Singapore, the Lion City of Innovation: Interview with Boon Swan Foo, Executive Chairman of Exploit TechnologiesBy
Almost like something out of a Utopian science fiction novel, two neighboring research communities, Fusionopolis and Biopolis, stand as R&D beacons to scientists and companies across the globe, rising from the small island nation of Singapore and its remarkable research park, One North. Fusionopolis and Biopolis are visible fruits of a dramatic new focus on innovation in Singapore. Not just innovation in biomedical fields, the specialty of Biopolis, or innovation in advanced science and engineering at Fusionopolis, but innovation in innovation itself. The leaders of Singapore, recognizing that innovation is the key to the future of this small nation with so few natural resources, are developing new ways to innovate, to collaborate, and to stimulate commercialization. As they find new ways to collaborate with companies and researchers around the world, they are striving for the upper end of the Ascent of Collaboration scale, guided by the nation’s most prominent scientific ministry devoted to innovation, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*STAR.
Singapore, whose name comes from the Malay word for “Lion City,” has been a riddle to the West for years. The 5th wealthiest country in the world based on GDP per capita, it is also one of the smallest (250 square miles) and one of only four remaining city-states in the world. It is truly a melting pot, a nation of multiple ethnicities and religions among its 5 million people, with four national languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Chinese. How can such a small island city with few natural resources have become so prosperous? How can a community with so much diversity seem to have so much unity? How can a country known for order and discipline be a hotbed of creativity and innovation?
Boon Swan Foo and A*STAR
Singapore’s booming emphasis on science, technology, and innovation were on my mind when I contacted Boon Swan Foo, Executive Chairman of Exploit Technologies, the strategic marketing and commercialization arm of A*STAR. A*STAR’s mission is to foster world-class scientific research and to develop human capital for a knowledge based Singapore. It funds billions of dollars of research, drives collaboration between global companies and Singapore, and works to commercialize the fruits of its R&D work.
A*STAR comprises the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC), the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd (ETPL), the A*STAR Graduate Academy (A*GA) and the Corporate Planning and Administration Division (CPAD).
Boon oversees the commercialization and spin-off activities for A*STAR’s intellectual property and technologies. Under his leadership, A*STAR has accumulated a portfolio of close to 3,000 active patents, granted more than 250 licenses for its technologies, and created a portfolio of two dozen spin-off companies. Estimated business revenue to be generated by licensees from sales of products and provision of services using or incorporating A*STAR’s technologies is projected to be over S$500M.
Insights from the Interview
Boon Swan Foo proudly explained that his nation is pursuing and promoting innovation in numerous ways, not just by funding world-class R&D centers. Singapore is innovating in its educational systems, in its airlines and airport system, in its management of ports, in its roads and traffic management, and so forth.
“Our civil servants are very enterprising,” Boon explained. “One does not have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. They are intrapreneurs rather than entrepreneurs.”
The economy of Singapore is often described as an entrepot economy, in which imports are purchase and given added value which are then exported. Singapore imports numerous raw materials that are then converted to pharmaceuticals, chemicals, computer chips, electronics, and other goods for export. The Port of Singapore is the world’s busiest. Further, it has an exceptionally well educated work force as a result of the nation’s education policy, which helps achieve success in their business operations and in innovation.
Now R&D is becoming an increasingly important part of Singapore. Over 3% of their $200 billion GDP is spend on R&D. They know innovation is the key for a bright future. The goal is to develop pools of ideas in targeted fields and also to develop deep pools of local talent.
They have several major players in driving innovation:
- The Agency for Science, Technology and Research, known as A*STAR
- National Research Foundation
- Hospitals, which have their own budget for R&D
In addition to the 3% of GDP spent by the government on R&D, private companies spend more. The business and political climate in Singapore encourages private business investment in R&D and creates powerful synergies between industry and government.
One Secret to Success: Location
A*STAR recognizes that in spite of the abundance of technologies to bring people together from remote corners of the globe, nothing replaces the benefits of face-to-face collaboration. In this most technologically savvy nation, physical collocation is a star player in A*STAR’s cast of strategies.
