THE Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) is looking to woo more Korean biomedical start-ups and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) into coming here, having already drawn the giants here in the last several years.

This was revealed at the opening of the Khidi (Korea Health Industry Development Institute)-A*Star Medtech Development Centre yesterday, which follows an agreement inked last December between the two agencies.

A US$5 million joint research fund was set up under the agreement, which aims to attract Korean companies to invest here.

The centre in Biopolis facilitates co-development of products by local researchers and South Korean companies from research to commercialisation stage.

A*Star chairman Lim Chuan Poh said large and small companies are needed to form a complete system, and that innovation can arise from such clusters.

Benjamin Seet, the executive director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council, said there are fewer than 100 biotechnology and medical technology SMEs, and many more are needed.

Seven Korean medical technology and pharmaceutical SMEs have been picked to present their ongoing projects to local researchers under the first grant call, including those by cancer-diagnostics company Gencurix and pharmaceutical firm Handok; two joint projects will be chosen by year-end.

Handok is expanding into medical technology with the development of a catheter to treat hypertension patients unresponsive to medication. The company can identify market needs and expedite commercialisation, but it lacks the technology for product development, said the head of Handok's medical device research centre, Park Eul Joon.

The collaboration between Khidi and A*Star will thus enable potential partners to be identified.

Dr Seet said: "We're going through, in a sense, a matchmaking process."

Besides tapping local talent, the Korean companies here can expand overseas through Singapore, even as they help the Republic's research and development ecosystem in commercialisation to mature.

Dr Seet said a critical mass was lacking here; having more companies means a higher throughput that will strengthen systems in regulation and prototyping.

"It would help to build that expertise in some of the Singapore SMEs," he said.

A*Star's strategy for the past decade has been to work with multinational companies (MNCs) to grow activity. There is a need to focus on smaller companies to move ahead, and partnering the Koreans can help jumpstart our system, said Dr Seet.

The biomedical sector will be enhanced and more attractive to MNCs as well. Said Mr Lim: "Because (the SMEs) bring in different expertise, it becomes a much fuller environment, offering a whole range of expertise for all the companies that are based here."