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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.

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

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


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

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.

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?

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

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.

a brain wave technology company exhibiting at InnovFest unBound

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?

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

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.

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.

In one sentence can you tell us what your personal vision of Singapore in 20

 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

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