Will Khairy Jamaluddin have Dzuleira’s back?

  • Malaysian Science, Technology, Innovation minister puts his faith in Dzuleira Abu Bakar
  • Must back her up to the hilt, 24x7 as she tackles biggest challenge of her career

Khairy Jamaluddin (2nd from left) with Dzuleira Abu Bakar (1st from left) when the minister visited a Social Impact event MaGIC organised in 2020.

A little over one year into his tenure as Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), Khairy Jamaluddin is acting to consolidate some of the agencies under his ministry. While there were already murmurs of such a consolidation coming, the decision to send Dzuleira Abu Bakar, until last week, the CEO of Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) to head up Technology Park Malaysia (TPM), caught the startup ecosystem by surprise.

“Why has she been sent to head a deadwood organization?” That was the blistering remark from a C-suite executive of a large listed company to me, earlier this week. And this was not an isolated opinion, nor was it the strongest. The CEO of a long time tenant at TPM, grimly predicted, “She will get chewed up.”

Some describe TPM as a as a bloated organization, at over 300 strong, that has been at a standstill. Making matters worse is the fact that it hired a dynamic CEO in Sept 2019 to help reinvigorate the organization. But Che Akhmah Ismail left after four months. He apparently discovered some corporate governance issues and got into loggerheads with the board, which at that time was led by Abu Samah Bachik. Che Akhmah promptly took TPM to court and the company quietly settled out of court with him.

“They act more like a property company, finding ways to raise rent, charge for parking,” the CEO of the long time tenant asserts. “That’s not the way to create a technology powered, innovative entrepreneurial society.”

Yet this is the very society Khairy wants to help shape with his decision to merge the two organisations into creating a technology commercialization agency, that, according to Mosti, “will accelerate the creation, development and commercialisation of technology and innovation.”

Apparently extremely unhappy with what’s going on at TPM – nothing much, it seems – and pleased with the progress Dzuleira has been making as MaGIC CEO, but not pleased overall with the pace of innovation in the country, nor small pipeline of promising startups coming through the ecosystem, and wanting to tap the stronger balance sheet TPM has for better purposes, he is putting his faith in Dzuleira to deliver through the new commercialization and innovation agency.

That is a huge responsibility thrust on to her shoulders, though the move is welcomed by many quarters. She could be the spark that TPM needs, that the commercialization and innovation ecosystem needs. But moulding the two different organisations – the younger, smaller, startup focused ecosystem friendly MaGIC, with the lumbering, slow-paced, dispassionate TPM will be the biggest challenge of her career, which has so far seen her lead a small unit of less than 10 people at Cradle Seed Ventures and around 50 staff at MaGIC.

Not only, at 40, is she the youngest CEO in TPM’s history, she is the youngest C-level executive as well. Sitting with her are some senior execs who have been with the company since its early days in 1996 – when Dzuleira was still in high school. There is a strong belief among the few people I have spoken to who are familiar with TPM, that the majority of the present leadership team are ill equipped to help her or contribute towards the goals of the new agency.

If you think these TPM comments are harsh, go visit its website and read the activities it engaged in from 2017 to 2019. (There are no updates on its activities since Aug 2019.) Ask yourself if what you read reflects an organization that describes itself as “the innovation facilitator and technology enabler of Malaysia”.

Still, TPM is not a total write-off. One happy tenant is Yusno Yunos, CEO of Y Us Sdn Bhd, which operates under the brand Evenesis. Yusno believes that TPM’s connections to the global tech and science parks are highly underutilized by the Malaysian ecosystem.

“We got linked up to HK science park easily for collaboration with startups there. Our further expansion in Indonesia was assisted by the linkage with Bandung Tech Park and last year TPM were working with an Iranian tech park,” he says.

Optimistic about the new agency that will be formed, he says, “I trust with proper directions and KPIs set under the new management and consolidation with MaGIC, more things can be done for the ecosystem.”

Yet, even Yusno can’t hide his frustration over TPM management. “I’ve been trying for years to help them upgrade their website but it gets bogged down by red tape.”

 

Can Khairy stomach that?

That phrase “innovation facilitator and enabler” that TPM cites as its mission should sound familiar to ecosystem leaders in Malaysia. 11 years ago, a similar effort was made by the administration of Najib Razak, which created Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM) or Malaysian Innovation Agency. Created by an Act of Parliament it was dissolved in Dec 2020, AIM was a small but high powered agency that was staffed by up to 60 people. AIM executives acquired a lot of experience and know how in bridging innovation with commercial opportunities and Dzuleira would do good by reaching out to them.

As it stands, it is not clear how much carte blanche she has been given by Khairy to act in terms of hiring and firing so that she can create the right team to help her. Because she definitely needs talent that has experience in building innovation ecosystems. But if she has to work with what she has, then I fear the results of this new agency, a year from now, will be anemic at best, ugly at worst. Can Malaysia afford that? Can Khairy stomach that?

In multinationals, when they assign a promising executive to a challenging role that will force them to learn and adapt fast, they also make sure the executive gets all the support and tools they need to succeed in the role. Here, Khairy will need to be on speed dial with Dzuleira, helping her with whatever she needs, 24x7. Because if she does not succeed, he will not succeed.

Success however has to be measured by meaningful metrics that measure commercialisation and not lowball targets. And while we wait for Dzuleira to build out the new agency and set targets and definitions for commercialization, innovation experts tell me it will be important to track the number of companies/startups admitted into the program and the amount spent on each of them and tracking how much revenue is generated within what time frame and also what kind of jobs are created.

We certainly do not want wildly optimistic and unaccountable job numbers like the 19,000 Microsoft Malaysia has thrown out that its US$1 billion (RM4.1 billion) data centre region investment will create over the next four years.

Keep it real, Dzuleira and good luck.

 
 
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