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A catalyst for innovation

“Mr Tan, How are you?”

These are the words Dr Rena Dharmawan uttered right after ending her phone interview for this article, segueing seamlessly from her role as an innovator to consultant surgeon, in the Department of Head & Neck Surgery, Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology, Singapore General Hospital and National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS).

Dr Rena Dharmawan, Consultant Surgeon in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery in the Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology, Singapore General Hospital and National Cancer Centre Singapore

Dr Dharmawan was trained as an engineer and, as an undergraduate in the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, she discovered an interest in designing and inventing devices. She took this interest with her to Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) in 2007, where she trained as a doctor of medicine (MD).

When Dr Dharmawan joined SingHealth as a general surgical resident, and fulfilled her lifelong ambition of being a doctor, she found that she missed exercising her inventive side. This led her to take time off and enter the Singapore Stanford Biodesign Fellowship in 2014, a programme designed to prompt people to think differently, identify and solve unmet clinical problems.


Dr Rena Dharmawan (top left), with fellow participants in the Singapore Stanford Biodesign Fellowship in 2014

It is on the programme that Dr Dharmawan says she learned about a gap between the medical world and the medtech industry. According to Dr Dharmawan, there is the clinical world and then the outside startup industry, which is usually led by non-healthcare professionals such as academics, technical engineers and business people. While their motivations come from the right place, they aren’t necessarily creating products that are useful to patients. Furthermore, there might not be a market for those products.

“Let me give you an example,” said Dr Dharmawan, who is also a Clinical Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at her alma mater, Duke-NUS. “I once met a founder who wanted to implant a sensor into the umbilical cord of a pregnant woman to monitor whether her baby was getting adequate blood flow and the nutrients she needed. Fantastic, technical idea, to monitor the status of an unborn child, but I ask you, how likely is a pregnant woman to let you implant a device in her?”

Today, Dr Dharmawan seeks to bridge the divide and bring together innovators and startups with aspiring clinician innovators. Together with two other clinicians, Dr Lai Kah Weng and Dr Ian Mathews, she launched a startup co-working space called Catalyst, which has a home in the Alumni Association building, where Singapore-based healthcare startups are incubated and given the resources and support to become successful. Before COVID-19 pandemic measures came into place in March 2020, she held “speed-dating” sessions there for startups to present their business ideas to clinicians who would give their feedback. It was also where partnerships between interested parties began.

(From left to right) Dr Lai Kah Weng, Mr Adam Lyle, Dr Rena Dharmawan, Mr Derrick Chiang and Dr Ian Mathews, at the launch of Catalyst

“The goal of Catalyst, through our networking sessions and seminars, is to bring together people who would never have otherwise met,” said Dr Dharmawan. “This way, medtech founders can understand what is needed clinically, and clinicians can learn more about the “outside world”. If both parties want to co-develop something – it’s a perfect marriage!”

Startups and clinician innovators are more than happy to take advice from Dr Dharmawan who is a proven, two-time medtech company founder. The two companies that she co-founded, Privi Medical and Jaga-Me, provided solutions to two completely different problems in healthcare. Privi Medical developed a safe and drug-free solution, for people to manage early stage hemorrhoids in the comfort of their own home, while Jaga-Me is an on-demand healthcare platform that delivers medical and nursing services to people at home.

Dr Rena Dharmawan oversees the demonstration of SwabBot, the world’s first patient-controlled robot that automates nasal swabbing needed to diagnose COVID-19

Dr Dharmawan’s latest contribution to medical innovation is SwabBot, the world’s first patient-controlled robot that automates nasal swabbing needed to diagnose COVID-19. SingHealth and the company Biobot Surgical Pte Ltd, have filed a patent for this technology, which will be an important addition to manual swabbing in Singapore and worldwide.

In addition to bringing people together, Dr Dharmawan is also a mentor to third-year Duke-NUS medical student, Tomasz Jakub Merta. For his third year research project, they have ideated a solution for people recovering from foot and ankle injuries. Called HEALS, it promises to be an affordable, comfortable, and ergonomic solution for lower limb immobilisation and ambulation after foot and ankle injuries.

Dr Rena Dharmawan (right) with mentee Tomasz Jakub Merta, Duke-NUS Medical School student

When asked what kind of mentor Dr Dharmawan is, Tomasz had this to share, “She can come up with a million ideas in a second, which gives me paths for exploration whether it is for a project or my medical career. Whenever I need help in an area outside of her expertise, she has been able to connect me with relevant experts while working on our project.”

In her role a mentor, matchmaker or founder, it is clear that Dr Dharmawan is a catalyst for innovation.