Singapore-based ES Cell International (ESI) has emerged as one of world's first commercial ventures to focus on developing stem cells for therapeutic purposes.

Established in 2000, ESI sought to draw on the pioneering research of Ariff Bongso and other researchers at the National University of Singapore in growing stem cell lines from human embryos. As part of Singapore's quest to become a global centre of medical research, the government's Economic Development Board agreed to finance ESI in co-operation with several wealthy Australian investors.

The company received a boost in 2001 when ESI was among 10 groups selected by the US National Institutes of Health to have stem cells eligible for federal funding under the Bush administration's stem cell plan. But ESI's original business plan to produce and sell human embryonic stem cell lines promised to produce only "minimal" profits of around $300,000 (160,000) a year, according to Alan Colman, ESI's new chief executive.

Colman, who gained fame as head of the research team that cloned Dolly the sheep in Scotland, joined ESI in 2002 as its chief scientist with the aim of turning stem cells into treatments for a range of illnesses. One project is to try to induce stem cells to turn into insulin-producing "islet" cells that could be implanted into diabetics.

ESI works closely with researchers from Australia's Monash University, Israel's Hadassah University, the National University of Singapore and the Netherlands' Utrecht University, with the first three holding an 18 per cent stake in the company. ESI would serve as the exclusive worldwide licensee of any resulting patents from their research. ESI has an ambitious goal to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration by 2010 for products derived from stem cells that would combat diabetes and heart diseases.

"We have a privileged existence", declares Colman, referring to the financial support given by the Singapore government, which holds a 44 per cent stake in ESI.

Nonetheless, he is worried about whether that support will last long enough for ESI to reap commercial benefits from its research work. "Singapore appears to be shifting its biomedical financing from applied research with start-ups to basic research", he says.

Although ESI has raised a total of $24m in the form of equity investments and loans since 2000, its annual cash "burn" amounts to $3.6m. For ESI, it is a race against time.