Singapore: Mission Innovation: An Interview with Dr Raj. Thampuran, Managing Director of A*Star

Singapore has been evolving towards an innovation-driven economy- continuously renewing its capabilities in innovation across the ecosystem. Dr Raj. Thampuran- Managing Director of A*STAR- shares with Focus- the flagship publication of the French Chamber of Commerce in Singapore more about the agency’s efforts- the journey thus far and the strategies going forward.

Astar MD Raj Thampuran

Can you describe innovation in Singapore today? How has Singapore’s R&D journey been evolving?

Singapore’s innovation system is built upon an open and diverse talent strategy- the establishment of key infrastructure- and sustained and stable funding. We have implemented policies that feature and encourage innovation. Undergirding these is the philosophy of open innovation—particularly through public-private partnerships that are facilitated in flexible and varied ways.

Our outcome- and impact-focused approach towards R&D and innovation- is very different from countries with a longer history of research such as France- Germany- or the UK. Where we once had to rely on labour-intensive industries to drive our economy- Singapore has leveraged R&D and innovation to shift the economy towards a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy.

As a nation- we recognised early on that research and innovation was critical to Singapore’s economic development and that it was important for us to develop a long-term strategy to support present and future economic strategies.

It began with early R&D capabilities under the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR) in 1969. This was followed by the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) in 1990 and the launch of our first National Technology Plan in 1991—a modest government commitment of S$2 billion over five years to promote R&D investments. NSTB was reorganised and renamed the Agency for Science- Technology and Research (A*STAR) in 2002. This strong commitment by the Singapore Government has been sustained over these years- with the latest Research- Innovation & Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan committing S$19 billion from 2016 to 2020 to address national challenges and seize economic opportunities.

Today- innovation and research is undertaken by A*STAR’s research entities- as well as in Singapore’s research-intensive universities- academic medical centres and hospitals- and by corporate labs across the country. The results of patient investment in a wide spectrum of research capabilities are starting to show. Singapore is ranked among the top 10 locations for innovation centres worldwide- with companies like Dyson- Expedia- Mondelez and Panasonic setting up R&D innovation centres here in recent years. Over the years- we have witnessed a steady rise in value-added jobs- and seen business invest more in R&D. Last year- A*STAR achieved an increase of over 50 per cent in R&D spending by companies through projects with our research institutes- from $220 million to $340 million. More significantly- R&D spending by local enterprises outpaced this increase- growing by around two thirds from $61 million to $102 million.

This has been possible through a consistent focus on mission-oriented excellent research- a diverse community of research performers and talent- and investment in critical infrastructure.

The challenges beyond RIE2020 are to meet the demands of companies and industries as they react and respond to fast-paced changes in technology and other global forces. Long-term investments in excellent and differentiated research are necessary to build capabilities for the future. These enable us to better respond to market opportunities when they arise- and derive greater value from our research and innovation efforts.

One of the biggest industry disruptors has been the shift to Industry 4.0- especially in manufacturing – an important sector for Singapore. How is A*STAR helping the industry stay at the forefront of advanced manufacturing technologies?

Key strategies to position Singapore for the Future Economy

Public-private partnerships in R&D and co-innovation as an instrument for industry growth are pivotal to our success. Our approach towards such partnerships is flexible and responsive- encompassing progressive policies on the use of intellectual property- access to talent and expertise such as our flagship T-Up scheme- and different modalities of technology transfer. Through these efforts and initiatives- we aim to deliver outcomes that create value for our industry partners and for Singapore’s economy. This approach has worked well with both MNCs and local enterprises.

Singapore anchors strategic MNC partners through collaboration and open innovation- to transfer knowledge and create good jobs locally.

  • For example- platforms such as A*STAR’s Aerospace Research Consortium bring major aerospace MNCs- LLEs and SMEs together- to collaborate in pre-competitive research and develop key solutions that will benefit the aerospace industry. French companies Airbus and Safran have been long-standing members of the consortium.
  • To zoom in on the food and nutrition industry which is a burgeoning area in Singapore- global companies in the food- nutrition and ingredients industry- such as Nestle- Ferrero- Mane and Lesaffre - have established research and innovation centres in Singapore over the last few years. Roquette set up its Asia Pacific Headquarters and Innovation Centre in Singapore last October- and is working with A*STAR’s Clinical Nutrition Research Centre to look at how different Asian populations react to certain dietary ingredients.

Our partnerships with international companies are vital in strengthening capabilities across the ecosystem- and in driving the development of innovative technologies and products to capture new growth opportunities.

