Talent pool strong in Science Technology Engineering and Maths key to economic growth
Promotes science and math programs that start at primary school up to post-grad level
A BONSAI tree is really beautiful to look at, but it is also a plant that is always seeking the best weather. But a tree, on the other hand, will grow deep roots and will stay where it is.
“So focus on growing the tree and creating the right ecosystem for its roots to spread deep and flourish,” advises Datuk Gooi Soon Chai (pic), president of order fulfilment and supply chain at Agilent Technologies when asked what Malaysia can do to remain relevant and competitive to attract multinationals.
At the core of this tree and root analogy is a robust education system in which STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) plays an anchor role.
“Look at the industrial revolution. It was built on the back of science and engineering. Look at how the United States and Japan built their economies. Again, they were built on the back of innovations in science, technology and engineering,” he emphasizes.
This is what Malaysia has to do to create the right ecosystem, especially in the electronics and engineering (E&E) sector. No ifs and buts about it.
In a small way, Agilent is playing its role. Unlike most multinationals which have intervention programs at the tertiary level, Agilent has science and math programs that start at the primary school level and go up to post-grad programs at universities, with even mentoring programs for university lecturers who wish to undergo their sabbatical at Agilent.
“We even have a ‘girls-in-engineering’ program with female engineers brought in to inspire children that they too can be engineers – it is not a male-specific industry,” says Gooi, who points out that all these programs lead to a population that has a foundation in STEM which is then a ticket to higher-value jobs.
While Agilent is doing a lot itself, “it would be better if we can synergize with government policy,” he says.
While he welcomes the creation of Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology or CREST program, he is candid in his opinion that it should have been created 10 years ago, with its focus on creating centers of excellence in universities and fostering Intellectual Property creation and protection. Agilent is a founding member of CREST.
Over 1,000 R&D engineers
In a way, what Gooi is trying to trigger, in terms of an emphasis on STEM, mirrors Agilent’s growth in Penang over the past 41 years where it went from low-end labor-intensive manufacturing work to becoming the organization it is today, with over 1,000 research and development (R&D) engineers in specific areas.
As an organization, Agilent Penang is the global center of excellence for Agilent in order fulfillment and supply chain, with the full breadth of organizational capabilities ranging from R&D, marketing, manufacturing and supply chain, and cutting across electronics engineering to the life sciences and chemistry.
This is the classic tree and root analogy Gooi speaks of, where Agilent is deeply rooted in Penang and where the availability of talent with STEM acted as the fertilizer that nourished its roots as it settled deeper into and itself becoming part of the E&E ecosystem in Penang.
Hence Agilent’s interest in STEM and why it is the secretariat for the Penang Science Council.
For an example beyond engineering and technology, there is its collaboration with TalentCorp on a Bio Industry Development Program. With the biotech industry still nascent in Malaysia, this is an initiative where students who have completed their Masters or PhD work at Agilent for 15 months on a full salary and do research. Some end up getting hired by Agilent.
Its own transition up the manufacturing value chain began in the mid-1990s when the management team, feeling that the manufacturing operations were already top-notch, asked Hewlett-Packard Hq in California to expand R&D. (Agilent was spun off from HP in 1999).
Back then, tinkering with products was called R&D but the Penang management team wanted to go into basic R&D.
“We started with a small number of PhDs at that time. The acceleration into R&D really came around 2004 when we became Agilent and moved beyond electronics into life sciences and chemical analysis where, for instance, we were coming up with nano carbon tubes and other new materials,” says Gooi.
Beyond its interest in developing a strong STEM foundation, he says that Agilent does three broad things to help develop Malaysia’s E&E ecosystem. It shares its technology and even IP with local companies and where the products developed are not competing, it actually teaches market access to companies.
“We also mentor the entrepreneurs of these companies who are usually engineers and lack business know-how,” says Gooi, who draws an analogy to Silicon Valley and how the larger tech companies play a mentor/ supporting role to start-ups.
Gooi highlights Vitrox Corporation Bhd as a company that Agilent helped. “Chu Jenn Weng (its CEO) is a very early example from this ecosystem initiative, and he has also done many things right in growing his company,” says Gooi.
He says there is a need for more world-class companies like Vitrox to grow from the E&E sector in Malaysia and strengthen the roots of the ecosystem.
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