Global Collaboration Boosts Scientific Innovation

Amidst gleaming state-of-the-art facilities at the heart of Singapore's Science Park, a team of engineers and scientists hovered excitedly over a new prototype of a biomedical device they have built and tested. Hardly the size of the smallest computer chip, the futuristic nanoscale device could be a huge money-spinner--that is, if they manage to bring it to market.

Like scientists elsewhere, scientists here are enthralled by the dream of commercializing their inventions. But they have to overcome some rather tough obstacles. For example, it has always been hard to establish direct channels to potential investors and markets overseas. Moreover, Singapore's own market size is extremely small. So, each invention worthy of commercialization--even if the inventors can find willing local venture capitalists or industries to invest in the product--faces the limitations of the small local and regional markets that make the viability of such a venture highly improbable.

The Singapore government recently announced one new scheme designed in part to redress the typical absence of global investment in Singaporean inventions. It is a strategic tripartite agreement on technology commercialization that involves Imperial College London and Columbia University in New York City that is set to boost scientific innovation in Singapore.

Under the agreement, Singapore's R&D commercialization arm, Exploit Technologies, Imperial College, and Columbia University will exchange information and share best practices in technology transfer. They will also collaborate on projects of mutual interest, explore their respective technology portfolios for synergies, and make connections with their investor networks to broaden each party's knowledge of the others' geographic markets.

Singapore will benefit from the rich experiences of its two partners, whose blend of experience in both technology and the commercialization business is almost unrivaled. Columbia University's Science & Technology Ventures, the most successful university technology-transfer unit in the United States, made US$133 million in 2002 in licensing its research. Imperial College, which is known for its dynamic enterprise culture, spins out an average of two companies a month. It made a hefty £202 million during the period 2000-2001 through its commercialization arm, Imperial College Innovations Ltd.

The partnership is thus one of strategic importance for Singapore and its R&D community. "It's all about global access, global excellence, and hopefully global success," said Boon Swan Foo, executive chair of Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd. "The combined technology-transfer expertise, access to innovative research, and wide global network as a result of the tripartite collaboration gives us [Singapore] competitive strength to exploit the growing technology market strategically."

This would pave the way and open avenues for Singaporean scientists to market their products far beyond Asia, in places that would otherwise be very difficult for them to reach. The benefit is both ways--local scientists gain access to U.S. and European venture capitalists and markets, and American and European scientists can access to venture capitalists and markets in Asia. But the strategy, says Michael Cleare (pictured at left), executive director of Columbia's Science and Technology Ventures, "is to pool our technologies and create a start-up company in Singapore or in the United States, depending on where is the best place to do it."

"One of the pleasures of being involved with Singapore is that it lies in the hotbed of the electronic industries in Asia. We could now hopefully grow some of the elements and conventions in physical sciences and electrical engineering to use in Asia," says Cleare. Cleare considers life science to be another area that is ripe for innovation, but adds, "There are going to be a lot of complimentary activities, too."

One other major area the partnership hopes to tap on is in jointly acquiring more private funding for R&D projects. This is set to benefit many young researchers here whose current R&D funding comes mainly from the local Agency for Science, Technology and Research. In future, says Tidu Maini, pro rector of public and corporate affairs at Imperial College, "they could receive funding from other governments and private organizations outside Singapore and be part of bigger global research groups."

Do they anticipate conflicts on intellectual property issues when projects or products cross boundaries? "Unlikely," says Boon. "Singapore adopts international standards and its policy is in line with those of UK," he says. Hence, scientists have no need of concern. Moreover, according to Maini, the collaboration will involve substantial academic exchange and there will be a free flow of academic as well as research staffs and students. This will provide excellent opportunities for local scientists and engineers to experience firsthand R&D at Imperial College or Columbia University.

This is better than good news for many hopeful researchers here. Research engineer, Phil Chen, for example, says he has been hoping for some national arrangement like this for a long while. "It is really tough for us. To have to shelf your innovation after years of hard labor--for lack of access to potential investors--is like being slashed on the arm ? something that people outside R&D can never understand," he says. "I think we have an excellent collaboration here; one that could lead local scientists and engineers to compete fairly on the global platform. And we are competent enough," Chen asserts.

Research associate Serena Tan agrees. "The timing is just right for the partnership since Singapore is now actively pushing its research frontiers," she says, adding, "I am still at the prime of my scientific career and this type of partnership is very valuable for me and my peers." Tan also thinks that the knowledge gained from the partnership might even help boost R&D in Singapore.

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