Looking to 2023: Rethinking growth through the crucible of crises
What is the role of innovation and how are institutes of higher learning in a critical position to lead the charge?
| By Associate Professor Benjamin Tee|
The engines of innovation in vaccine manufacturing, healthcare diagnostics and pharmaceuticals have propelled economies out of the COVID-19 healthcare crisis.
Nearly simultaneously, digital technologies swiftly filled the gaps created from the need to isolate and stem the spread of infections in the early stage, many months before the regulatory approval for biotechnologies.
Imagine if we did not have the Internet and the plethora of software tools to communicate.
Yet, just as we are emerging into the new normal, multiple crises – potential runaway inflation, supply chain disruptions and climate deterioration – threaten the economic growth models we were used to, especially for start-ups.
How can we continue to grow our economy and thrive through the crucible of crises?
History suggests silver linings ahead
Just like the science and technological innovations that ended the pandemic significantly earlier than it would if left to nature – a consistent investment in ideas, talents and infrastructure will allow us to weather financial storms, emerge resilient, and ultimately achieve a net positive global impact.
Innovation ecosystems such as Silicon Valley have survived major crises and continue to generate economic successes once they have surpassed a critical stage of growth with ample talent, ideas and capital.
Start-up accelerators are crucial ecosystem stakeholders by providing platforms for early-stage founders to network, share knowledge and raise funds. One example in these ecosystems is the Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, which has helped fund 3,500 companies that achieve US$1 trillion in combined valuation.
Often, such ecosystems have world-class institutes of higher learning closely embedded in the ecosystem. For example, in the case of Silicon Valley, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley provided the source of talent, infrastructure and capital.
Here at NUS, we, too, have developed a critical mass of ingredients for sustainable innovations and impact over the last two decades.
Beyond a foundational undergraduate education, we have consistently invested in building an ecosystem capable of driving new growth areas in healthcare, digital technology and deep technology.
Today, exciting advances in Quantum cryptography technologies, Sustainable Energy, Agritech, Materials, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics and Biotechnology are being driven by NUS faculty and researchers. These emerging areas are going to be more critical to the global economy as the next decade unfolds.
To develop a self-sustaining innovation ecosystem, three key ingredients are required: Talent, infrastructure and capital.
With close to 12,000 students spanning undergraduate to graduate degree holders just in the Class of 2021, NUS alumni form an extensive network that can be tapped for entrepreneurial pursuits.
Starting from as early as sophomore year in NUS, the NUS Overseas College (NOC) programme provides a channel for budding entrepreneurs to access more mature innovation ecosystems in over 15 global locations. Many of the NOC undergraduates founded successful start-ups that created high-value jobs for the local economy.
We also recognise that NUS forms just a fraction of the talent across the region.
Over the last two years, we inked innovation-focused partnerships both locally (with the Singapore University of Technology and Design) and across the Southeast Asia region (with Universitas Indonesia and Universitas Gadjah Mada) for an exchange of ideas, research and talent.
Our Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP) is a unique venture creation programme to enable postgraduate students and researchers to transform research into deep technology companies. The programme was also opened to non-NUS innovators to increase the inflow of ideas and talent looking to NUS for support in forming sustainable, investible deep tech companies.
Synectify is an example of an NUS GRIP spin-off on a mission to accelerate renewable energy transition by capturing its surplus and reducing its impact on electrical grids while providing revenue-generating computing services.
Its co-founders Dr Peter Finn and Dr Echo Wang steered Synectify’s growth in Indonesia in early 2022 while incubating the start-up at NUS BLOCK71 in Jakarta. Indonesia serves as an important Southeast Asian market for Synectify due to its growing renewable energy infrastructure both in solar and hydropower.
Without an execution platform to test ideas and realise their potential, impactful benefits cannot be achieved.
Thus, it is also crucial for budding innovators to have well-designed hardware and ‘software’ infrastructure to extend their idea execution runway.
