Tee’s e-skin can help Singapore’s next multi-billion five-year R&D push

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SINGAPORE (Dec 28): Dr Benjamin Tee is one of the few top young scientists to make it to the list of Global Innovators under-35, a prestigious list put together by MIT Technology Review.

A scientist with the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, Tee may be better known for his work in developing electronic skin with the ability to sense the environment and self-heal.

But few may know that he finished his doctorate from Stanford University in 2013 on a scholarship awarded by the Agency of Science Technology and Research (A*Star).

Between 2011 and 2015, under what is called RIE 2015, (Research, Innovation and Enterprise plan), some $16.1 billion in public money was spent to further scientific work, foster innovation and help companies adapt the new-found knowledge into more business.

Professor Low Teck Seng (in photo), CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF), the government agency that coordinates Singapore’s efforts in these areas, stresses that this huge investment is not merely to help scientists publish more papers and file more patents.

The challenge, he says, is to translate the intellectual property, the knowledge, the science, into applications with real economic and national impact in a multitude of areas like water, clean energy or even greying population and many other daily issues.

“We have to be clear: we are not doing this for the sake of science,” he adds.

On Jan 8 2016, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will announce details of the coming five-year plan, RIE2020.

“We have much to be proud about in this last five years with the budget given to us. On top of the early investments, we have built Singapore into a true R&D hub,” says Low.

He was giving a recap of RIE2015 at a recent media briefing.

Tee was but just one of the some 1,100 Singaporeans that have received scholarships and fellowships to further build Singapore’s talent pool in these fields.

Besides nurturing young scientific talents like him, Singapore has been trying to woo back accomplished researchers, under what is called the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme (RSSS).

Under this scheme, Professor Ho Teck Hua, previously with the Hass School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, has from June 2015 onwards, taken up an appointment as the deputy president of research and technology at the National University of Singapore. Ho now oversees the university’s efforts in smart nation research that involves a cross disciplinary team of engineers, mathematicians and doctors.

There are, of course, the international researchers that have chosen Singapore to operate from. They include Professor Arthur Ekert, who heads up the Centre for Quantum Technologies; Professor Kerry Sieh, who leads the Earth Observatory of Singapore and Professor Salvatore Albani, director of SingHealth’s Translational Immunology and Inflammation Centre.

The combined scientific muscle assembled here has helped build Singapore’s leading position in certain areas. They include research in membranes and cure for gastric cancer – the fifth most common cancer among men. “There are many more areas that we can claim to be right up at the top,” says Low.

However, Low concedes that there were some targets of RIE2015 that fell short. When the plan was first announced, there was an ambition to get the private sector to invest $2.50 for every dollar put in by the government. “Many things conspired against us. The macro-economic upheavals in the financial world for example, caused a lot more industries to be cautious in their research and development.”

Nevertheless, Low says that this target “remains in the right trajectory”. Back in 2011, the ratio was $1.40 of private money for every $1 in public money. It has since improved to 1.6 to 1. “Going forward, we should aspire to have a greater leverage,” he says.

He notes that if the ratio hits 2:1, it would put Singapore in the same band as some of the leading research-intensive small countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. What is more important, however, is the ability to create “impact” from what is being done in terms of economic growth, job creation and not just the proportion of spending incurred. “But I would say, looking back, we’ve done well but we can certainly do much better for ourselves,” says Low.

Low notes that having worked reasonably well with multinationals and to a smaller extent, the large local companies. For example, there is a growing list of MNCs and local large companies that have come together with research institutes and universities to jointly set-up laboratories.

They include UK engineering firm Rolls-Royce, American capital equipment maker Applied Materials, Japanese chemicals producer Chugai, local rig-builder Keppel Corporation and defence engineering firm ST Engineering. “We have been very, very successful in working with the MNCs; I think we have also started working effectively with our large local enterprises, and our SMEs are also coming on board.”

Low assuages concerns that it is not NRF’s plan to use public funding to subsidise R&D of these large companies, but to play the role of a catalyst. “Our view is that when we work together and we see value, they will continue to invest.”

What will be of increasing interest in the coming RIE2020 will be to work even more closely with the start-up community – what Low calls “a very, very interesting new dimension”.

He notes that there is already a vibrant start-up system here in Singapore. For example, Block 71 at Ayer Rajah, near various A*Star research institutes, is now home to dozens of start-ups.

There are plans to allocate an additional two blocks of what were former flatted factories for more start-ups to set up shop here. “You see a hive of activity and great excitement. We see growing number of young people interested in venturing out. This bodes well for us, then, we can look forward in due course, whether we can build the next MNC from indigenous technology,” says Low.