The Asian growth story is not new. Already commanding almost 30% of the world’s GDP in 2009, Asian growth momentum remains strong at about 4% per annum . Asia has achieved this on the back of becoming the manufacturing base of the world — from textiles to electronics to automotives.
As of 2009, global R&D spending is split almost evenly between Americas, Asia (excluding Japan) and the rest of the world (including EU and Japan). However, with a 7.5% growth rate in R&D spending,  coupled with the influx of engineering talent from all over the globe, Asia today is well positioned to be the at the forefront of the next technology revolution.
For technology businesses, an Asian strategy is imperative.
Singapore: Gateway to Asia
While Asia presents opportunities, it also presents challenges for businesses needing to navigate through its diverse and complex cultural, social and political environments. Asian customers will also require customized solutions developed with an in-depth understanding of their specific needs.
Many companies that want to succeed in this varied environment have come to realize that, to balance between increasing their topline growth and protecting their financial and intellectual investments, they need a strategic base in Asia with a stable business environment to locate their key activities and key decision makers who can oversee and grow their business network.
This realization has led a large number of multinational companies (MNCs) to set up a base in Singapore, out of which a majority conduct regional operations. As a global city in the heart of Asia, Singapore offers a stable pro-business environment for financial and legal protection, highly skilled work-force for corporate R&D activities, world class infrastructure for supply chain management and a strong manufacturing base (about 20% of GDP in 2009) for fabrication of key products.
Shaping the R&D landscape for nanotechnology
Recognizing R&D as a driver for growth, Singapore has developed an extensive R&D infrastructure and talent pool, which was further augmented by attracting and retaining a world-class talent pool of scientists and engineers, who bring a wealth of skills and experience from around the globe.
The focus on R&D was given a boost in 2005 with the debut of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) headed by the Prime Minister. By 2008, the total number of research scientists and engineers in Singapore per 10,000 workforce was 104, among the highest in the world. Going forward, the government has announced its aspiration to increase Singapore R&D spending to 3.5% of the national GDP by 2015, up from the current level of about 3%.
One of the major initiatives championed by RIEC is the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE), which will house research collaborations between elite universities like MIT, ETH, and Technion labs, and their Singapore counterparts.
This joins an existing base of 14 public research institutes (RI) under the Agency of Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), of which 7 are dedicated to research in the physical sciences and engineering. A Nanofabrication and Characterization facility, which includes a clean room with the full range of state-of-the-art nanofabrication equipments, was also set up to support researchers of all backgrounds, fostering a culture of interaction and innovation.
Nanotech industry development
Having drawn a strong pool of foreign talent and businesses to conduct research, extend important business units, and grow new businesses, Singapore aims to build nanotechnology as the horizontal technology foundation upon which many of the industry verticals in Singapore can leverage. Singapore also recognize that, to achieve nanotechnology’s full potential, close partnerships between R&D, industry, and consumers are not just desirable but crucial.
German chemical and plastics manufacturing company, BASF AG, operates a Global Research Centre in Singapore. The center’s 40 employees investigate nanostructured surfaces for anti-microbial applications such as in coatings, preventing the build up of organism deposits. BASF’s research leverages partnerships with NTU, A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), and local companies such as Nanomaterials Technology Pte Ltd.
The Bilcare group, global provider of clinical trial materials, recently acquired Singular ID (a spin off from A*STAR) to form Bilcare Technologies. Using a blend of micro and nanotechnology, Bilcare Technologies developed a range of products for brand protection and security applications, and high output equipment for producing large quantities of anti-counterfeiting tags. These and specialized readers, as well as sophisticated data management software form Bilcare’s “nonClonable” system, allows brand owners to track, trace and authenticate their products in real time.
To further collaborations between industry and public research institutes, Singapore launched the Industrial Consortium on Nanoimprint (ICON) in August 2010. ICON’s focus is to enhance the commercial readiness and adoption of nanoimprint technologies through collaboration between RIs and industry at the pre-competitive stage. This initiative was well received with six companies participating in the first project in anti-reflection surfaces. Other project being planned includes engineered anti-bacterial surfaces.
Collaborations allow firms to tap capabilities from outside their organization and to stretch their finite R&D funds to achieve greater outcome in less time. ICON highlights Singaporean support for such partnerships. By working closely on such public/private collaborations, we hope to reduce the time to market for new technologies.
Building an infrastructure for nanotech commercialization
As with most industries, R&D requires financial and business support to sustain its growth. Singapore has also grown a pool of supporting companies and private funding sources such as venture capitalists (VCs) and incubators, to bridge the gap between technology and market.
In 2008, Nanostart AG, a Germany-based nanotechnology investment company, incorporated its Asian subsidiary, NanoStart Asia Pte Ltd in Singapore. Shortly after, NanoStart Asia made its first investment deal with a Singapore company, Curiox Biosystems Pte Ltd, a locally grown bioinstrumentation company that enabled the miniaturization and automation of bioassays for research in life sciences, drug discovery, and diagnostics.
An incubator dedicated to nanotech start-ups, NanoFrontier Pte Ltd, was established in 2004 to engage innovative companies around the world in the development of nanotechnology-enabled products and services, provide intellectual property (IP) resources, nanotechnology R&D infrastructure, and technical expertise. A first in the region, NanoFrontier houses over 25 research scientists and engineers, and has access to over US$150 million premium R&D facilities and equipment at the Nanyang Technological University. It also works closely with industry through contract R&D work, joint development projects, and industrial consortiums.
To encourage test-bedding and commercialization, Singapore has also opened up large-scale integrated public infrastructure as ‘living labs’ for companies to test and demonstrate innovative nano-materials and applications such as nano-enhanced cement or coatings on self-cleaning windows. This created a path for companies to use Singapore as a reference site to launch into global markets.
Going forward, an integration model of continual partnership among private sector companies, consumers, research institutions, and the government will be the key in shortening the R&D cycle and bringing products to markets more efficiently while reducing risk for stakeholders. This also makes sense given the high capital expenditure for R&D at the nano scale.
With projected worldwide CAGR of 20% until 2013, and Asia-Pacific region experiencing a 52% growth in the nanotechnology-enabled goods market , the future of Nanotechnology is certainly bright. The question just remains, How do you want to position yourself for this technology revolution?
1. World economic outlook database, April 2010. International Monetary Fund.
2. 2010 Global R&D Funding Forecast; R&D Magazine; Dec 2009, pp.3-24; available at http://www.rdmag.com
3. Market intelligence report by RNCOS, published in March 2010
All information in this article is understood as accurate by author at time of writing (August 2010)
Bernard Nee received his MSc in Management from MIT and an MSc in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the Executive Director for New Technologies at the Singapore Economic Development Board; http://www.sedb.com; Bernard_nee@edb.gov.sg.