.

His enthusiasm is infectious and, as he highlights some of the latest developments in international research, such as a video clip of beating heart cells that were grown from Cellresearch’s stem cells, we get caught up in his vision of a world where there are therapies for various diseases and ailments that plague mankind.

THE EUREKA MOMENT

You can’t fault Tan for his energy. It has taken him and his two co-founders more than a decade to arrive at where they are now on the world stage. From a “fluke discovery” in a laboratory 14 years ago, the company today owns 39 patents globally, including those for the extraction of stem cells from the umbilical cord linings of all mammals, banking and cultivating them, and also for their therapeutic applications. In 2014, the company was valued at $640 million.

He co-founded the company in 2002 with Dr Phan Toan Thang and Dr Ivor Lim to sell skin cell samples for research purposes, but the company really came into its own only two years later when Tan’s second child, Edward, was born. Dr Phan, the group chief scientific officer, found an abundant amount of stem cells growing in Edward’s umbilical cord lining.

To put this discovery in perspective, stem cells that are extracted the conventional way via the bone marrow typically yields about 10 million cells per extraction and is painful to boot, as a small surgical procedure is required, explains Tan. In comparison, Cellresearch’s extraction technique yields about 12 billion stem cells, and they are extracted from afterbirth tissue. It is akin to having tapped into an oil well. Says Tan: “What we’re doing is greater than us.”

STARTING YOUNG

Old-timers might remember his father, T.F. Tan, the 1971 Talentime winner who donated $13,000 worth of prizes to charity when he won the finals. His parents’ story is a typical rags-to-riches tale – the older Tan, a school dropout, met Caroline at the bank where she worked. He was a delivery boy at the time. The entrepreneurial couple started their own businesses after they got married, which included a successful tropical-fish transhipping venture and airfreight business.

(EXTRA: Watch the senior Tan thrill the crowd at Paragon Shopping Centre in 2011 – he’s still got it.)

By the time he was born, his parents had made their fortune and he remembers growing up with two ah mahs and a family driver. But his deepest impression of those childhood days is of his parents’ charitable efforts and approach to work. He has memories of his mother organising various charitable events in the 1970s, such as walkathons, to raise funds for old folks. He also spent a lot of time in his parents’ factory. “After school, I would do my homework then be dropped offat the factory where I would wait for them,” he says. “This exposed me to their work ethic – how hard they worked and also how they looked after their staff.”

At the age of 12, he was sent to the prestigious Marlborough College in England, which counts Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, among its illustrious alumni. A self-described shy kid, Tan says those were formative years for him. “I learnt to get on and empathise with others, and to live in a community. The school taught us that with privilege comes responsibility and that we couldn’t take this education and do nothing with it,” he says, still breaking into a clipped British accent every now and then, even after all these years.

THE ROAD TO SUCCESS

After reading law at the University of Bristol, he returned to Singapore where he began a 22-year career in the finance industry at various banks including Deutsche Bank and Credit Lyonnais. He spent seven years as head of institutional sales at Nomura Securities Singapore, before realising his true calling when he co-founded Cellresearch.

But the 2006 subprime crisis jolted his world. “Up to when I first started the business, everything in my life had been easy. We had the means, thus the schools (in England), the first jobs and the connections,” says Tan.

He recalls how he used to be easily stressed and worried over day-to-day matters, a side effect that people who are caught up in the rat race are all too familiar with. “It was a good two to three years of slog and there were no returns. It was really dark and deep, and that’s when you do a lot of soul searching and look inwards for the meaning of life,” says Tan.

It was around this time that Cellresearch was trying to get its stem cell technology adopted by pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies to finance further development, only to have multiple doors slammed in its face. “When you have a discovery that you believe so deeply in and, yet, at that time, no one would listen, it was very disappointing,” he says.

He began to meditate, and found much-needed perspective – to look at the bigger picture instead of fixating on the small stuff. “If you keep going and truly believe that this is a good thing, you will find another way,” he says.

In Cellresearch’s case, the company decided to bite the bullet and create the products, Calecim and Corlinex, on its own, so it could have a say over pricing and distribution. It took the founders another 10 years before launching Calecim commercially last year, while Corlinex is pending approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

CALECIM 4-WEEK Program+roller

Calecim, the first of Tan’s fruits of labour in the cosmoceutical foray. Tested by The Peak – it helped a persistent eczema wound close in a matter of days.

But while it has been a long road, Tan’s drive to share this discovery with the public kept him going. “The challenge was the execution,” he says. “We never thought of giving up because if you know where you’re going, you will find your way there.”

MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

To date, the company has been in partnerships with over 30 research institutions worldwide, including Singapore’s National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) for Parkinson’s disease and the University Heart Center in Hamburg.

Another of its core business lines is the banking of cord-lining stem cells. It has supplied stem cells to researchers around the world, where they are used for research into ways to treat a wide range of diseases, including those of the brain, heart, cornea and skin.

Instead of having to pay upfront for this technology, agencies and institutions agreed to grant Cellresearch Corp joint rights to their intellectual property gains should they arrive at breakthroughs.

Says Associate Professor Lim Kah Leong of NNI, who’s one of the lead scientists in the study on Parkinson’s disease: “It is rather uncommon for a privately held company to share its patented resources without charging payment. Because of the generosity of Cellresearch, we are able to make substantial progress in demonstrating that the derivatives of these patented cord-lining cells exhibit beneficial properties that dramatically reduce their rejection by the host’s immune system when transplanted into our animal models of Parkinson’s disease.

“This may pave the way for its eventual use in clinics, which illustrates the win-win symbiotic collaboration that we have with Cellresearch that ultimately is aimed at benefiting our patients.”

Tan says: “I would rather that the technology is shared and developed, than to hold it so close that it is never developed.”

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME

This sense of purpose and altruism is something he is actively instilling in his children. When he is in Singapore, he is out of his home by 6.30am to take his kids, Elizabeth, 13; Edward, 11; and Oliver, eight, to school. This is when he gets the opportunity to practise some mindfulness with the kids.

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Tan with his wife Foo Mei-Zee and their three children (from left) Oliver, Elizabeth and Edward.

“I’ll tell them when I drop them off to ‘Do the love thing’,” he says. “They may roll their eyes but they get it, it resonates with them. One day, when things go topsy-turvy, which is guaranteed, hopefully at the back of their minds, there will be a belief system which they can somehow use to cope.”

“You feel that you leave a bit of a legacy and that it is not just about money. I don’t need my name in lights, I don’t even have a Facebook account. But it would be nice to know that I’ve helped.”
Gavin Tan

For the past few years, the Tans have been supporting two charities in India – Shelter Trust for HIV-infected children in Chennai and the Brighter Future Development Trust, a hospice in Andhra Pradesh. He found out about these two homes when he made enquiries in the philanthropic community on causes in which he could directly impact the lives of beneficiaries. The money the family sends is used to pay for necessities such as electricity for fans, or for mattresses.

“These are not big charities but, in their own very small way, they have a direct impact on the people they help and offer these beneficiaries dignity,” he says.

He was also impressed by how well-run these charities are. A few years ago, he visited the Shelter Trust in Chennai with his son, Edward, and was struck by how happy the children were, despite the severity of their illnesses. “One child in the sick bay had ulcers all over his body and must have been in great pain but, when I walked in, he had this big smile on his face. He was just happy to see me,” he says.

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A SMILE SAYS IT ALL Tan was taken by the children’s happiness, despite their illnesses.

For the moment, his children visit the projects with him. In time, he hopes to give them greater responsibility in helping to choose which projects to support. “This will be a good way to teach them the importance of philanthropy and to train them on how to do due diligence on projects.”

His focus on paying it forward is what drives him. “You feel that you leave a bit of a legacy and that it is not just about money. I don’t need my name in lights, I don’t even have a Facebook account. But it would be nice to know that I’ve helped.”

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MAKING TIME

Tan shares his tips on how to steal quality time for things that matter.

#01: Meal Time

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Many working parents can carve out time for their kids by committing to a daily family dinner. To make the most of this time, every member of the family takes turns to talk about two things that they did that day. Says Tan: “It gets the conversation going and the family discusses one another’s day around the table.”

#02: Peace of Mind

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Tan’s approach to meditating is surprisingly simple. He takes 10 minutes on his way to work to meditate, or, when he is abroad, sits for 10 minutes after a shower or before a meeting. “The secret is to treat this short time as a luxury, just like how some people view going to the spa or shopping as a luxury,” he says. “Then you will want to do it.”

#03: One-to-Ones

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Parents with more than one child know it can be a challenge to spend quality time with each individually. The Tans make it a point to take solo trips with each child every now and then to bond with them. Last year, Tan accompanied his younger son on a rugby trip to Malaysia, while his wife took their daughter to Kyoto in March. It does not have to be a particularly long trip, says Tan – just two to three days make all the difference.

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