Taking deep tech to commercial stage in Singapore: Professor Wong Poh Kam

The former director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre now plans to spend more time on research.

Singapore. Photo from Shutterstock.
Professor Wong Poh Kam. Senior Director, NUS Entrepreneurship Centre; Professor, NUS Business School. Photo courtesy of NUS.

He’s one of the most visible figures of Singapore’s innovation ecosystem and known to many who have participated in one of the National University of Singapore’s programs aimed at fostering entrepreneurship culture on the island.

By the end of July, Professor Wong Poh Kam will have stepped down from his post as the senior director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre to place a stronger focus on his own research. KrASIA chatted with Professor Wong about his assessment of the state of innovation in Singapore and what’s next for him.

KrASIA (KR): You’ve written about the evolution of Singapore’s innovation landscape from internet and mobile services to deep tech commercialization. Can you elaborate?

Wong Poh Kam (WPK): I am observing that the number of patented technologies coming from Singapore is growing. The output of R&D is increasing yet we do not have many commercially successful deep tech startups if you compare us to Silicon Valley. What we need is a virtuous cycle where successful companies generate people with experience in bringing technology to commercialization.

The original technology might be developed by some professor, but then this team brings in experienced people who take the product to later stage. This is still relatively lacking, the system hasn’t produced these people yet.

If you look at successful cases like the AI startup Viszenze, we were lucky to get a former alumnus who had worked in the industry and brought him back to become CEO. Now it’s a leading AI company. This case it involves no hardware, but it illustrates the kind of thing you need to do with deep tech, and hardware in particular.

More so than with consumer-facing internet companies, in deep tech you need people with industry experience. You need the experience to be able to work with supply chain players.

Kr: Can Singapore produce more global companies in the coming years and what fields will they likely be in?

WPK: It’s impossible to predict but I have some guesses. Singapore has invested significantly in water technology, a lot of money has gone into this, for example membrane technology. Here I believe Singapore has sufficiently advanced technology to make a difference. The same gos for the air and sea transport industry, if we find ways to figure out how to work with big players.

Kr: There’s the saying that “Singaporeans are not entrepreneurial because they are too comfortable.” What do you think?

WPK: Singapore changed a lot over the years. Maybe it’s true that too many Singaporeans are not as prepared to venture out and to hustle. But in recent developments we do see that more, we see people who have a vision and gumption. Carousell and Shopback have this ambition.

The influence and exposure budding entrepreneurs receive has a big influence.

That’s why we started the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) where students get the opportunity to go abroad and gain experience in one of the global tech hubs. NOC students come back and are inspired by the opportunities and alumni are starting regionally-focused startups.

Also, over the years it has become increasingly acceptable to fail. Now entrepreneurs know that companies will still hire them even if their attempt at building a startup has failed. Big companies begin to hire people who have had startup exposure.

Actually quite a few of our NOC alumni are hired by big companies to take on business innovation roles.

Kr: Who participates in the NOC program?

WPK: It’s a highly selective program and we choose participants based on passion and interest and their willingness to do something unconventional.

We are well aware of the need for diversity, and we encourage more women and minorities to participate. The selection is quite reflective of Singapore’s ethnic mix, and we had 40% female participants this year.

Kr: Where do you stand in the debate whether to prioritize nurturing local talent versus being open to talent from anywhere in the world?

WPK: Our society is quite multicultural already, our people are used to the multicultural setting. Yet we must also do more to groom our own local talent. We must do both.

Kr: Which policy or attitude changes do you wish to see in Singapore to advance its entrepreneurial landscape?

WPK: Government tenders tend to go to large companies with global presence. If our own government doesn’t make an effort to give local companies a chance, they can’t go to the region and expect other to.

I think tenders should not be awarded entirely based on who already has the biggest track record and presence. Some weightage should be given to solutions that are locally developed.

Kr: What’s next for you after leaving the director role at NUS Enterprise?

WPK: I want to clarify that I am not retiring! I am returning to teach full time at business school. I will pursue interests as angel investor and deepen my research on innovation and entrepreneurship.

One of these pursuits is a comparative study that looks at NUS technology commercialization compared to Stanford University and Tsinghua University. This project should be done before June next year.