Importance of right mix of talent to drive innovation, enterprise

By Mr. Lim Chuan Poh, A*STAR Chairman

This is because research and innovation will play an even more significant role in positioning Singapore's economy for the future.


On July 27, another cohort of young Singaporeans received their A*Star scholarships for undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral education. They join over 1,400 who have received scholarships over the years. Of these, about 800 are still pursuing their education, while 600 have been deployed. They have a bright future ahead of them, as underlined by Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran during the event, as "research and the innovation it fosters will play an even more significant role in positioning Singapore's economy for the future". But we all know it goes beyond research talent.


In the United States, there is an intensified emphasis on talent to spur commercialisation of applied scientific research and increase opportunities for spin-offs. In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama called for a rekindling of the spirit of discovery and innovation. Besides introducing computer coding early to students, programmes to develop skills for innovation have been put in place. These range from the structured setting of applied science campuses, including the flagship Cornell NYC Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, designed to promote interdisciplinary collaborations between students and companies, to the corporate labs of Google and Uber.

Stanford University's biodesign programme, to train clinicians, scientists, engineers and others in medtech innovation and entrepre- neurship, is another specialised course that other universities have emulated. A*Star and the Economic Development Board have collaborated with Stanford since 2010 to offer the Singapore-Stanford Biodesign (SSB) programme to develop medtech entrepreneurs for Singapore and the region.

In the United Kingdom, the government is bringing together its seven existing research councils, its innovation council Innovate UK and the research and innovation function of the Higher Education Council for England into a new body called UK Research and Innovation (Ukri) for a more cohesive national research and innovation strategy. Ukri will have a remit that spans discovery through to commercialisation, with Innovate UK continuing its focus on business-led innovation.

Industry-led Catapult centres, set up by Innovate UK, in emerging and enabling technologies, health and life sciences, infrastructure systems and high-value manufacturing will help bring academia closer to industry. The universities are responding with their own clusters to support entrepreneurship and industry collaboration, such as West Cambridge of Cambridge University, White City of Imperial College and the Warwick Manufacturing Group in Warwick University. Each of these bears similar characteristics to what we have built at the Biopolis and Fusionopolis campuses in one-north, namely, to bring the appropriate mix of research, innovation and enterprise (RIE) talent together to innovate and create enterprises.

Israel, a country more comparable in population to Singapore, is dubbed a "start-up nation" for its success in launching technology-driven companies. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel had about 77,000 employed in science in 2012. This appears small compared to the talent pool of the UK and US. However, when taken as a percentage of the total workforce, Israel has over 2 per cent employed in science compared to under 1 per cent in the US and UK. Israel also has a high proportion of entrepreneurs, second only to Silicon Valley.

Israel's geopolitical context and its defence forces have certainly played a key role in creating a mindset of dissatisfaction with the status quo, fuelling the constant desire and daring to change, all of which are critical attributes for innovation and entrepreneurship. The many successful high-tech start-ups have attracted multinational corporations (MNCs) to Israel to collaborate with, invest in or acquire these start-ups. In so doing, they provide access to global markets and opportunities for the start-ups to scale up, leading to a richer and more vibrant research and innovation ecosystem.

All three innovation-driven economies have recognised that beyond building research capabilities, it is important to have the right mix of talent to drive innovation and enterprise, and to realise value from discoveries. These economies hold lessons for Singapore as we work to enhance our RIE ecosystem and shape our strategy as part of the Committee on the Future Economy.


Since the first national Science and Technology Plan in 1991, Singapore has consistently invested in the development of science, technology and research, striving to capture value from RIE through open innovation and an open talent strategy. With the presence of many MNCs in Singapore, we started investing in R&D to develop research talent and foster collaborations, making Singapore more attractive for the MNCs to continue investing here. These MNCs bring their research and innovation talent to Singapore, enriching the RIE ecosystem. As they grow their businesses, they also create good jobs for Singaporeans.

