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Singapore entrepreneur sold family home twice to fund startups, and gave up S$750,000 annual salary

Steven Fang, founder of biotech company Invitrocue, shares crucial lessons gained from his long entrepreneurship and startup journey.

Steven Fang, the founder of Invitrocue and an entrepreneur, who gave up an annual salary of S$750,000 and sold his family home twice to fund his startups.
Singapore entrepreneur gave up an annual salary of S$750,000 and sold his family home twice to fund his startups. (PHOTO: Invitrocue) (Invitrocue)

SINGAPORE — Biotech entrepreneur Steven Fang sold his family home twice to fuel his startup ventures, including Invitrocue, which he is now growing.

After experiencing the loss of a dear friend to lung cancer and watching him suffer from the ordeal of treatment in his final days, the 58-year-old founded Invitrocue in 2012 with a team of experts to look into improving cancer treatment. The company is known for developing its proprietary 3D cell-based tumour organoid engineering technology as well as its personalised oncology approach to treating cancers. Its trademarked service, Onco-PDO, is a test report that provides insights into a patient's tumour response through lab testing, enabling oncologists to administer a more personalised and effective treatment for the patient.

Today, Invitrocue offers its services across multiple markets, including Germany, Spain, Brazil, Australia, China, and Hong Kong. According to Fang, it is set to become a profitable venture this year.

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Fang shared in an interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore four important lessons that he has gained from his entrepreneurship journey.

Timing is key

Fang's career started nearly 30 years ago when he worked in healthcare and medical multinational corporations (MNCs) such as GSK, Baxter and Becton Dickinson. The 11 years he spent in the corporate world were instrumental in understanding the biotech industry and taking new technology to market. He held mostly business development roles, including being a regional general manager, where his primary responsibility was to look at how to commercialise new technologies within the medical industry.

His corporate stint had also exposed him to "fascinating technologies that could benefit mankind and generate a lot of sales", planting the seed ideas for what would later become his first business venture, a stem cell company. However, Fang learnt very quickly that taking new technology to market had its own unique challenges, no matter how promising it may seem.

"The first and most important lesson is understanding time to market, especially for technology businesses. No matter how great your idea is, if it is too early to market, you will need to educate and create the market. if it is too late to market, then you need to follow a very different strategy and compete on price," said Fang.

"In the early days, I was working for Baxter in the renal division where we looked at haemodialysis for kidney failure patients. Those were the early days of stem cell research. When I tabled this as a potential business to the company, their first response was, 'Nope, too much work, the risk was too high'. And the first lesson I learned there was how or when to take a technology to market. If it's too early, it's going to be costly, both in research time as well as cost," Fang explained.

The importance of emotional support

In 1999, Fang founded Cordlife, one of the earliest companies to specialise in stem cell treatment in the region, and later spun off into two separate entities that went public on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) and Singapore Exchange (SGX), respectively. He ran the company for 14 years, starting off as a one-man company that grew into a small MNC of about 700 people and an estimated market capitalisation of S$800 million by the time he stepped down from the company in 2012.

While it's easy to see how Fang made the right choice in hindsight, it wasn't an easy decision for the then 33-year-old budding entrepreneur. Despite wholeheartedly believing in the technology's ability to impact millions of lives, the reality was that transitioning from high-salaried earner to entrepreneur was daunting. When Fang resigned from his job and struck out on his own, he was married and had three young daughters, with the youngest being just a few months old at the time.

[On entrepreneurship] There will be no end to issues and challenges. You need a constant goalpost and beacon to realign and remind yourself why you're doing this.Steven Fang

Moreover, Fang had to give up a substantial corporate income of close to S$750,000 per year. He worked out that he needed to raise about S$500,000 for his startup, which would later prove insufficient. To come up with the funds, Fang sold the family condominium and car, and moved into a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat. The downgrade in lifestyle, according to Fang, forced him to confront many difficult decisions.

"How do you move from a fixed salary lifestyle to one where you may or may not get a salary? For that to happen, you had to involve the family... you need that emotional support and stability. I had a very supportive wife who said that if I believed in it, we should do it as a family.

"Many of my friends were shocked. Going from driving a nice car and living in a condo to HDB, they were like, 'Why?'... because I believed in it. If not, don't do it and keep your job," said Fang.

Don't put a price on the journey

As his track record shows, Fang's gambles eventually paid off, with his first company becoming profitable in its seventh year after becoming one of the biggest stem cell players in the region. Invitrocue is set to be profitable in 2024. Initially, Fang revealed, he had intended to give himself a five-year timeline before cashing out but realised that it was not sustainable.

"I learnt very quickly in my startup journey that you cannot do it just because of the money. Of course, money is important, but if you consider the trade-offs – the long nights, the burned weekends, not being able to afford to eat at restaurants anymore – you can never put a price on that. Don't put a price on the journey because you can't justify it," said Fang.

As an entrepreneur, you need to know when to exit so that you can hand over the company to the next generation of leaders and managers.Steven Fang

Furthermore, Fang said that the time and money he expected to invest into his businesses were always short of what he thought he needed. While it took S$500,000 to start his first company, Fang said that he needed much more to keep the company going, which was an additional S$40 million invested over the years by his estimation. A similar situation happened when he was operating Invitrocue, which required an additional S$20 million to keep afloat. He took no income in the first three years of both companies and reinvested everything he earned.

"Whatever you think is enough, is never enough. It always costs three times more, it always takes three times longer, and that's the third lesson you need to learn about entrepreneurship," said Fang.

Understand why you're doing it

After 14 years of helming the company, Fang felt that he needed to realise some returns and had his eyes set on retiring while taking the time to figure out what he would do next. Furthermore, he also felt that he needed to "work himself out of the job" and felt that the value he brought to the table was "diminishing". As a founder, it would have been difficult for him to offload shares without stirring up the market. The opportunity to cash out came when keen investors offered to buy his portion of the shares.

"As an entrepreneur, you need to know when to exit so that you can hand over the company to the next generation of leaders and managers," said Fang, adding that he cashed out with "enough to retire comfortably" and bought a landed property.

With no plans in mind, Fang tried to settle into retired life. However, he grew restless after just three months and began contemplating his next business venture. It was also around this time when Fang visited a cancer-stricken close friend of his and had to "watch him die", cementing his resolve to create an impact in the fight against cancer. He started enquiring about cancer treatment from research institutions, and his search then led him to Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), which then became his partner in developing some of the technologies that Invitrocue deploys today.

Armed with more resources this time, Fang assembled a team of experts and built a lab by pouring his life savings into his second business venture. The goal was simple, to offer personalised oncology services in two years' time. However, this did not materialise as the company encountered technical roadblocks. Nevertheless, the company continued refining its services and eventually saw breakthroughs. But it did not come without financial challenges.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, funding for Invitrocue dried up as investors took a wait-and-see approach. Determined to see his goals realised and to keep the company going, Fang once again sold the family home and dipped into his life savings to inject a seven-figure sum into the business.

Fang said his personal and family situation is better the second time around.

"If you are doing it just for money, I think better to get a job because you will never have enough return on investment for the pain you go through. It has to be based on your personal belief and passion.

"There will be no end to issues and challenges. You need a constant goalpost and beacon to realign and remind yourself why you're doing this," said Fang.

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