Scientists from A*STAR’s public labs and experts from the private sector are brought together under one roof in Fusionopolis to develop science and technology. Working teams collaborate on topics including materials science and engineering, computing, data storage, communications, microelectronics, and manufacturing technology.
Similar collaboration occurs in Biopolis, which by design is close to Fusionopolis to promote close interaction between experts in the life sciences and other fields. The richness of the collaborative opportunities, the high level of talent, the outstanding facilities and the equally outstanding funding opportunities make Singapore and its One North research park a Mecca for leading scientists and engineers around the globe.
One of the visionary aspects of Singapore’s support of R&D is the placement of R&D staff into industry, again emphasizing the irreplaceable value of physical proximity for effect collaboration and knowledge transfer. Likewise, companies and researchers froma round the globe can come to Singapore and use Exploit Technologies’ facilities.
A Social Experiment: Innovating in Innovation.
Boon told us about this “social experiment” that Singapore is pursuing with international researchers. “We are deliberately bringing all these people from across the globe together, where they fuse, collaborate, and jointly invent and develop new products. Then Exploit Technologies can build on their work by further innovating and commercializing their inventions.” This kind of added-value collaboration “is a key to the huge national drive for innovation in Singapore,” Boon explained. “It’s innovating in innovation.”
Under this model program, A*STAR’s extensive staff of researchers interact with many companies. “We visit numerous companies and bring out scientists to meet them and see their operations. When there is a fit and mutual interest, we place our researchers in the company for up to two years.” Sometimes the researchers become the Chief Technical Officer in a small startup, adding needed technical credibility for future deals. When they have completed their term, they come back to us more aware of the operations of business and the challenges of commercialization, making them better prepared for their next opportunity and more able to deliver value in their own research.
Boom explains that small companies often lack Chief Technical Officers. We offer skilled researchers from our staff who can grow into CTO roles, adding credibility with their backgrounds and advanced degrees. The scientist then can return to A*STAR able to express the needs of industry and help us better direct our efforts. This CTO track program began around 2005 and is already bringing exciting returns and new opportnities in Singapore’s rapidly evolving innovation climate.
The innovation initiatives in Singapore are informed by the desire to improve collaboration with companies. A-STAR wants its researchers to better understand the process of commercialization, and thus strives to give researchers practical experience in collaborating with companies, including being placed within them to work as a team member for a period of time.
Mr. Boon offered this illustration: “Singapore is the data storage capital of the world. Huge companies such as Seagate and Hitachi, etc. produce many of their data storage products there. Seagate is on the A-STAR advisory committee. We work with them on research plans and strategy. We learn from them and the companies benefits from our expanded perspective and skills through that collaboration.” These kind of exchanges help both parties to grow in expertise.
In sharing his vision for Singapore as a leader in innovation, Boon explains that innovation does not begin with inventors. They are innovating across the spectrum, in how R&D and product development is done, how it is supported and encouraged, and how it becomes transformed into reality. “Our forefathers were innovators,” Boon says of those who paved the way in Singapore for its unique business climate.
A Wide Range of Technical Pursuits
Boon explained that Singapore offers innovation and economic leadership in numerous fields. For example, Singapore is #3 in the world in petrochemical refining. An island was actually reclaimed to provide additional space for refineries. They have innovated and continue to innovate both upstream and downstream in petrochemicals, across the full supply chain, with the goal of being a world leader in the area. The government founded the Institute of Chemical Sciences to support petrochemicals. They are developing new catalysts, new products, and new energy technologies, including an emphasis on biodiesel.
In computer-related technologies, the small nation is home to 13 wafer fabs, producing chips such as ASIC chips with very stringent requirements.
The Institute of Microelectronics helps Singapore maintain its leadership position in the development of microchips and related technologies. The impact of Singapore’s leadership in computing and IT-related areas extends beyond the labs into the lives of Singapore’s citizens: Singapore is completely wired, with 1 Gigabyte/sec wired access provided to homes and a huge telecommunications infrastructure. They are drawing many large players to the nation, supported by Singapore’s R&D offerings.
MIT, for example, is collaborating with A-STAR. Singapore, in collaboration with MIT and others, is pursuing the goal of interactive digital media and seeking to blossom in that field.
