Growing Innovation Smarts
The process of taking a technology from laboratory to market — a gap so fraught with pitfalls that some have dubbed it the ‘Valley of Death’ — is daunting to many academics who have no prior business experience.
In Singapore, help is at hand: The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Innovation Centre is one of several institutions working with researchers to help them navigate the jump between an academic environment and the marketplace.
TechNews caught up with Centre Director Dr Howard Califano to find out more about SMART’s initiatives, and his vision for developing a culture of innovation here.
Q: What is the SMART Innovation Centre’s mission?
SMART works to help create an ecosystem in Singapore that is innovative and entrepreneurial, that can look at research and identify, harvest and monetise results.
We run grant programmes — open to all institutions of higher learning in Singapore — to help drive research to impact.
(Editor: The most recent 13th Innovation Grant Call for Proposals closed on 17 March 2017.)
While researchers understand their technology, what they don’t understand is how to develop a product that can actually address the needs of the market. We spend a lot of time identifying customers and coming up with a roadmap, so that at the end of the grant they have a prototype around which they can form a company and grow it.
We also realised that grant funding isn’t sufficient — we really needed to provide hands-on mentoring. At MIT, if you want to start a company, you can walk down the hall and have coffee with a faculty member who’s done it. We still don’t have that in Singapore.
So we started a boot camp that we require every grant recipient to go through. It acts as kind of a mind shift — they come in thinking about their technology, and leave understanding things like the needs of customers and how the venture capital market works. We also assign ‘catalysts’, or business people who specifically understand both the technology and the market and act as mentors.
We’re constantly working with teams to understand the market. We call it ‘adaptive innovation’.
Q:What do you think is needed for people and companies to be innovative?
An innovative climate or culture is one that is highly networked, and that encourages and rewards both creativity and impact-driven activity.
Networking is critical for innovation because it gives you the 360-degree view you need to really succeed. You have to be creative, self-challenging and open to new ideas, and you also have to increasingly look at science and business as mutually connected careers.
Q:What impact has the SMART Innovation Centre made on tech innovation here?
We’ve launched 22 companies so far [in about five years].
A great example is a company called Visenti, which was started by three MIT post-docs with no business experience. They wanted to build a smart water distribution system that uses sensors to gather huge amounts of data; this would let them detect leaks by keeping track of flow and pressure changes.
But when we talked to water utilities around the world, it turned out they didn’t want to know where leaks were because it cost too much money to fix them. It was cheaper to just buy more water and lose a little bit. So everyone was really depressed—we had this great technology but no market for it.
But then the water utilities told us their big problem: they didn’t actually understand the flow of water within pipes. As a result they were probably over-pumping the water, which costs a lot of money in terms of electricity. If Visenti could tell them exactly how the water flowed in the system, they could adjust their pumps accordingly.
Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) gave Visenti a grant to see if they could do this, and they were able to save about 20 percent of the electrical costs. So suddenly you have a market, because now you have something the utilities want.
Based on that, PUB gave them a multi-million dollar contract to install the system throughout the country. Singapore was such a great ‘showcase customer’ that Visenti immediately had customers around the world — it opened up the whole global market.
Q: What advice do you have for first-time entrepreneurs?
One thing that would help researchers a lot is to occasionally get out of the lab and network with potential users of their product. Networking is critical not only to gather information on customers and markets, but also to start becoming familiar with the venture community — lawyers, accountants, the whole array of professionals you need to support you as an entrepreneur.
I think it’s also important for young researchers to get a mentor — maybe a faculty member who has spun off a company, or someone who’s in business — who can coach them through the process.
Q: What is your ideal vision of Singapore’s innovation ecosystem?
I would envision that if Singapore continues along this road, it will build up an innovative culture that can be a driver of economic development for the future, when manufacturing and shipping jobs might have left the country.
A knowledge-based economy would not only develop wealth for Singaporeans, but also act as a magnet to attract smart people who see Singapore as a go-to location to launch companies.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
I like working with the post-doctoral community, and with researchers who are excited about their technology. I like being able to show them a pathway to impact; it’s just a lot of fun! We’ve worked with a lot of budding entrepreneurs, and hopefully we’ve played some role in maturing them.