The Billion Dollar Conversation

InnovFest UnBound 2016, an innovation exhibition organised by the National University of Singapore Enterprise, (NUS Enterprise) and unbound Media in partnership with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) Singapore launched. Most of the region’s top tech minds, innovators and start-ups converge at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore this week. We got the exclusive with one of the leading figures in the research and technology decision maker Professor Low Teck Seng, CEO of National Research Foundation (NRF) at the event.

Professor Low Teck Seng, CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF) in Singapore

TS: From the perspective of the National Research Foundation what goals would you like to see Singapore achieve in the next 10 years?

Prof Low: In the last 25 years, we have invested S$40 billion dollars (US$29 billion) in research specifically in the areas of science and technology to build a very effective knowledge eco-system for Singapore.

The key now as we move forward, is to see the real life value for Singapore through the investments we have made. If you look at Singapore’s history, we have done well in attracting big multinational companies to invest in Singapore and they continue to invest in Singapore, because our education system is good. But, beyond that, they see us building our knowledge eco-system and seek partnerships with us in technological development across a whole spectrum of industries such as, semi-conductors, marine offshore and aerospace.

The Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) ecosystem presently utilizes a lot of technology so as to be able to partner with these technology companies such as Rolls-Royce, Lloyd’s Register and many others. But beyond this, I think it is important for us to ask ourselves, “where is the next big Multi-National Corporations (MNC) in Singapore going to come from?” Hopefully, it will come from the indigenous technology that we have developed from the investments made into science and technology. But this does not preclude us from working with MNCS and continue to see how we can effectively transfer technologies to SMEs. We see the continued vibrancy in the technology space involving the MNCs and industry eco-systems which we have built for ourselves.

For us, key technology areas include semi-conductors and micro-electronics, marine offshore and aerospace technology. But along the way, we want to be able to see how our technology can spinoff new companies to work with us. At the same time, could we see the possibility of new big corporations rise from the indigenous side of technology which we have invested in.

Some of the examples of today where two big corporations that have come from initial investments made in the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) area. Razer, a gaming hardware company has a space in Singapore but huge in the US and Garena, a gaming platform. But beyond that, what are some of the areas where we can see a lot of potential in is water related technology.

An example of indigenous technology is a spinoff with our partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where they observe the distribution of water throughout a whole system where they can identify leaks and more and have expanded their reach to South-East Asia and the Middle-East. Because we have invested a lot into this for our own purposes but now, we are able to produce some of the best membranes in Singapore. Could that be used to create new companies? So I foresee the potential of our technologies being spun out to being utilized by SMEs to be built into globally competitively huge MNCs while at the same time, we will always continue to make ourselves attractive to the best technology companies doing the best value added work in Singapore. This means transforming the activities they do in Singapore from production to the new development of technologies.

For example, Applied Materials have done in Singapore. 5 years ago, they explored building a research partnership with A-Star in Singapore and has resulted in the creation of a new product line for them, they are moving into Singapore to conduct deep research towards creating new products for a few reasons. Firstly, is that we have the capability, secondly we have the infrastructure to support them and lastly, the market size of South East Asia.

Moving forward, we are exploring further expansions of their research partnerships in Singapore, not only with A-Star but also with the universities in deeper science such as the equipment required for next generation chip production. So for me, these are important developments for Singapore’s economic and industrial structure.

TS: Singapore has often been compared to other hubs of innovation such as Israel and the Nordic countries. In some context, we do not seem to shine as brightly as these other hubs and what are your thoughts on that?

Prof Low: I believe that each of these hubs are quite different and that the comparison with the Nordic countries and Israel is appropriate due to Singapore’s population size and gross domestic product (GDP). Israel is quite different because they have an existential need which creates a certain urgency in everything they do and that is because they are in a perpetual state of war.

They also have a much different culture and this has resulted in the vibrancy of the start-up space today but, they do not host big MNCs, factories or production facilities and as a result, their manufacturing capability is lesser than ours and thus, the growth of their economy has taken a different path.

Can we be like them? I don’t believe so but there are certain attributes which we can take from them. In fact, some of the schemes that we have are inspired by Israel such the technology incubation scheme and the early stage venture fund scheme are very similar to the Israeli scheme even down to the amounts and ratios.

What of the Nordic countries? The Nordic countries are different from us due to their access to a huge amount of natural resources. Norway’s economy is anchored by two huge economies, oil and fisheries which makes them much different to us. A more accurate comparison would be Finland. Now Finland for many years benefited from Nokia and one would say that a big component of the research money spent was by Nokia and what has happened in Finland today in the wake of Nokia’s fracturing?

Finland has benefitted as this released a huge number of highly competent, technical and innovative engineers and scientists into the open market which has resulted in a proliferation of start-ups and new companies coming up in Finland which can be time-mapped to when Nokia fell. Nokia fell in a year and given the pace, it was inevitable that Nokia would disintegrate.