Located at the science and technology hub of the Kent Ridge and One-North area, NUS has developed and co-developed collaborative community and working spaces that cater to the varied needs of technology start-ups.
From The Hangar (housing very early-stage student-led start-ups on campus) to BLOCK71, the incipient space that housed the first wave of successful digital start-ups such as Carousell and PatSnap, the model has expanded to specific industries such as maritime with PIER71 and cybersecurity with ICE71.
Moreover, BLOCK71 has added locations beyond Singapore’s shores to Vietnam, Indonesia, China and the United States.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines has a population of 600 million. Despite the heterogeneity of the markets, a common platform through BLOCK71 can help start-ups navigate the nuances and differences in culture and languages.
Each BLOCK71 location is strategically selected to operate our signature co-working spaces and roll out localised programmes for start-up founders to access larger business networks beyond their home country.
For example, Forte Biotech, an NUS spin-off based in Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City, secured contracts with Vietnamese shrimp farms for their low-cost disease diagnostics technology. Its founder Kit Yong had graduated from the NUS GRIP programme and shortly after secured a Pre-Seed round from Vietnam-based Touchstone Partners.
Finally, risk capital is needed to fuel big ideas. Fundraising is especially difficult during the recent market turmoil and global uncertainties.
But this is in fact, the best time to invest. Start-ups in this climate have to exercise greater business agility and fiscal prudence to secure growth, leading to greater return-on-investments for investors’ risk capital.
While we do not have the storied Sand Hill Road littered with venture fund offices, the total start-up funding in Singapore has increased substantially over 2021 and 2022, particularly for early-stage companies.
The consistent investment anchored by NUS in nurturing and strengthening the innovation ecosystem provides a much-needed harbour for young companies dealing with often meandering paths to market, allowing them to weather the storms come what may.
One founder who has demonstrated such resilience and adaptability is NUS alumnus Vishnu Saran, who is also the Chief Executive Officer of Invigilo, an innovative AI and Internet of things (IoT) solution builder for enhanced workplace safety and productivity.
Returning from an internship stint in Silicon Valley as part of the NOC programme, Mr Vishnu had continued to pursue his idea and participated in the NUS GRIP Programme to refine his business proposition.
In July 2020, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 restrictions in Singapore at the time, he took part in BLOCK71 Indonesia’s Virtual Tech Showcase Day: Safe Workplace Edition. Through this opportunity, he met one of his first customers – an eventual investor.
Impact is a long game
A crystal grows best through high heat and pressure in a furnace, and these crises will provide conditions that create groundbreaking and long-lasting companies.
The sheer drive and passion of entrepreneurs like Mr Saran, Mr Yong, Dr Finn and Dr Wang to grow their companies in spite of the pandemic-induced challenges over the last three years serve as guiding lights for the innovation ecosystem.
The next decade of science and engineering innovations beckon and NUS provides the crucible to generate the positive impact they will bring.
Our consistent investment on scaling the talent, infrastructure and access to high-quality capital will no doubt deliver ever more companies ready to become leading enterprises with a base in Southeast Asia.
About the author
Associate Professor Benjamin Tee is the Associate Vice President of NUS Enterprise. He is also Vice Dean of Research at the NUS College of Design and Engineering, and Principal Investigator at Sensors.AI Systems Labs. He leads the research and development of novel sensor technologies to revolutionise healthcare, robotics and Artificial Intelligence. He was named as one of the World Economic Forum’s Class of 2019 Young Scientists and was listed in the MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 (Global) list in 2015. He received the prestigious Singapore National Research Foundation Fellowship and has co-founded two successful medtech companies.
Looking to 2023 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the third instalment of the series.
Click here to read Professor Prakash Kumar's commentary on the search for science-based solutions to ensure food security.
Click here to read Associate Professor Jeremy Lim, Dr Bryan Chow and Dr Anne Goei's commentary on the lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic.