News & Events
When Microbes Mean Business
When: 26 February 2019 - 27 February 2019 (9.30 AM)
Where: NUS, Level 2 CREATE Theatrette
Type: Others

Biofilms are serious business, to the tune of USD 5000 billion every year. From cosmetics firms to oil and gas giants, various industries across the world fork out this sum in total each year just to deal with biofilm challenges.

This staggering figure indicates the sheer complexity of biofilms and also its myriad applications across different fields. With that in mind, the newly launched Singapore National Biofilm Consortium (SNBC) seals a seminal deal between science and business to take a significant step forward to deal with pressing biofilm challenges in the world today.

The business of biofilms across borders

Launched on 26 February 2019 with a two-day event, this first national consortium on biofilms brings the science out of the lab and translates the research into solutions and technology for companies to tackle biofilms issues.

The contingent from the UK

The SNBC also marks an extensive collaboration across national borders. As SCELSE Centre Director Prof. Staffan Kjelleberg remarked in the opening speech of the launch event, the consortium comes as “a rather unprecedented international alliance”. The SNBC is a partnership between SCELSE and the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) in the UK, jointly supported by NTU and NUS, and funded by the National Research Foundation. 

Front row (from left): Ms Alexandra McKenzie, Guest of Honour Mr Peter Ho, Prof. Lam Khin Yong, Prof. Staffan Kjelleberg, Dr Mark Richardson, Dr Lim Jui, Prof. Jeremy Webb

Introductory speeches were given by SNBC Chairman and Vice-President of Research at NTU, Prof. Lam Khin Yong; the Guest of Honour Mr Peter Ho, Chairman of SCELSE and Senior Advisor at the Centre for Strategic Futures; NBIC CEO Dr Mark Richardson; NBIC Co-Director Prof. Jeremy Webb; and the UK Deputy High Commissioner to Singapore, Ms Alexandra McKenzie, who capped off the morning speeches with a flourish, remarking on Singapore as “a very close partner” of the UK.

Marking this “special relationship” between the UK and Singapore officially was the signing of two memorandums of understanding  – one between NBIC-UK and SNBC, and the other between NBIC-UK and SCELSE.

The first MOU signed between NBIC and SNBC. (From left) Dr Mark Richardson (CEO, NBIC), Prof. Lam Khin Yong (SNBC Chairman; Vice-President of Research, NTU), Mr George Loh (Director, Programmes, National Research Foundation)

Signing of the second MOU between NBIC and SCELSE. (From left) Dr Mark Richardson, Prof. Lam Khin Yong, Prof. Staffan Kjelleberg (Centre Director, SCELSE)

The official plaque for the SNBC is revealed, marking the moment of the launch

When microbes meet ecology and physics

Panel discussions and talks by NBIC and SCELSE representatives and industry partners from Singapore and the UK followed over the next two days, with a focus on the opportunities for science and technology in the area of biofilms. and microbiomes.

Testament to the complexity of biofilm issues and the need for interdisciplinary collaboration was NBIC Co-Director Professor Cait MacPhee’s talk titled “Biology meets surface science”, which she deftly presented on behalf of Professor Rasmita Raval of NBIC who was unable to attend the event. Positing herself as a physicist with a deep interest in surfaces, Prof. MacPhee proposed ways in which biofilms could be addressed through a physics lens rather than biology. She also drew on her experience working with corporations to illustrate how businesses could draw attention to biofilm issues even without scientific knowledge.

Panel discussion on the impacts of biofilms moderated by (from left) Prof. Peter Little (Associate Director, SCELSE at NUS), with Prof. Cait MacPhee (co-director, NBIC), Dr Pius Parakattil (Associate Director, R&D, Procter & Gamble) and Prof. Kjelleberg

“We have this idea of collaboration with industry as something where industry comes to you with a problem and you say ‘we’ll fix it’, but what we often find are really interesting fundamental physics questions that we had not anticipated and suddenly, there springs out a whole new area of research in the lab and a wealth of interesting things to work out,” Prof. MacPhee said. 

“That’s why physicists are interested. Biofilms are interesting systems, fundamentally. We are trying to draw parallels between behavior that we’ve already seen in complex formulations and behavior that we now see in biological systems, in this case, biofilms.”

SCELSE researchers also took up the mantle to speak on the relevance of interdisciplinary biofilm research. Research fellow Dr Ezequiel Santillan presented his recent work in using theories and tools from the field of ecology to simplify complex information in biofilm research. This strategy could be productive for environmental engineering applications as well as further understanding natural complex biofilms issues.

Multinationals and the microbiome 

Businesses, too, spoke up about biofilms and microbiomes from their perspective. Conveying their needs distinctly was Dr Jason Goo from Proctor & Gamble Singapore Innovation Centre, who presented it in a visceral way – with absence. Explaining the lack of a Powerpoint slide on their biofilm problems, Dr Goo stated that industry simply does not know enough about biofilms to solve them and academic expertise and thus, the establishment of SNBC, was very much needed and welcomed. Other SNBC industry speakers included those from Zeiss (Southeast Asia), Danone Nutricia Research and from the UK, Fourth State Medicine, Varicon Aqua and Bioquell.

Mingling outside of the theatre: Prof. Hans Curt-Flemming (visiting professor, SCELSE) and Prof. Jeremy Webb (co-director, NBIC)

Prof.Miguel Cámara and Prof. CaitMacPhee, co-directors of NBIC

A networking reception at the British High Commission in Singapore followed at the end of the first day, hosted by Deputy High Commissioner, Ms Alexandra McKenzie

(From left) Dr Mark Richardson and SNBC industry partner, Dr John Chewins from Bioquell (UK)

The dialogue between academia and corporations went beyond the theatre and to productive effect. “Learning about what other people are doing in the biofilm industry lets us appreciate how wide the field is,” said Dr John Chewins, director of Bioquell. “I’ve just had a conversation with someone from SCELSE here where there could be potential collaboration using our technology!” he even lets on. 

Get to know more about our daily business with microbes on our Twitter and Facebook! Interested in joining the Singapore National Biofilms Consortium? Learn more here!

Many thanks to SCELSE staff and PhD student volunteers on the first day: (from left) Jane Ong, Geraldine Chia, Norazean Binte Zaiden, Woo Yissue

Final cheers to the SNBC from the event’s organising team and Prof. Kjelleberg: (from left) Prof. Kjelleberg, Nathasha Oberoi-Lee, Smitha Velayil Sunildeep, Thye Kean Lee, Loh Ying Ting, Allen Chow, Dr Grace Chong