This Is What Unsexy but Real, Practical Innovation Looks Like

This article first appeared on Rice Media

When Amanda explains her job to friends or relatives- they usually give her a blank look in return.

“My work deals with bitumen- which is not exactly new or sexy- unlike carbon nanotubes or graphene-” she tells me- “So most of time- they just nod and move on.”

Amanda Khoo is a Director at NIPO International- an SME which specialises in—you guessed it—bitumen-based coatings. If you can recall your O Level organic chemistry- bitumen is one of the products made from petroleum distilltion.

Simply put- it is a thick black goo which- unlike diesel or kerosene- cannot be used to power vehicles or generate electricity. NIPO- however- uses the bitumen to make specialised- liquid-applied coatings for the construction industry for applications such as waterproofing- anti-corrosion- sound/vibration insulation and adhesion.

I know this may not sound particularly new or exciting- but this is where you’re wrong. NIPO is upping the game by revolutionising bitumen.

Dr Li Xu from A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research And Engineering department

The Reality of Innovation

When most people think of innovation- they imagine the Hollywood version: two young- male geniuses hanging around in a garage- waiting for divine inspiration to strike. When it does- their eyes flicker with light and there is some feverish coding before- voila! Everyone's a millionaire.

Reality tells a different story. For Amanda- the word innovation conjures up anxiety- sleepless nights- and confusing scientific presentations- where she could barely understand one word out of every twenty.

“For many years- we had many nights where we could not sleep-” she says- “The process was tough- and painful.”

The issue that kept her awake was NIPO's bread-and-butter product- the bituminous coatings. Although it is still viable- she and her business partners sensed that change was necessary if the company wanted to do more than survive.

In popular jargon- they wanted to future-proof their business.

Every product has a creative lifespan. NIPO's coatings- she reckoned- were near the end of their life cycle.

“It’s like bubble-tea. It trended- died for a long time and now it’s come back to life again-” she adds.

Having shut its retail-to-contractor business model and paint manufacturing- the company needed to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant. They needed new products.

Dr Li Xu from A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research And Engineering department This is how they met Dr Li Xu from A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research And Engineering department, in 2012, on the sidelines of a presentation about food packaging.

Dr Li's research was in a completely different field; he was working on polymer-based materials for food packaging to keep out moisture and oxygen.

When he was explaining his presentation, we got very excited. What he could do for food- he could for construction. And if I can keep out the moisture and oxygen- I am going to have a very “healthy” building.

Amanda Khoo- Director at NIPO International

NIPO began a collaboration with Dr Li’s team to adapt the packaging technology for the construction industry- hoping to turn Li's presentation into a viable commercial product.

If this was a movie- this is the part where genius and vision overcome sundry challenges to create The Facebook or Uber.

Unfortunately- it is not.

Dr Li’s materials- which came in a film form- was beyond NIPO’s manufacturing capabilities. Although it showed promise- it could not be adapted for use in construction.

“In short- we failed-” Amanda concludes.

However, this project proved to be a good learning curve for NIPO and brought contacts that proved to be useful in the future.

Dr Li Xu from A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research And Engineering department

Drawing inspiration from baby blanket?

Although their first attempt proved to be unsuccessful- the company did not give up. Amanda continued to pursue potential ‘leads’- in the hope of chancing upon the next ‘Big Idea’.

No industry or field was off-limits. On the contrary- she would often seek out experts working in totally unrelated fields- just to see if their research had any potential for NIPO’s business.

More often than not- that leads to nothing. But in 2015- she met Dr. Shah- who was working on Phase Change Materials (PCM).

PCM can be found in all sorts of things from smartphones to clothes. It is a substance that changes from solid to liquid state when temperatures change. This changing of state acts as a passive temperature-regulator necessary for effective heat management.

“PCM materials can be used in a baby’s blanket that can keep within a temperature margin of 0.2 degrees. If you can do that for a baby- imagine what you can do for a whole building! You will have a self-regulating “cool” building- which can translate to energy savings!” Amanda exclaims.

Recognising its potential for construction- especially in sunny Singapore- NIPO also worked with another A*STAR researcher from the Institute of Chemical & Engineering Sciences (ICES) to bring PCMs to the construction industry.

Dr Li Xu from A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research And Engineering department

While Dr Shah was introducing NIPO to PCMs- the company also diversified into the waste recycling business- with a focus on end-of-life car tires. Conventional recycling of used tires produced a low-grade byproduct called carbon char which could not be reused to make new tires.

Working with A*STAR's ICES- the company developed a process to recover high-grade carbon black- which was free of impurities and thus- could be re-used in the manufacturing of many plastics- paints- ink and tires.

It was not just a triumph for NIPO- but the environment. Working closely with various A*STAR research institutes- they were able to diversify their business from bitumen into soundproof composites- light-reflective paint- waste recycling- self-healing additives- and more.

In 2017- the company renew their working relationship with Dr. Li Xu. Despite their earlier setbacks- Dr. Li approached the company through A*STAR’s commercialisation arm- A*ccelerate- knowing that his new project would be right up NIPO’s alley.

This time- the project to produce a light-reflective paint was successful. By pigment-coating the hollow glass beads- Dr. Li was able to produce a heat reflective paint which reduced temperatures by more than 13 degrees celsius.

This means that we could soon enjoy cooler buildings even without air-conditioning!

This Is What Unsexy but Real- Practical Innovation Looks Like

What would have happened had NIPO not moved away from its old business model?

"We would probably just be another hardware store"- Amanda says- laughing.

"Make some paint in my backyard- put some paint out there. Maybe sell a little to Indonesia and Malaysia. We definitely would not be exporting our products all over the world like we’re doing right now.”

To enjoy their current success- they had to innovate. In order to innovate- they had to leave their comfort zones to engage with ideas they often did not fully comprehend.

"As entrepreneurs- we have a certain cowboy mentality-" explains Amanda- "Like in an army exercise- we had to bash through first then worry about the ‘casualties’ later."

More than anything- they had to learn how to collaborate with scientists and researchers- who operate in a different fashion. Where scientists work in the realm of ideal scenarios- manufacturers like NIPO work with what is feasible- practical- and cost-effective. To turn lab technologies into commercial products- there are long months of trial-and-error where both sides slowly compromise their way to a viable innovation.

Some scientists have in their mind- a perfect scenario. But in actual production- it cannot be done.

“Because what works in a beaker might not work for a one-ton reactor. The scale-up process is very lengthy and very challenging.”

As for the researchers- the obstacles were different but equally daunting. Dr. Li Xu may not have a P&L statement to keep him awake at night- but the process was no less challenging because- as in business- mistakes happen in research and as a result- teams panic.

In other words- he had to be more than a good engineer. He had to be a good leader.

“Bringing the team down to the actual plant to see their work being executed is very helpful-” he tells me.

“Seeing their work’s tangible value boosts morale and helps them to stay motivated.”

This Is What Unsexy but Real- Practical Innovation Looks Like

Both sides also had to contend with the lengthy innovation process. Each standalone project takes at least one year to complete- with more time needed for trials- soft launches- and licensing negotiations. None of which would be possible without the one-stop shop capabilities and programs of A*STAR- whose staff members were on hand to help with every step of the process—from research to linking them up with viable partners.

“I would like to give credit to the A*ccelerate office-” said Amanda- “They know our capabilities and they continuously introduce us to new technologies or scientists that are relevant. They are a vital bridge between NIPO and A*STAR.”

Today- NIPO has diversified its business beyond bitumen. It offers a variety of solutions serving many world-renowned clients. NIPO diversifies beyond the Construction Industry and moves up the supply-chain.

None of it would be possible if not for their unorthodox mindset- teamwork and patience.

 

For every success- we had about 20-30 failures. We’re just people with wild ideas- and very lucky to have a supportive team.

This might seem like a long and complicated journey- but this is what innovation actually entails. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme- but a mindset that only works with time- hard work- and fair amount of courage in the face of risk.

The rewards and speed of these innovations don’t get much notice in the press- but more often than not- it’s the NIPOs of the world that keep Singapore going.

“MNCs might be here for a decade. If New York or London decides to close shop- they will be gone by tomorrow-” said Amanda.

“The truly home-grown companies are the ones who are going to be here for the long-haul because Singapore is our home.”

 

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