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Deep tech landscape gaining more ground in Singapore

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Technologist Dr Feng Mengling is working with doctors at NUH to develop artificial intelligence (AI) tools to reduce patient waiting times, optimise treatment recommendations and boost other healthcare operations. As an artificial intelligence (AI) expert, he is excited by these developments because it shows the healthcare community’s willingness to embrace advanced digital technologies.

Two developments have made this possible, he said, namely the integration of medical data from various sources and the willingness of doctors and policy makers to embrace new technologies to enhance healthcare provision in Singapore.

“Singapore is the ideal hub to incubate new healthcare AI technologies. Our restructured hospitals, like the SingHealth cluster, started digitising and achieving all medical data in an Electronic Medical Record System in 2002. More excitingly, the Ministry of Health (MOH) launched the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR) system aiming to integrate medical data from large hospitals all the way down to the neighbourhood GP clinic. Integrating data in a national electronic repository will not only make for more seamless treatment and save money for patients, it also provides a rich source of data to support the development of AI tools for various healthcare challenges.” said Dr Feng, who is an assistant professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Dr Feng’s experience in the healthcare sector reflects the broader acceptance among organisations here for the use of advanced digital technologies described as deep tech, to lift efficiencies and carry out innovations.

To promote deep tech, a one-day summit on Sept 18 will be held as part of the Singapore Week of Innovation & Technology (SWITCH) at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre. Called the Deep Tech Summit, the one-day event is organised by SGInnovate, a Singapore government-linked agency focused on developing the deep tech startup ecosystem with human capital and investments.

Nearly 30 speakers of renown from Singapore and around the world will be at the event to discuss deep tech issues around AI, blockchain, medical technology, venture building and the future of talent. They include Professor Subra Suresh, president of Nanyang Technological University; Steve Leonard, founding CEO of SGInnovate; Professor Tsuhan Chen, chief scientist, AI Singapore; Dr Caroline Hargrove, chief technical officer, McLaren Applied Technologies, England; Joe Fitzsimons, principal investigator, Centre for Quantum Technologies, Singapore; Dr Ayehsa Khanna, co-founder and CEO, Addo AI, Singapore; and Katherine Myhre, CEO, Norway Health Tech, Norway.

About 500 participants including investors, government officials, corporate innovators, researchers and deep tech entrepreneurs from around the world are expected to attend the event.

Singapore-based startup Seitee and Blickfeld from Germany are some of the deep tech startups that will exhibit their innovations at SWITCH. Seitee gathers processing power from mobile devices around the world to offer a decentralised cloud computing and storage platform. Blickfeld has developed 3D solid state LIDAR, or light detection and ranging, technology that can be applied in the automotive, industrial, smart city and security sectors.

Deep tech is dependent on scientific talent and innovations. Since the 1980s, the Government has supported R&D activities including developing research engineers and scientists. The latest Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan received a whopping S$19 billion budget for five years ending in 2020. The Government has also backed the startup ecosystem, providing grants and funding. These efforts resulted in the Republic being ranked fifth – two ranks higher than the 2017 list - by the Global Innovation Index (GII), an annual ranking done by Cornell University, Insead and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to compare the innovation performance and capabilities of global economies. Singapore was named the most innovative country outside of Europe and is the only Asian country to make the top 10.

From the talent perspective, deep tech is an area only a few qualify to do, said Steve Leonard, SGInnovate’s CEO. Deep technology is about scientific discoveries or meaningful engineering innovations in biomedical, renewable energy, aerospace, marine and other sectors. When commercialised, deep technologies are able to create a big impact on societies, economies and lives.

In Singapore, the researchers and scientists are using science to improve many areas from boosting water purification and enhancing autonomous vehicles to developing nano satellites and building machine vision capabilities.

“SGInnovate wants to help the individuals to do more of this. It includes investing in their startups. By taking equity, we demonstrate our seriousness in assisting them build their businesses,” said Leonard. By the end of this year, SGInnovate will have invested in about 40 deep tech startups. The agency actively helps to identify appropriate talent to aid expansion as well as link them up to potential customers here and overseas.

Such is SGInnovate’s reputation for successfully placing dozens of people in these startups that academic staff at local universities are beginning to refer their doctoral fellows and other students to the agency for potential jobs at the deep tech startups.

Blockchain development

One deep tech area that has recently grabbed headlines here and around the world is blockchain and cryptocurrency. Many investors were apprehensive about investing in blockchain because the concept of a distributed ledger on the Internet is difficult to understand. While blockchain was first used for cryptocurrencies, it is now being applied to other areas like manufacturing and financial services.

Venture capitalist Mock Pak Lum who has invested in blockchain and cryptocurrency startups has two tips for investors looking to step into this area, that is, examine the strength of the startup team and its advisors, and ensure that the startup has access to development resources with proven blockchain expertise. “It’s important to contact the advisors and talk to them as part of the due diligence process. Development resources with blockchain expertise is also crucial for executing the startup’s business plan, so checking on the availability and access to these facilities is crucial,” said Mock, managing partner, Blockchain Fund 1, Tembusu Partners.

Singapore has emerged as a key node in Asia for blockchain and ICOs (initial coin offerings) which is a fund raising mechanism involving cryptocurrencies. Hence there is great interest in the technologies. Responding to the need for more information on these topics, SGInnovate will hold a one-day blockchain and industry introduction workshop on Sept 17. Participants will get an overview of blockchain research and application, digital currency trading platform and exchange and blockchain financial market risks and regulatory environment.

Investors like Mock have less trepidation in recent months about investing in deep tech. They have gotten a deeper understanding of deep tech and learnt how to evaluate them. Alex Crompton, managing director of Entrepreneur First Singapore recalled that when he first arrived in Singapore in 2016, he discovered that venture capital (VC) partners were apprehensive about investing in deep tech startups. Entrepreneur First assists researchers and scientists working in R&D organisations or tech companies to found their own startups.

The VCs felt they did not have the skills set or the deep understanding of the science or technology to evaluate them, said Crompton. VCs are warming up to such investments. The component of technology in deep tech is much higher so VCs among other things, would have to closely inspect the technology architecture. If they do not have the skills set to do this, they can always seek an expert to do the tech due diligence.

“Once you’ve gotten over this hump, building a company is no different from any other startup because the issues of marketing, growth, hiring and product development are the same everywhere,” added Crompton.

This positive mindset has also gradually pervaded among researchers and scientists, he said, pointing to the nearly eight times hike in applications last year to join Entrepreneur First startup bootcamp classes. This is good news because it showed that Singapore-based scientific talent are interested in entrepreneurship.

Another pillar to get deep tech projects going in Singapore is to commercialise publicly funded intellectual property undertaken by local universities and public sector R&D agencies. In the 2018 Budget, it was announced that a new joint-venture will be set up by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Temasek Holdings to do this. The $100 million NRF-Temasek IP commercialisation venture will focus on investing in, building and growing deep tech startups with commercially viable business models.

SWITCH is being held for the third year from Sept 17 to 19 at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, with offsite visits to the heart of Singapore’s innovation and technology ecosystems on 20 Sept. Co-organised by the NRF and Enterprise Singapore, its focus this year is on deep technology, Asean and China innovations, and technology in lifestyle. The event is expected to attract researchers, entrepreneurs, developers, investors and corporations to discuss topics such as open innovation, technology transfer, tech entrepreneurship, venture investments and talent development.

To find out more about SWITCH and the events go to http://www.switchsg.org.

Grace Chng is a veteran tech writer and author.

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