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TeamTalk: Dr Zhou Lihan

It’s been over a decade since MiRXES was first dreamed up in the laboratories of the National University of Singapore (NUS). Since those early days, CEO and co-founder Dr. Zhou Lihan has propelled MiRXES into the mainstream—first, through the pioneering GASTROClear test and today, through the COVID-19 diagnostic kit, Fortitude.

Having led MiRXES through the challenges of 2020, Zhou is now looking forward to expanding the company’s horizons across all fronts: testing services, diagnostic kits, biomarker discovery tools and manufacturing services, among others. It’s certainly no easy feat, but MiRXES is poised to succeed—in large part due to the dedication of Zhou and the company’s hard working and innovative team members.

In this interview, learn about MiRXES’ origins and work culture as well as how exactly the company pivoted successfully during COVID-19—straight from the CEO himself. 

Dr Zhou Lihan, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of MiRXES.

1. What sparked your interest in studying microRNA? 

During my PhD studies at NUS, the importance of miRNAs in normal physiology and disease biology became increasingly apparent. For instance, from less than ten in 2001, the number of microRNA papers on PubMed increased to almost 4,000 in 2010! As the laboratory had developed technologies for sensitive and specific detection of RNA species through qPCR, we naturally became interested in studying miRNAs as biologically important molecules in human biology.

Studying miRNAs, however, requires a method of detecting them precisely, sensitively and reproducibly—a challenging task due to their small size. Because of this, the laboratory was motivated to develop technology for the detection and quantification of miRNAs, leading to the birth of MiRXES’ core miRNA technology.

2. How would you describe your leadership style?

Collaborative! At MiRXES, we believe in giving everyone on the team a voice and encourage everyone to work cross-functionally.

3. Last year, MiRXES played a central role in Singapore’s pandemic response by manufacturing the Fortitude diagnostic kit. As CEO, can you share with us how MiRXES successfully pivoted to manufacturing Fortitude so quickly?

As pioneering French microbiologist Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” We could never have expected a pandemic such as COVID-19 to hit us in 2020, but as a company, we were prepared to respond. Over the years, we had painstakingly built the required infrastructure and capabilities—including those necessary developing and manufacturing diagnostic assays.

Our team was also prepared to do whatever was necessary to save lives. In fact, that has been MiRXES’ mission from the start: to save lives by delivering diagnostic tests to those in need. When we saw the urgent need for COVID-19 diagnostics, we responded as a team to do whatever was needed to put the Fortitude tests in the hands of those fighting to contain COVID-19.

As CEO, I’m especially proud of the way our team responded, having witnessed their hard work and sacrifice, especially through the difficult days of Singapore’s circuit breaker. Teamwork and versatility has always been a characteristic of MiRXES since our founding.

4. What’s a lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic that you’d like to share with other leaders?

It is crucial for companies to build platforms, infrastructure and capabilities that cover the entire value chain. This ensures that the company has full control over quality and cost at each step of the process of delivering a product or service to its customer. This is MiRXES’ competitive advantage and the value we create for our customers and partners—whether it is the patients or healthcare professionals using our tests as well as the pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers using our discovery and development tools.

5. Starting out as a three-person team, MiRXES has since exponentially expanded in terms of manpower. Can you tell us more about the company culture you are cultivating at MiRXES?

We seek to cultivate a culture of innovation and teamwork, where everybody works together toward a common purpose. Whether it is a three-person team or a hundred-person team that we are now growing towards, every person in MiRXES cooperates with a clear mission in mind: saving lives through early, actionable, and personalized diagnostics.

Even as we grow, we want to keep the start-up mindset of moving fast and remaining adaptable. This ensures that even while we deliver products to our customers, we can pivot and innovate when necessary—like what we have done through the COVID-19 pandemic.

6. What is your vision for MiRXES over the next few years?

We want to establish MiRXES as the world’s leading company in the delivery of multi-cancer early detection tests powered by miRNA and become Southeast Asia’s leading provider of specialty oncology testing services.

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