From innovation to industry

Prof Boey, who heads ILO, hopes to continue to push out deep technology start-ups based on NUS research

When Professor Freddy Boey, Senior Vice President (Graduate Education & Research Translation) started his first company together with his partner, he flew miles from Singapore to Silicon Valley to pitch their start-up idea to ten venture capitalists there. “We didn't last five minutes in at least two of the presentations. But eventually we got one of the ten to say yes,” he recounted. This pitch would eventually become Amaranth, which specialises in fully biodegradable heart stents.

For eager NUS researchers hoping to commercialise their work however, linking hopeful start-ups with investors is one area where NUS Industry Liaison Office (ILO), which Prof Boey heads, can help.

ILO, decoupled from NUS Enterprise earlier this year, has long played an important role in the research and innovation landscape of NUS; helping to push science and technology research out for societal and economic benefit. Prof Boey sees ILO as a hatchery that produces small fry. “We cannot guarantee that every fry will become a big salmon. We don't have the means to do that, but we are responsible to spawn as many as we can, fry that are ready to take on the brave new world,” he said.

Despite being relatively new to the University — he stepped up to this role on 9 January 2018 — Prof Boey has been aware of the good work ILO has been doing, particularly in significantly increasing the number of deep technology start-ups in the past 12 months. Moving forward, he hopes to continue this momentum, pushing out more of these start-ups based on deep technology, which can be defined as technology that arises from research and research funding.

It is important to translate research grants and research into something tangible for Singapore and for the world. One obvious way to do this is commercialisation.

Over the last few years, with government support and the national agenda of increasing innovation, there has been a significant increase in research funding, explained Prof Boey.

“The University has grown by leaps and bounds and reached the top 20 in the world. Beyond ranking however, another real success is when we can show tangible impact arising from our research. It is important to translate research grants and research into something tangible for Singapore and for the world. One obvious way to do this is commercialisation,” he said.

“Running a company is very different from writing a great research paper,” Prof Boey said, adding that it needs skillsets not found in research. This could prove to be daunting for many researchers and is where ILO can come in to make it easier for them. A team from ILO supporting the researchers would mean that the process can move a lot faster.

“I often talk about the three ‘i’s; the idea, the innovator and the investment. All three should come together early. The success of a start-up company depends on many factors, not just the technology but also the team involved, the ability to execute well and move fast,” he explained.

Some services ILO provides include scouting for investors, guiding researchers into understanding the commercial value of their work and correctly positioning it, as well as more fundamental areas such as licensing.

Over the years, ILO has worked with many researchers to build spin-offs from their research. Their success stories include Unum Therapeutics — a cancer cell therapy company founded in 2015 by Professor Dario Campana from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine which raised some US$77 million in funding, and has an exclusively licensed technology; a range of six different blockchain start-ups, co-founded by NUS Computing Assistant Professor Prateek Saxena, which have in total raised some US$50 million and achieved a market cap of some US$1 billion; as well as Clearbridge Biomedics, incorporated in 2009 by NUS Engineering Professor Lim Chwee Teck, which has had collaborations with leading cancer centres and industry players and raised over $15 million in funding.

Looking towards the future, Prof Boey hopes to engage more with NUS research staff and students. Calling them a potent pool of talent, he hopes to tap on this group of researchers and potentially build an increasing number of spin-offs and start-ups. In that vein, ILO currently has a new scheme in the pipeline to encourage research students and staff in this endeavour. 

He is also hoping to increase the interaction between researchers and ILO staff. “It’s important that right at the beginning of the research, they have in mind the potential for innovation and commercialisation. So from that point of view, ILO staff would like to be involved early on. As I often mention, start right and you will end right.”

Another goal is to inculcate an environment where research staff and students are aware of the potential of start-ups. Besides regular engagement with the staff and students, he is also keen to introduce a common topic across all graduate studies programmes on innovation and entrepreneurship.

“I have a vision for NUS to become the foremost innovative university in Asia, no less than that. It’s not easy but we will get there,” Prof Boey declared.

For any queries, the ILO team can be contacted here.