A*STAR News

Opening Address by Mr Lim Chuan Poh, Chairman of A*STAR, at the A*STAR Scientific Conference on 24 October 2017, at The Temasek Club

Distinguished Speakers,
Friends and Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good morning to all of you.

WELCOME AND INTRODUCTION

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2017 A*STAR Scientific Conference. Let me also welcome and thank all the speakers, especially our overseas speakers, who have travelled some distance to be with us today.

This year’s conference theme is “iFuture: Innovation and R&D Powering the Future”. You can therefore expect extensive discussion on exciting and ground-breaking technologies and discoveries that can improve our health, lives, and work, and pave the way for a brighter future.

The “I” in “iFuture” has three (3) important connotations:

  • The first “I” refers to innovation, this is the process of coming up with new ideas and translating them to solve problems and creating value;
  • The second “I” refers to impact and influence, and this is done through innovation that aims to make a positive difference and to serve as inspiration to others;
  • The third “I” is the individual, referring to the contribution that each and every one of you have made, and will continue to make, to advance science and develop innovative technologies.

More pertinently is when all of these “I”s or individuals are integrated in their efforts to pursue discovery and innovation so that collectively, we can achieve more than the sum of all your individual contributions.

 

INNOVATION: THE GAME CHANGER

Innovation is what propels the world and has enabled mankind to not just survive, but to thrive even in the most inhospitable parts of this earth.

It has even enabled us to see what goes on far beyond Earth, billions of light-years away in deep space. For example, last year, NASA's Hubble Space telescope shattered cosmic distance records by imaging a galaxy a whopping 13.4 billion light years away – which also means that the image taken is a snapshot from 13.4 billion years in the past, about as close to the time of Big Bang as you can get.

Along similar vein, this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the team behind “the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory comprising two sites 3,002 km apart in Louisiana and Washington. Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity just over a century ago. Two years ago, LIGO first detected such a wave and by now, they have detected three others. Last week, it detected the fifth. But this is not just another detection. Rather, unlike earlier detections that originated from the merger of two black holes, this one came from the collision of two neutron stars. More importantly, this phenomenon was not just observed by LIGO, but also by a range of other instruments including gamma ray, optical, X-ray and radio telescopes. This is indeed a remarkable innovation as even Einstein did not expect that gravitational waves would ever actually be detected let alone open another astronomical window for observation.

Innovation is also the deciding factor that can turn companies into dominant industry leaders as it enables an organisation to spot new opportunities, conquer new grounds and stay well ahead of the competition. As Steve Jobs famously said, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."

Tesla, for example, has emerged in recent years with a reputation for ground-breaking and daring innovation. Founded in 2003, the company started by developing electric sports cars, popularising electric vehicles along the way. It has since expanded into the energy sector, where it has taken rechargeable batteries to the next level, and is now building the world’s biggest battery park in blackout-prone South Australia. Elon Musk committed to complete the project in 100 days or would give it free to the Australians.When completed, this massive battery will store enough energy to power more than 30,000 homes. Such daring innovations have made Tesla a household name and a leader in multiple industries, as well as brought the company US$7 billion in revenue last year.

 

IMPACT ON SINGAPORE’S FUTURE ECONOMY AND SOCIETY

Similarly, innovation is important to Singapore and, even more so, given that people is our only resource. Our competitive edge lies in our ability to be a hub for business, innovation and talent in Asia.

Over the years, the government invested in research, innovation and enterprise or RIE that contributes to the economy and society. The latest RIE 2020 plan is integral to the strategies recommended by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) to keep Singapore’s economy relevant and competitive. Undergirding these recommendations is innovation. This sustained commitment to RIE has transformed Singapore from a former “nation of technicians” to a leading innovation hub in Asia. The Global Innovation Index has consistently ranked Singapore among the top 10 most innovative nations, and we are also the top in Asia for the fourth consecutive year.

Singapore’s position as an innovation hub is further enriched in recent years by the establishment of numerous R&D centres of global companies across industries ranging from consumer care, electronics, logistics, to food and nutrition. Some of these companies include Dyson and Mondelez. Recently, Alibaba announced that it would be establishing a global R&D centre here to focus on machine learning and network security. As you know, A*STAR has forged partnerships with many of these companies as they leverage on our spectrum of research capabilities to complement and enhance their research and product development pipelines.

On top of this, A*STAR is also spearheading several innovation-led industry disruptions. You may have read in the news recently about our initiatives on the Future of Manufacturing, such as the opening of A*STAR’s Model Factory at SIMTech or the joint lab we will be developing together with Rolls-Royce and SAESL. Beyond manufacturing, we have also contributed to nurturing the local biotech ecosystem by partnering with companies like Aslan or Tessa to advance A*STAR’s drug development IP. All these partnerships are anchored on our R&D capabilities and will drive the next wave of technological changes and innovations. This in turn will power economic growth and enhance Singapore’s future in this volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and diverse (“VUCAD”) world that we live in today.

