Interview: Why this urban agriculture company decided to go high-tech

(Adapted from MoneyFM interview with Daniel Wong, Director of R&D at Netatech Group – a local enterprise that provides water management and urban farming solutions)

Tell us about Netatech

Daniel: Netatech at its heart is an incubator of the younger generation – we groom and grow young people to be able to impact the world. We work in the water solutions area and also urban farming, as well as farming in general.

With water management, what we do is we control storm water runoff, like an engineered landscape that cleans the water; slow down the runoff; and then clean the water before it goes to drain.

On the farming side there are two areas: Hydroponics and soilless media growing, and we're going more into indoor farming now. So we are helping the farmers to grow high-yield high-quality with the help of IT systems, Internet of Things (IoT), climate control and things like that.

When did you realise that R&D was the way to go?

Daniel: From the outset when Netatech was established, we already know that innovation is the key. It's actually a cornerstone to Netatech. My background is in software engineering and our Group CEO used to do automation for supply chains in the FMCG markets. So we are quite comfortable with tech, and we know that that will give us an advantage in the future.

With tech innovation, we focus on driving business outcomes with the right kind of technology, not just any technology. So when we choose technology, we choose the ones that drive the business outcome at the lowest cost. So we don't do technology just for technology sake.

You’re eyeball deep in the tech already. Why did you feel you needed some help from A*STAR, Enterprise Singapore etc? Could you have gone it alone?

Daniel: No, I think there're some things that we just can't do ourselves, especially when we are SMEs. We are typically restricted by our resources - things like cash and manpower and of course know-how. So we do part of the R&D ourselves and we also leverage on A*STAR and other companies for R&D.

One of our projects is about sunlight direction or sunlight redirection. And we use a film based on nanotechnology that would take many years and maybe millions of dollars (to develop). We are a small team, so we couldn't have done it ourselves.

What was the collaboration process like though?

Daniel: I think the process was very smooth. The A*STAR people are very nice and it’s easy to work with them.

From Netatech's point of view, we are only with the commercialisation side of the R&D spectrum. A*STAR does very deep R&D for technology development, things like nanotechnologies and biotech. All these involve a lot of deep know-how. So when the technology is ready, then that's when we come in and see how we can commercialise that.

In our case, we have our internal team to meet with A*STAR’s team and then we come up with a plan of implementation. We set some milestones to say okay this is how the setup is going to be, and we expect to see these kind of results. And so we go and measure that.

A lot of business owners are bogged down by the day-to-day operations. It’s a challenge for them to send people off somewhere to learn something or talk to people about R&D.

Daniel: I don't deny that there is a challenge. We live very busy lives. I think one of the things that we need to differentiate are the things of urgency and the things that are important. R&D is the important part. Without that, you do not have a solution for the future.

But it depends on your situation too, because if you're trying to stay afloat, then maybe your R&D need to take on a different angle. Which is to say… how do we lean out our process? How do we do things more efficiently? How do we leverage on technologies so that we don't have to slog every day? To do more with less.

What advice would you give businesses who are considering reaching out for some help but are still a bit reluctant (or do not know where to start)?

Daniel: The government helps us to connect to different kinds of solutions. A*STAR is very big. They have a lot of technologies and solutions. Enterprise Singapore can also help because they are the ones that are closely connected. They are basically the glue in between.

I think we just have to try. We have to try something new and without the exploration, we won't see the possibility. Ken Robinson once said, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you won't come up with anything original.

You take small risks. You decide how much risk I'm willing to take, and this is the line that I'm going to draw. If we don't reach a certain result by this time, then we'll have to re-evaluate. So that limits your risk, but at the same time you're also taking steps forward.

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