Singapore’s National Research Foundation works to get more science and tech from universities into the market
Using Techventure 2012 as a tool to further deepen links between science and entrepreneurs
HAVING started his first company back in 1989 as a young academic, and which, according to him “is still making a few million today,” Prof Low Teck Seng (pic), is ideally suited to run the National Research Foundation (NRF) of Singapore as its chief executive officer.
Established in 2006 with a budget of S$5 billion (US$4.1 billion), its vision is to see Singapore develop as a science and technology hub, with R&D contributing significantly to a knowledge-intensive, innovative and entrepreneurial economy.
In achieving this, one of the goals is to encourage the creation of more academic- turned-entrepreneurs such as Low himself, with the science being translated out into society for economic impact.
The NRF has given grants to 50 startups. In return, the companies need to raise funding from the private sector too as proof that their idea has market merit. The entrepreneurs can later buy back their stake from the NRF at a premium to the valuation at that point.
Currently 10% of the 50 startups are powered by academics from universities, a number Low acknowledges as “not very good,” especially bearing in mind the hundreds of millions that is invested in university research and development every year.
“But, it’s a start considering our ecosystem and culture is not as robust as that you find in Silicon Valley,” he says.
But Low notes the environment in universities to spur entrepreneurship has liberalized considerably since his time as an academic making the leap into business. It has to be, as the target is an ambitious total of 150 startups in the next two years, with hopefully more than 10% coming from universities.
However, there is no fixation with encouraging researchers to leave academia and become entrepreneurs. Rather, Low says that the critical thing is for academics to participate more actively in the process of translating their technology and science out into industry, be it via entrepreneurs, their own graduating students or incubators.
NRF’s role here is “to ease the flow if there are any dislocations” in this process of getting the science out into the market.
“A catalyst is needed to energize the sector as entrepreneur-academics are few and far between,” says Malaysian-born Low.
This is where incubators, felt to be one of the missing links, came into the picture and have since mushroomed in Singapore, with the NRF playing a catalyst role with the creation of the Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS) in 2008.
The National Framework for Innovation and Enterprise initially approved S$50 million to support incubators with linkages to institutes of higher learning under the TIS. In August 2010, S$25 million from the industry TIS was reallocated to top up the program, increasing its budget to S$75 million.
[S$1 = US$0.82]
How the money is given out is via an 85% co-investment in each start-up identified by the selected incubators, with a maximum S$500,000 per company. The incubators will be required to pump in the remaining 15% as well as hire incubator managers and provide space, in addition to allocating at least one full time executive to mentor the companies.
The incubators are seen as providing the critical business knowhow and savvy, from establishing company processes, establishing strategic partnerships, marketing, finance, etc., to helping ease the translation of university science and research into industry.
This catalyst aside, what really differentiates the academics who have made the leap from the cosy cocoon of academia to the rough and tumble world of business is, passion, observes Loh.
“My experience has shown that it is this passion but mixed with a pinch of recklessness, that defines the academic-turned-entrepreneur.” Loh even names two of them that he knows personally – Prof Freddy Boey, Provost of Nanyang Technological University; and Prof Lim Chwee Teck from the National University of Singapore.
To further deepen the links between academia and entrepreneurs, the NRF was actively involved in a major conference that just concluded in Singapore called Techventure 2012. It is a co-presenter, along with the Singapore Venture Capital Association.
Techventure describes itself as Asia’s top platform for connecting financiers and innovators, and ran from Oct 16-18. This year’s theme, ‘Asian Innovation Renaissance,’ focused on the rise of Asian innovations and how they are fast establishing a strong footprint in the world.
Describing its role in Techventure as a partnership with the private sector, the NRF hopes that this coming together of scientists, engineers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and thought leaders will stimulate attendees and spark new relationships, says Loh.
In creating the opportunity for more relationships to be formed, Low is excited over the addition of two new partner events to Techventure. “We introduced the IPI Tech Innovation seminar and FailCon this year to make the entire Techventure a much more holistic event.”
Low used to chair the IPI or Intellectual Property Intermediary, which as the name suggests, acts as a bridge between business and IP owners. The focus though is mainly on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to help them acquire technology to better run their business.
“SMEs need technology to better compete, but really, they do not know how to go around getting access to this technology and this is where the IPI comes into the picture.
“Having the IPI as part of Techventure really added a lot to the event,” he says, pointing out that the IPI Tech Innovation Seminar had academics from over 30 global universities gathering for the promotion of technologies to boost productivity and competitiveness among local SMEs.
As for Failcon, this is an established Silicon Valley event that made its debut in Asia at Techventure 2012.
As an entrepreneur himself Low is excited to have had Failcon as part of Techventure as Failcon is a platform that recognizes the efforts of entrepreneurs who have failed but rose again. “In reality you have to fail once or twice. The key is to pick yourself up after your failures, learn the lessons and keep running the race.”
To Low, these two new additions to Techventure just illustrates that the event itself has to keep innovating to deliver value to all participants. At the same time it will reinforce Singapore’s positioning as the place to be in Asia where smart and driven people can come to and build out their businesses.
Investors and innovators at Techventure meet in Singapore