A*STAR also engages with local enterprises and help them move up the value-chain to capture greater value from both local and overseas markets through the use of research and technology.

Transforming Singapore’s Future of Manufacturing

One area where this is receiving a lot of traction is in manufacturing- a particularly dynamic area of change and a key pillar of the Singapore economy- making up about 20 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In the manufacturing sector- the enabling technologies behind “Industry 4.0”- such as the Internet of Things and cloud computing- are reshaping the manufacturing landscape and disrupting global value chains. A*STAR has been driving Industry 4.0 adoption and catalysing impactful collaborations through our strategic Future of Manufacturing (FoM) initiative that was launched in 2017 in close consultation with MTI- EDB and ESG- under the RIE2020 framework. The efforts of this initiative culminated in the development of a capabilities roadmap needed to achieve the assets and competencies required in an advanced manufacturing operation.

As Singapore embarks on this fourth industrial revolution- what sets A*STAR’s FoM work apart is that we bring ideas- people- and companies together across the entire innovation value chain from MNCs to SMEs- to collaborate for the of benefit Singapore’s future economy.

The Government is committed to supporting local companies in continually upgrading their technological capabilities. Through the public-private partnership platforms of Tech Access- and Model Factory- A*STAR aims to drive technology innovation- knowledge transfer- and adoption across the manufacturing industry.

In the near- to medium-term- the Tech Access initiative provides local enterprises with access to A*STAR’s advanced manufacturing equipment and facilities- as well as training and technical advice. This allows companies to equip themselves with the skills and experience needed to operate these tools- before acquiring the equipment needed to scale up and capture new business opportunities.

Through the Model Factory initiative- A*STAR provides a ‘live’ production environment allowing companies to experience and experiment with Industry 4.0 technologies and co-develop innovative solutions for greater productivity and efficiency. In the long-term the Model Factory initiative will help industry test-bed- develop and deploy advanced cutting-edge technologies in the manufacturing sector- sustaining Singapore’s competitiveness in manufacturing and technology innovation.

Catalysing a Vibrant Local Start-Up Ecosystem in Singapore

A*STAR also contributes to a vibrant start-up ecosystem in Singapore. We work with our start-ups and spinoffs to help them secure follow-on funding through the creation of new products and businesses using A*STAR technology; providing mentorship and networking with industry; and linking them to venture capital partners through our investment network.

To facilitate commercialisation and licensing of our research- A*STAR adopts a differentiated licensing approach that takes into account the nature of the collaboration and the needs of our industry partners. By exercising flexibility in our licensing approach when it comes to IP ownership- use and access rights- we optimise the use of licensing to help companies access our technologies to gain a competitive edge and bring innovative products and services to market.

A*STAR’s latest spin-off- the Advanced Micro Foundry (AMF) is a commercial micro foundry capable of high-mix low-volume manufacturing specializing in in silicon based semiconductor components. The company is presently valued at around US$300 million (S$413 million). One of its core technologies is silicon photonics components which is a result of A*STAR’s long standing investments in this area since the early 2000s. It is a technology platform that is the state-of-the-art in future computing systems- solid state LIDAR and advanced data centres.

Manufacturers are concurrently 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.

How do you know if you are succeeding in innovation?

At A*STAR- we look at success in terms of outcomes- and what value our collaborations and interactions bring to industry and society. Success has several facets—it could be enabling a high-value sector rise up the value add ladder; creating new activities in existing sectors that result in growth or expansion of markets; improving productivity or product and service innovation for local enterprises; or growing new industries.

We are already seeing the fruits of our labour—local enterprises are stepping up their investments in innovation and technology and working with A*STAR on more R&D projects. Just last year- the number of industry projects that we worked on with the private sector jumped 20% to 2-100- with one in three projects with local enterprises. We have also seen an increase of local enterprises taking up our technology licences.

Another area of growth is Singapore’s start-up sector- notably the local biotech ecosystem. From 2010 to 2017- at least 60 local drug-development and related biotechs have been incorporated- tripling the 19 of the preceding decade (2000-2009). One-third of these biotechs were A*STAR spin-offs- and more than half of them have some form of IP- co-development project- or joint lab with A*STAR.

These are indications that Singapore is on the right trajectory. Singapore’s R&D efforts have led it to be the top-ranked country in South East Asia and Oceania for five consecutive years in the Global Innovation Index. Through sustained investments and focus on open innovation and mission-oriented R&D- this will see Singapore in good stead for even greater innovation outcomes.