At the start of this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the Government's commitment of $19 billion to RIE2020 for the next five years. Indeed, the steady commitment and emphasis on RIE has catalysed private sector R&D, doubling business expenditure on R&D from $2.6 billion in 2004 to $5.2 billion in 2014. Correspondingly, the number of research scientist and engineer jobs in Singapore also increased from 19,000 to 33,000, with 70 per cent of them held by locals.


While we have done well so far, we need to constantly revisit our strategy to ensure that we remain relevant and competitive. One aspect that we should strive to do even better in is to extend from predominantly MNC-led innovation to boost local enterprise-led innovation, and, more significantly, spur our entrepreneur-led high-tech innovation from discovery through the process of innovation to new enterprise formation that can venture beyond Singapore. A good mix of talent, not just scientific talent, is needed to make this work.

Our scholarship programme is now in its 16th year and over 600 scholars and fellows have completed their PhD studies or postdoctoral training and are contributing to different stages of RIE in various roles. The majority have gone into research at our research institutes and some have joined the universities as well as corporate R&D. But a growing pool is spreading beyond research into a spectrum of activities along the RIE value chain, taking on careers in IP management, venture capital, industry development and technology commercialisation.

More importantly, the system is also producing technopreneurs. Several cohorts of the Singapore-Stanford Biodesign programme have successfully spun off companies, the latest being Privi Medical from the 2014 batch. This is a company that has developed a medical device to monitor gastro-intestinal conditions. One of its co-founders, Mr Benjamin Tee, is an A*Star scholar who was named in the 2015 MIT list of global TR35 (world's top 35 innovators under the age of 35) for his research on flexible electronic sensor skins akin to that of human skin. At the same time, we have started the Diagnostics Development Hub to help our start-ups to accelerate the time to market for their diagnostic devices. In all these areas, we bring in people with deep industry or entrepreneurship experience to provide guidance and mentorship.

Our scholars are also thriving in the milieu of successful innovation ecosystems around the world. One of them is Dr Tan Yann Chong, who completed his PhD studies at Stanford University in 2012. Having played a critical role as the company's chief technologist, Dr Tan has returned to head the joint lab that Atreca set up with A*star's Genome Institute of Singapore.

A more recent example is that of Mr Teo Zhiyuan, who is completing his PhD at Cornell University but has already started a company, Ironstack, to develop a data network system that is less prone to failure, more responsive, scalable and user-friendly. This system was test-bedded on part of Cornell's operational data network for over 14 months. Two of his PhD advisers were so convinced by the business opportunities of his technology that they joined as technical and business advisers. Meanwhile, Mr Teo has also secured a postdoctoral position under Cornell Tech's Runway Start-up incubator programme to hone his skills in building and developing businesses.

The exposure and experience gained by our young technopre- neurs will prove invaluable to Singapore. These burgeoning activities in the high-tech start-up space have attracted attention and been boosted by the presence of Silicon Valley heavyweight venture capitalist Sequoia Capital and private equity players like Tiger Global in Singapore.

In RIE2015, A*Star seeded over 70 start-ups, more than double that of the previous tranche. These start-ups have attracted more than $90 million in follow-on funding. To sustain the rapid growth of our high-tech start-ups, JTC LaunchPad @ one-north was opened by PM Lee early last year. Today, there are more than 40 incubators alongside over 700 start-ups at LaunchPad @ one-north.


All these efforts strengthen our reputation as a global talent hub and an emerging I&E ecosystem. Many of our scholars or young scientists will continue to take the path of research in an institute, academia or industry, or contribute to a multitude of areas related to research and innovation. However, we must pay particular attention to the development of talent to translate research into original products or services with new business models, and to help create Singapore's future economy. The starting point is always excellent science. The end goal is to bring benefits to society and we need our talent to span the spectrum of activities from research and innovation to high-growth enterprise.


The writer is chairman of the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*Star).

This article is also available in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'Importance of right mix of talent to drive innovation, enterprise'.