GW graduate, biotech founder finds work in Singapore

The expiration date on Chia-Pin Chang’s student visa was quickly approaching when the George Washington University graduate finally received a job offer — in Singapore.

The co-founder of a local biotechnology company, Chang, who was the subject of a Capital Business story last December, has been living in the tiny Southeast Asian country since March. He works in a government lab developing a cancer cell diagnostic platform.

Meanwhile, the firm he helped to create, OptoBioSense, has been sitting idle waiting for a research grant or equity investment that would help further its development of a device to quickly measure the concentration of uric acid in a person’s body.

OptoBioSense could soon follow him to Singapore. Chang’s co-founder and faculty mentor, David J. Nagel, will fly there next month to discuss the possibility of licensing the technology to developers in Singapore.

“In a simplistic fashion, this isn’t going anywhere without additional funding,” Nagel said. “We have options and we’re pursuing them.”


Chia-Pin Chang and David J.Nagel with their device that measures the concentration of uric acid in a person’s body, last November. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

“If it were done in Singapore, then Chia-Pin’s there, and that would be nice,” Nagel added. “But he has a very demanding full-time job now, so his boss would have to back off on his assignments.”

The company is also seeking funding here. Nagel said they will resubmit a previously unsuccessful application for a National Institutes of Health research grant and pursue discussions with investors based in the U.S.

Chang is one of thousands of foreign-born students who come to the United States to pursue advanced degrees in science, math, technology and engineering, but are precluded from staying here to work unless sponsored by an employer.

Politicians are debating whether to reform immigration policy to allow those students to remain here more easily, but political and economic headwinds have prevented such legislation from passing.

“It was a tough decision to make to leave [the] U.S., my company and partners, and my friends,” Chang said. “But this job offer was also a great chance for me to explore more opportunities in my life.”

Nagel said the fact that Chang’s expiring visa would have forced him out of the country, with or without the Singapore gig, has not placed tremendous strain on the company, in part because they’re waiting for funding to take the next step.

Chang said he also prepared a plan for technology development before boarding his flight to Singapore in the event that the company secures U.S. funding and he must remain in Singapore.

“Once the funding is available, they will hire personnel to conduct experiments in order to get data for future FDA approval,” he said.

While the experience navigating the visa process, in the moment, can be confusing and frustrating, Chang said in the end he still has the opportunity to do the work he enjoys, just not in the United States.

“I have lots of thoughts on it, but none of them is negative,” he said. “I cannot change the big environment to be favorable to me, but I can make my own decisions to pursue different opportunities.”

“The opportunity is always there for someone who is well prepared.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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