From Mission-Inspired Excellence to Impact

By Mr Lim Chuan Poh, A*STAR Chairman

A special issue of Nature, the influential scientific journal, recently highlighted Singapore’s lead over the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of the average scholarly impact of their publications.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) were featured. This lead is attributed to our high rates of international collaborations, in line with our positioning in Asia. It is a remarkable achievement given the relative nascence of research in Singapore and our deliberate and mission-oriented approach to research and development (R&D) compared to the UK and US.

In April, I visited the Faraday Institution in the UK.  This is a new independent mission-inspired basic research institute directly related to batteries that funds and accelerates fundamental research and its translation. Its goal is to make the UK a leader in battery technology research and position the UK to take advantage of future economic opportunities arising from this technology and the transition to a low-carbon economy. It is funded from the government’s £246 million (S$432 million) investment in battery technology, as part of the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

In May, A*STAR announced its latest spin-off, the Advanced Micro Foundry (AMF), a commercial micro foundry capable of high-mix low-volume manufacturing specializing in silicon photonics. The company was valued at around US$300 million (S$413 million).

This spin-off is only possible because of A*STAR’s investments in silicon photonics research from the early 2000s. It is a technology platform that is now a game changer for future computing systems and advanced data centres. It enables unprecedented performance and functionality in high-speed data communications compared to traditional optic devices.

Coincidentally, manufacturers are also being pushed to innovate rapidly and tailor their products to meet consumer demand for trend-based, unique products such as mobile devices, autonomous vehicles, or smart home devices. They need flexible and cost-efficient high-mix low-volume manufacturing capabilities that AMF is designed to provide, which the traditional fabrication plants currently lack.

The connection between these seemingly disparate entities is the underlying approach of investing in mission-inspired upstream research that catalyses technology breakthroughs and innovation for future economic benefits.
Mission-inspired upstream research refers to scientific research that is at the very early stage of knowledge discovery well before it gets developed into innovative technology that can be applied to particular problems or challenges.  It paves the way for further discovery and translation of the research aligned to the mission it was intended for.

R&D, UK-style

The UK’s need to translate R&D to create impact has become more critical in recent years given both the pace of technological change and that economies now compete based on innovation.

The new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was inaugurated in April, bringing together seven existing Research Councils, the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, and Research England, a new body to oversee research and knowledge exchange functions of England’s higher education funding. They have a combined annual budget of over £6 billion. UKRI aims to drive better coordination and collaboration among the research bodies for better business outcomes. It is part of the UK’s long term shift to better integrate and direct its research and innovation system.

The UK’s history of R&D traces back to the 1700s when there were already outstanding scientific institutions across Britain. Its success today has built on this strong history of scientific development and curiosity and a critical mass of world-class research base built up over the years. With 9.5 per cent of the world’s article downloads, 11.6 per cent of citations and 15.9 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited articles at only 3.2 per cent of the world’s R&D expenditure, the UK desires greater impact from its scientific excellence.

The UK has been gradually making the shift in this direction, with the Herman Hauser report on Technology and Innovation Centres (2010), the Hauser Review of the Catapult Network (2014), and the Industrial Strategy White Paper (2017).

The Industrial Strategy marked a significant shift in an otherwise laissez faire approach towards research and innovation in the previous decades. It called for strengthening the foundations of productivity and laid out key areas where Britain could lead the global

technological revolution. Increasing R&D investment is a central strategic thrust, with the government planning to raise spending on R&D from 1.7 per cent of GDP to 2.4 per cent by 2027. This increase would go towards skills training, research and infrastructure improvement, boosting the UK’s ability to innovate in products and services, leading to growth for business and the economy.

R&D, Singapore-style

In contrast, Singapore started off with industry-oriented R&D through entities such as the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR-1969); the establishment of the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB-1991); the reorganisation and renaming of NSTB into the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR-2002).

Research intensification in our Autonomous Universities (AUs) happened only just over a decade ago. Singapore, therefore, started from a more directed outcomes-focused research and innovation strategy since our first five-year Science and Technology Plan in 1991. From 2011, this quinquennium plan has evolved to become the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plan coordinated by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and overseen by the RIE Council chaired by the Prime Minister.   

The current RIE 2020 Plan seeks to further align with the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) and the Future Economy Council’s (FEC) goals to help key industry sectors upgrade their capabilities and thrive in the age of digital and technological disruption.

We are on a right trajectory so far.

In 2017, A*STAR achieved S$340 million in industry R&D spending, a 50 per cent increase from 2016. Significantly, R&D spending by local enterprises outpaced this increase, growing by around two-thirds from S$61 million to S$102 million. More local companies are also licensing A*STAR technology and innovations, ranging from antibodies, to artificial intelligence (AI) services, to automation tools. These enable companies to grow their innovation capacity and bring exciting new products and services to market.

Our autonomous universities have also formed many meaningful partnerships with industry through corporate labs, such as that of Rolls-Royce-NTU or the Wilmar-NUS corporate laboratory.

The AMF itself adds to a small but growing number of deep tech local companies that serve as receptacles for public sector innovative technologies, and help to capture valuable economic opportunities for Singapore.

From Local to Global
One challenge Singapore still faces is the relatively lower innovation capacity of our local enterprises. The UK has a number of large home-grown companies that are multinationals with deep R&D capabilities. In 2016, over 50 per cent of Business Expenditure on R&D (BERD) was spent by UK-owned businesses. In comparison, large local enterprises collectively contributed to 16 per cent of BERD in Singapore. While this illustrates that Singapore’s domestic enterprises are not as large or as research-intensive as those in the UK or other research-intensive countries, nonetheless, they are trending in the right direction as large local enterprise BERD has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10 per cent from 2011 to 2016, compared to that of 3 per cent for multinational corporations.

Local enterprises are a vital segment in the economy, and will add robustness to Singapore as we transform into a global hub of innovation and enterprise. Our companies must be able to respond quickly to business model disruptions, and have innovative products and services that give them a competitive edge in a very dynamic global economy. 

From R&D to innovation and impact

The Faraday Institution is just starting out, and if – or rather, when – its research reaches a higher technology readiness level, it can be a game-changer for the UK, not only supporting its manufacturing industry and jobs, but also placing the country at the forefront of battery technology worldwide. The creation of UKRI is to facilitate this process of translating upstream multidisciplinary research to innovation to achieve better economic impact.

Like the UK, Singapore has to continually plan and invest in R&D to stay ahead including in mission-inspired upstream research. The fruits of our labour may take time, like the AMF’s journey, but that is the nature of such R&D – it pushes the frontiers of knowledge and discovery; it underpins the development of innovative technology; and it creates opportunities to bring benefits to the economy and society.

Driving mission-inspired research and innovation requires a level of national coordination to derive synergy and develop deep capabilities that will differentiate and position Singapore well for future growth opportunities. This is also what the UK seeks through the Faraday Institution and UKRI. On this journey from excellence to impact, there will be much that we can learn from each other.

A version of this article was published in the Straits Times on 14 August 2018.