Manufacturing is currently 75% of the economy, so advances in manufacturing technology are important. Singapore’s Institute of Manufacturing Technology is helping to drive advances in this area.
In fact, there are over 20 institutes driving the work. For example, the Materials Research Institute is working to develop high-performance materials to support advanced computing. CAD design efforts are also underway, helping industries such as mining.
Some of Singapore’s most promising R&D is occurring in the biomedical field. “The biomedical area is relatively new to us in Singapore. We started in that field in 2000 and have built a solid program since then. Much of the work has been focused on SARS. We developed the world’s first diagnostic kit for the SARS genome.” Research is also being conducted to develop vaccines. “We’re working to make biotech viable, to bring our innovations to it across the entire value chain,” said Boon.
We asked Boon about the metrics they use to gauge the success of their R&D efforts. Boon explained that the budgets for state-supported programs have five-year budgets. The 2011-2015 time fame is now being considered.
One of their key metrics is success in anchoring multinational corporations.
In crafting these budgets, they see their most important role as working with companies. Singapore has long worked with international companies to encourage research in manufacturing, a win/win for manufacturing-rich Singapore.
In gauging the success of R&D efforts, Boon recognizes that a realistic, patient approach is needed. Boon’s philosophical outlook, reflecting the vision of Singapore, provides wisdom that many corporate leaders would be wise to adopt:
“Expecting every idea to be successful is a problem. It leads to frustration. When we view innovation as a journey, as a means to expand the way we think and generate ideas, then we are more successful.”
The international draw that A*STAR is offering is evidence in the area of stem cell research. In 2005, 500 top biomedical research scientists and clinicians from around the world attended a key international conference in Singapore. The week-long conference organized by Keystone Symposia is the first scientific meeting of its kind to be held outside of North America since the founding of Keystone Symposia in 1972. It was organized in collaboration with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). That significant event has now been repeated annually, with the 4th such conference planned for 2009.
A*STAR has helped bring many spin-offs to life. For example, there have been numerous spinoffs in the nanotechnology area. One application is applying numerous MMECs to a surface to create a unique signature that can be read and identified. Tags for pharmaceuticals have been developed with unique signatures to avert theft or counterfeiting. So far, A*STAR has helped 27 companies that began as spin-offs.
Innovation in Helping Companies Overcome Technical Risks
One particular innovation in innovation is the way A*STAR offers to help companies overcome the technical risks they face in bringing their technology to commercialization. Many times there are technical barriers that need to be overcome, requiring expertise beyond what is available in the company. A*STAR serves as an interesting resource for open innovation to help companies in need.
“We can help them with our technical specialists. They come to us with their needs and identify specifications that they ask us to achieve to fill a technology gap. We then work to meet their specifications, and if we can, they agree to license the technology from us. This gives us royalties to further fund our work.”:
“We work to get good people to come here and join in the R&D efforts.”
A*STAR has a staff of about 20 people in IP management. This team offers regular course for A*STAR researchers, with 20 different courses available. Training the researchers is a key activity. The IP management team also examines the ongoing work to determine what may be patentable. They review all publications before they are published to check for potential IP opportunities. To prevent frustration among the researchers, this review process is done with a two-week turnaround.
A*STAR is a pure R&D institute, not a university, although many of the researchers are also part of academic institutions. The university people benefit from A*STAR’s training in IP in A*STAR’s courses. They also train patent attorneys to meet the needs of A*STAR and to work effectively in the unique culture A*STAR provides.
We file about 200 patents a year. A*STAR’s patent attorneys meet with their researchers at least on a monthly basis to enhance communication and search for IP opportunities.
“The mood in Singapore is very bullish,” Boon told us. “We have a lot of funding. We are bringing in great people, who attract more good people and finding in a virtuous cycle.”
Building Local Talent
We asked about those who are native to Singapore. Boon explained that a lot of local talent was pulled to other nations like China in the past, leaving Singapore with very few Ph.D.s. To help move the nation to more of “a Ph.D. economy,” Singapore has ramped up their efforts to develop and retain their local researchers.