Singapore is on a different path of system growth where the premise is on the investments which we have attracted from MNCs. But, we have also been successful at transforming their operations and presence here in scaling up the technology ladder. Their value added activities here are considerably much higher than when they first came. In fact, if you were to compare the work they do here as opposed to the other hubs they do in the world, it would be different.

For example, Rolls Royce has not only a production facility here but also a huge facility for research into specific areas. They have partnerships with NTU and A-Star. Novatis has a production facility here as well and an institute for tropical diseases and IT. So as a result, we have been able to work closely with them to develop these projects.

In the meantime, a lot of our SMEs which are critical in the supply chain of these MNCs have climbed the technological ladder as well and begun to work with the MNCs at the highest level of technological competence. What we are doing now, is to see how we can build for ourselves the third ring. To see whether start-ups can tap into the technological ecosystem we have built and using that base, to build into big corporations for the future.

Neeuro, a brain wave technology company exhibiting at InnovFest unBound

TS: Interesting take on it and now, something that is closer to home. Singapore has also been facing competition from neighbours and we are seeing a huge innovation burst in the past 5 years with hubs such as Indonesia, Taipei, Thailand and India. Any of these countries has between 3 – 6 times of Singapore’s population. How do you believe we can beat out these other countries in the next 5 years?

Prof Low : The innovation revolution is pervasive and is something we have to face up to. Every nation of the world will see an opportunity to transform and it’s only a question of the pace and effectiveness of the transformation. So in Singapore, there are a few attributes we have that marks us to be unique.

In Singapore, we are more cohesive in our ability to effect things such as the speedier deployment of technology through our regulatory regimes. As an example, let’s talk about Automated Vehicles (AV) which are being developed all over the world, but in terms of deployment, we don’t see any on the streets yet and during trials, there is a driver in the car as a failsafe. In Singapore, we are moving towards real trials of driverless cars and vehicles and, we can do this because we can join the dots from the technological developers to corporations which take on these technologies to develop products and finally to regulatory authorities who look towards policies and changes that need to be implemented to allow AVs to be deployed. One of the views that we have is that for Singapore to be sustainable in the long term is urban mobility. It’s an opportunity for us not to different from water where solving mobility problems for us will allow us to sell the solution to the world through the different corporations we work with.

Singapore is getting more congested but we are still far better than Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Shanghai and imagine if we can present the solution of mobility to these cities.

The medical technology space which is highly regulated, from the point of invention to point of deployment, each step of the way has to go through regulatory processes. Can these be accelerated while promising everybody that we will be the first to invent and first to deploy? If we can accomplish this promise to the tech community, that will give us an edge.

Other areas of science which we can excel is precision medicine and the impact of nutrition on different people. This is because we can allow those trials to be conducted here which allows us to know how much more effective your food, medicine and nutrition is due to main three phenotypes present in Singapore which lends us an advantage and allows studies of the development of babies due to different nutrients and MNCs in food and nutrition such as Nestle, Johnson are here working with us.

This showcases Singapore as a living lab as one of our differentiators and attributes that makes us stand out with many ongoing developments to allow tremendous opportunities for new technology to be deployed and new trials.

Changi Airports terminal 5 which is presently under construction currently has plans to implement new technologies to improve the movement of passengers through the use of AVs, luggage movement and handling to the introduction of service robots to provide excellent service to passengers within the terminal.

So in the whole gamut of things, you can see we have an opportunity for new technological development such as the new port city development in the Tuas district and looking into further expand our underground networks. For healthcare, we have embarked on electronic medical records and continue on our journey of Singapore towards the evolution as a smart nation which will involve smart health, smart living and more.

Minister of Parliament Vivian Balakrishnan in Singapore, speaking at InnovFest unBound

What does smart mean? Is it the Internet of Things (IoT)? Is it something else? It is exciting in itself and Singapore’s Minister of Parliament, Vivian Balakrishnan was speaking about connecting 100 million devices which is not inconceivable as we already have 10 million smart phones, several hundred thousand cars, lamp posts, cameras to look at traffic and crowds. We are looking into ways to manage the environment, systems and we foresee a day where every HDB lift will be equipped with a sensor for predictive maintenance and also to detect erratic movement to alert Housing Development Board (HDB) that the lift is in danger of being breaking down.

We are also looking into a project called the virtualization of Singapore or virtual Singapore funded by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and IDA where if we can virtualization of Singapore, we can live and legacy data in order to deliver smartness in every context to the citizens of Singapore.

TS: In one sentence can you tell us what your personal vision of Singapore in 20 years.

Prof Low:  In 20 years, Singapore should be well on our way to becoming a smart nation and to understand better how to be sustainable and vibrant.

See other stories on InnovFest UnBound 2016 story on  robotics and cool start-ups.

By Nicholas Ho / May 18, 2016 12:24 PM GMT+8 Singapore

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