 

COLLABORATION AND THE RISE OF ‘CONVERGENCE’ SCIENCE

Aside from the need to evolve to adapt to this dynamic world, we also continue to face complex challenges such as sustainability, climate change, antibiotic resistance, increasing prevalence of diabetes, ageing population, and more. The complexity of these challenges requires bringing together a range of expertise, multiple institutions and the community of nations to overcome them. Science can and must show the way in how we can come together to tackle these complex challenges and set an example to inspire the wider community to do likewise.

For example, in our food, nutrition and consumer care (FNCC) cluster, our researchers have developed a platform to rapidly screen chemicals and predict their safety in humans. Known as the "Toxicity Mode-of-Action Discovery" (ToxMAD) platform, it integrates state-of-the-art in silico and in vitro technologies from seven groups across five research entities: BII, IHPC, IMCB, MEL, and SIgN. This platform will help to accelerate innovation, as safety assessment has always been a key step in product development. Some of the technologies within the ToxMAD toolbox are currently being further developed and validated in partnership with some of the largest MNCs in the world1, as well as regulators from North America and Europe.

Therefore, on top of increased inter and multi-disciplinary collaborations, we need to also shift towards ‘convergence’ science, where knowledge and expertise from multiple fields are integrated to form new and expanded frameworks for addressing scientific and societal challenges. One example is the integration of machine learning and big data with medicine and biomedical research to transform healthcare.

Imagine going to see a doctor for abdominal pain. Many different illnesses and conditions can cause pain in the abdomen, and the doctor needs to find the exact cause out of these many possibilities. The standard “old school” way is for the doctor to build a mental picture of the possibilities based on his knowledge and experience, and eliminate the wrong ones one by one by asking the patient for details, and by doing tests and scans. Depending on the skill and experience of the doctor, he may not even arrive at the right diagnosis – this could be because he had missed a detail, or the underlying cause could have been a rare condition that he had simply not thought of.

Now imagine if the doctor is aided by a supercomputer that can fetch all the possibilities in the blink of an eye. Data from millions of patients can be drawn upon by the supercomputer to help make a more accurate diagnosis. The supercomputer can even integrate different types of data, such as diagnostic scans, epidemiological information, FDA records of adverse drug reactions, and prognosis data to determine the best personalized treatment. This is the Future of Health, where engineering, physical sciences and biomedical sciences converge to provide efficient, effective, and affordable healthcare.

Here at A*STAR, we are exceptionally well-suited to adapt to this paradigm, because we already have experts from very diverse fields either within A*STAR or with our partners in the research community – from healthcare to machine learning to materials science to behavioural science – all working together in close proximity. In fact, the Future of Health approach is already being applied at A*STAR’s Centre for Big Data and Integrative Genomics (c-BIG) – a collaborative platform founded by GIS, BII, I2R and IHPC in partnership with the clinical community. For example, for their Augmented Pathology Project, scientists and clinicians are working together to apply machine learning algorithms to mine associations between histological images, gene expression, clinical parameters and disease outcomes to diagnose and manage cancer. This will make the diagnostic process less variable and prone to human error, as well as less labour-intensive and more cost-effective.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION

On a related note, I also came across an interesting story shared at a recent event that I attended in Japan. The setting was in a flight from San Francisco to Singapore. Ten minutes into the flight, there was a commotion in the plane. Apparently, a bird was trapped inside the cabin and the pilot came over the air to keep everyone calm and reassure them by saying that there is a full time zoologist on the plane to handle the situation. Meanwhile, there was a flurry of crowd sourced suggestions on how to solve the problem.

One passenger suggested asking the air marshal to shoot the bird. A physicist advised against it and wisely so. Another suggested opening the window or door to let the bird out, again the physicist did not think that was a great idea. Having had enough time, the zoologist then asked everyone to pull down their shades and switched off all the cabin lights. He then opened the lavatory and turned on the lights to attract the bird. Everything returned to normal after that except that one lavatory has now been turned into an aviary. The moral of the story here is that we are all wired to think along how we were trained, namely our disciplines. Therefore, the more disciplines we can harness to solve a problem, especially a complex one, the more likely we are to emerge with a sensible and effective solution.

Indeed, solutions to complex problems can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places. A zoologist may have the answer to the problem with the bird in the cabin. A marine biologist may have the answer to an environmental engineering problem. On the other hand, an aeronautical engineer may know the answer to a medical problem. If scientists from different fields don’t communicate with each other and exchange ideas, these solutions will never be discovered.

 

Conclusion

Today is one such unique opportunity for all of us. The A*STAR Scientific Conference brings together researchers in A*STAR to exchange knowledge and ideas, and through that process, see new possibilities and solutions to the complex challenges facing us. These then form the basis for many meaningful and impactful collaborations.

On this note, let me take this opportunity to thank the organising committee, led by Professor Ng Huck Hui, for putting this event together. Let me also thank all of you for your participation.

It leaves me now to wish everyone a fruitful scientific conference.

Thank you.