“We set up a $100 million fund to encourage Singapore citizens to pursue Ph.D. degrees here. Each Ph.D. costs us $1 million over the course of their university education. We graduate about 100 Ph.D.s a year who are Singaporeans. As we move to a Ph.D. economy, we need more of our citizens to have advanced education.”
A*STAR’s Technology Transfer Network (TTN) is a network of many Technology Transfer Organizations (TTOs) and the licensing arms of many corporations. The TNN is hosted by A*STAR’s Exploit Technologies and are co-located with the Business Angel Network South East Asia (BANSEA). Their collaboration with other organizations around the globe helps to fuel many successful commercialization efforts.
Incubating Multi-Disciplinary Innovation
With so many areas of innovation being pursued by special institutes and numerous specialists, I asked Mr. Boon if Singapore took any deliberate efforts to promote cross-pollination between so many fields. Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. With A*STAR is a Cross Council Unit that provides funding for areas the span multiple technologies. It is a deliberate effort to bring together fields such as biology, imaging, computer technologies, etc. Many collaborative projects have arisen because of these efforts and because of the culture within A*STAR. For example, Boon told me, biology people may have a need to visualize some complex aspect of a biological system. They can tell the IT and image analysis experts what they want, and the experts can then identify the right hardware for the project.
Example: The Liquid Lens
As an example of how solid, multidisciplinary research and exploration helps Singapore to develop new ideas and new products, Boon cited the case of the liquid lens. Originally, A*STAR researchers were looking for different materials that might improve cell phones. A technician explored what would happen if the glass lens in a cell phone were replaced with a liquid drop. He put the drop in place and got good results. While experimenting with the drop and the way it is held, he found that the shape of the liquid lens could easily be manipulated to create optical zoom. This was an exciting discovery.
A serious limitation in cell phone cameras is the lack of optical zoom – you’re limited to a fixed lens, and it would be impractical to try to include the complex optics used in conventional cameras. With an inexpensive liquid lens, it is now possible to have autofocus and zoom in a lens, with the potential of greatly improving the quality of cell phone photos and video. Boon is unabashed in his optimism: “In the future, every cell phone will ultimately have our lens.”
What began as a curiosity is now being developed for serious applications, where it can serve numerous industries. A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) developed the liquid lens and the method of using mechanical action to control the meniscus shape of the liquid. Relative to other liquid lens efforts, the so-called FluidLens from A*STAR may offer several advantages, including robustness, low manufacturing cost, and performance over a broad range of conditions. It may be ideally suited for small digital cameras and other optical systems in which light is focused onto a CCD. saves on battery consumption, is cheaper to manufacture, and occupies less space in the device than lenses using electrowetting. Boon forecasts that medical devices such as probes for ears and other regions of the body may use the FluidLens in the near future.
Another example of Singapore’s success in commercializing technology involves RFID – radiofrequency identification. Though tags with computer chips and antennas for conveying unique ID numbers may one day become inexpensive enough to be used on numerous disposable objects, so far tag cost is still a significant barrier to widespread use for many products. However, through interaction with health care workers in Singapore, A*STAR researchers identified an unmet need where RFID could provide a low-cost solution. The laundry from hospitals and other health care facilities poses a major challenge for tracking materials. No one wants to touch these soiled products, making them hard to count and resulting in constant confusion about how many are where in the service chain. By encasing RFID tags in rubber and sewing them into the linens, they can be tracked and counted without having to physically touch them. This innovation greatly reduced the hassle of laundry services.
A*STAR has also designed a new RFID reader that is much less expensive than existing models, an advance that may accelerate widespread exploitation of RFID capabilities. The goal that A*STAR is pursuing is visionary: an RFID reader on a chip at extremely low cost.
Boon Swan Foo helped us understand why so many companies and world-class researchers are looking to Singapore for collaboration and for technologies of the future. Singapore’s success is not about exploiting a single competitive advantage or resource, but is a story of continual growth driven by a vision that recognizes the value of the human mind and the importance of human talent. It is the result of visionary leadership aimed at fostering a climate that overcomes innovation fatigue and fosters innovation at all levels. “A*STAR itself is an innovation,” Boon said. It is a novel approach to commercializing technology and incubating innovation. The results have been impressive, and we look forward to watching this innovation journey as it continues to new destinations.