As head of innovation and technology at IPI, Dr. Sze Tiam Lin helps companies understand their business needs and requirements for innovation and technology requirements. From there, he helps them find the right technology, partners, and experts to develop new products.
Dr. Sze has always been passionate about science and technology. He studied mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, and then earned a PhD with a focus on artificial intelligence.
When he started working on AI, he told Oasis that he was disappointed by the slow pace at which lab research turned into consumer products.“I did a lot of research in AI, but 25 years later, I never got to see it commercialized,” he said.
Later, while working for a government agency in Singapore, Dr. Sze helped find a market for some of the research projects they funded. “Most of my job was talking to industry players and getting them to be more open-minded about forming collaborations. Now I’ve seen how industries are shaping and opening up their minds to embrace external ideas and partnerships,” he said.
Recently, Oasis had a chat with Dr. Sze about technology commercialization, and how IPI bridges the gap between research institutes and companies.
This interview has been edited and consolidated for clarity and brevity.
Oasis (OS): What is technology commercialization?
Dr. Sze Tiam Lin (STL): Fundamentally, the world of commercialization has two parts. You have the research and development institutes. The other side is industry. These are businesses that want to address their challenges properly with technology or create new product innovations.
These are two parts to collaboration and ideally they come together, but in the real world, there’s always a mismatch. What the research institutes do may not be what the industry wants, and vice versa. There’s a gap here, and that’s where IPI is trying to bridge by understanding both sides.
We pair parties together. We want to see them be successful by creating products, making sales, and creating economic value.
OS: What does technology commercialization look like on a day-to-day basis?
STL: A typical day for my staff usually involves a lot of listening to what the industry wants, and then looking at the research side to match them. That’s 80% of what our work is about.
Of course, the other 20% is that my team talks to the university research institutes, the startups—whoever has the technology, and try to find its commercial value.
OS: It seems natural and mutually beneficial for the two sides to work together. But there must be some challenges too. What are they?
STL: There are indeed many challenges, and that’s where IPI comes in. The most important one is intellectual property protection, or IP protection.
I have big companies and multinational corporations telling me that they want to work with startups, but it seems like startups are frightened of working with them. It’s often because startups think big companies want to steal or disrupt their IPs, which is not true. I think many MNCs are mindful about respecting IPs.
So it’s very important for both parties to understand IP protection, and what IP treatment is like in a collaboration. I think MNCs need to have a flexible model when working with startups. In the meantime, I have also been invited by many accelerators to talk to startups about how they can protect their IP in third-party collaborations. Both sides need to be educated on how to manage each other in a new and open innovation economy.
OS: How do you screen for startups or research institutes with the right technologies that are needed by the companies?
STL: To screen for and find the right technology, I need to understand the company’s pain point first. This is very important. No customer wants Vitamin A when they need painkillers, so we need to understand what the industry wants and who’s willing to pay.
Secondly, is the technology simple or complex? The simpler, the better. We look for startups that provide the most cost-effective technology.
OS: Can you share some examples to indicate how the process works?
STL: In 2013, a company came to me looking for some kind of cream product to treat itchy skin, which is common in Southeast Asia due to the weather. We found out that a dermatologist at the National Skin Center in Singapore had developed a very good formulation for skin cream, and they licensed the technology to a company to create the product. I follow up with them every year. They now make nine products, and have generated very good sales. The brand is called Suu Balm. You can find these products across Southeast Asia.
OS: If startups or researchers come to you with their technologies, how do you commercialize them?
STL: First of all, technology is just an enabler, it’s not an innovation. Technology enables you to do something. But the ability to be able to use the technology to create value for people—that is innovation.
For instance, I remember meeting this company called NeuroSKY. They developed an electrocardiography technology that can measure a person’s vital signs. I said that’s a good technology, then we extrapolated the user cases. It’s natural to use this for healthcare, but I brought it to the attention of a massage chair manufacturer, talked to the technology officer, and asked if they would consider putting this in their products to measure a person’s physical condition, and then program their massage chair to suit that person.
They ended up launching a massage chair that can measure a user’s stress level, and other technologies to formulate a personalized experience for the user.
So the question really is about how you find the right use case. This is where IPI plays an interesting role, because we talk to people in a lot of industries. If you bring me wireless technology, I can talk to people in healthcare, farming, and many other industries. And we always ask ourselves, where is the best use case for the technology? Technological innovation happens when it creates value that people want.