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Gaining an innovative edge
- Robert Chew serves on the Standards Council as deputy chair, the Silver Industry Standards Committee as chair, and as a council member of the IT Standards Committee. He is also managing partner of iGlobe Partners;
- Lim Chee Kean is co-deputy chair of the IoT Technical Committee and chief executive of Ascent Solutions;
- Peter Ho is CEO and co-founder of Hope Technik.
BT: What is your company's core business?
Mr Chew: iGlobe Partners is a Singapore-based venture capital (VC) firm that invests in early stage tech companies in Singapore and the US. Our investments cover three areas - digital media and mobility, IoT, and health tech.
Mr Lim: Ascent Solutions is an Internet-of-Things (IoT) provider of comprehensive tracking solutions based on RFID (radio-frequency identification), Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) marketed as Bluetooth Smart, GPS (global positioning system), GPRS (general packet radio service)/3G/4G, and Satcom technologies. The range of items being tracked range from cargo tracked for security status while in transit to animals.
Ascent's tracking solutions cover the full spectrum of tracking devices to the cloud-based applications which users access to view tracking information.
Mr Ho: Hope Technik is a group of sub-companies that have deep dive focus in different businesses that include emergency vehicles, industrial mobile robotics, special application robotics and custom solutions.
Each business operates different brands and products that are sold globally.
BT: With accelerated global competition and shortened time-to-market, there is increased urgency for Singapore companies to focus on value-creation and innovation. How does your company strive towards these goals?
Mr Lim: It is in Ascent's DNA to ascertain what the market is looking for before embarking on developing a product or solution. In brief, Ascent avoids creating solutions that go looking for problems. It is also of paramount importance for Ascent to cost and price our solutions competitively to make it easier for our users to build a business case for using our solutions. Ascent is ever cognisant of the fact that the only constant is change and is continually seeking to improve its existing solutions as well as identify new solutions to remain relevant in this competitive world.
Mr Chew: The nature of the business of tech VC firms is to identify and target innovative startups needing funds for development and growth, invest in them, and help nurture and grow them for financial returns.
However, we do not just provide funding, we also work with the startups to source for key personnel, partners and customers, as well as help them shape their strategies and business models. Much of what we do, the startups we invest in, the technology we bet on, these are all generally higher risk than your traditional investments. We take on risks that facilitate founders to innovate.
Mr Ho: At our core, we are engineers. Hope Group maintains the capability to in-source 98 per cent of all creations, from concept, engineering, prototyping, production to marketing and sales . . . by having and owning our own building blocks in the entire value chain, we can set the pace of our response: and we like to get there fast! These capabilities stretch through the experienced team of engineers and technicians, as well as multi-million dollar equipment and infrastructure assets.
Beyond the functional layer, Hope has its own strategy group that plots long term trends, technology road maps and product roll-outs.
With these, we are able to innovate quickly, and as we own the product and brand, we focus on not just value-creation but value-capture as well.
BT: What factors do you think are needed to build a business ecosystem/environment conducive to facilitate this change?
Mr Lim: As Singapore is a high-cost country, it would be great if we can find a way of ensuring that Singapore innovations are competitively priced without our industries needing to overly rely on grants and subsidies. Tax holidays and concessionary tax rates should be explored to nurture and encourage innovative companies in the Singapore economy.
Mr Chew: I think the top-most factor is talent, and I have a biased preference for younger tech talent in their twenties. Tech means computing, software programming, engineering skills, not PowerPoint presentations.
Three factors help attract top talents: Having research capabilities available (from universities, research institutions), investors (people who take risks with their money, not government grants), and other non-tech talents (like those in the arts and even, food industry).
Mr Ho: People. The team needs to really know and love its area. Without true interest, there is no desire to see what the landscape outside is doing, and when it comes to execution, the drive for quality and ability will be missing.
BT: Do new technologies such as smart nation initiatives, 3D printing, IoT, automation and robotics spur innovation in your company?
Mr Lim: Ascent is ever vigilant of new technologies and trends to ensure the company keeps abreast of and rides the various waves of opportunities. For example, with narrowband technology: NB-IoT is slowly but surely replacing 3G/4G technology to provide low power wide area access to the large numbers of IoT devices. Ascent has commenced on a programme to narrowband-enable its devices.
Mr Chew: These new technologies are what startups feed on. The Smart Nation initiatives provide opportunities for startups to test their prototypes and products, put these on pilot projects and trials. This is an amazing opportunity for startups to ride this wave of innovation.
Mr Ho: Oddly, we are providing and creating such technologies. Together with fellow Singapore SME Composite Cluster Singapore (CCS), we have created the world's first 6D composite "printer" with multiple international patents. We have two businesses in robotics with deliveries across several continents.
BT: What role does Quality and Standards (Q&S) infrastructure play in addressing system-device inter-operability, operational efficiency and security issues?
Mr Lim: Q&S is invaluable in providing a common language among global users and partners. For example, when our potential customers want to know how durable and rugged our devices are, they would ask if our devices meet IP65 standards (promulgated by the International Electro Technical Commission) or the like. If they want to know how safe our devices are around combustibles and flammables, they would ask if we are intrinsically safe.
To facilitate world trade, standards agencies around the world engage in harmonisation activity so that intrinsically safe equipment manufactured in one country might eventually be approved for use in another without redundant, expensive testing and documentation.
In collaborating with partners across the globe, existing Q&S accelerates development and simplifies communications. For example, in working together with a WiFi provider to test whether their BluFi offering can support our BLE device, we would specify the type of beaconing protocol that is pertinent; for example Apple iBeacon or Google Eddystone.
Mr Chew: The role that standards play in addressing inter-operability can be easily illustrated by considering two things that form such large parts of our lives - our mobile phones and the Internet. Mobile phones connecting to mobile phones for voice, data services regardless of the phones' manufacturers - this works so well because of the standards in place, and which manufacturers base on to design and build their devices. Accessing over one billion websites on the World Wide Web seamlessly - this works because websites and tools are deployed complying with standards.
The role that standards play in addressing operational efficiency can probably be best shown by the use of the rather famous ISO9001 standard. Implementing this right means having well-defined and documented procedures, and measuring quality constantly. This would result in improving consistency in output, and making it easier for new employees to learn.
Given the pervasiveness of cyber threats in an increasingly electronically connected world, the role of standards in addressing security issues is of paramount importance. For example, ISO27001 specifies the requirements for an information security management system. Organisations can adopt this as a first step towards managing and securing their information.
Mr Ho: As a group of tech companies, the only way to assure our clients that we are not selling "snake-oil" is to prove that our products meet international standards. From Mil-Std (Military standards), ISO (International Standards Organization), IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) to IPC (International Policy Committee) . . . Q&S is a validation of both our product performance, as well as our build standards. Our manufacturing arm is qualified to fabricate wire harnesses for manned-aircraft and is used in military aircraft, as an example.
BT: Could you share if Q&S has benefited your business and why?
Mr Lim: Most definitely. It has provided a common language for us to communicate effectively with global customers and partners. Standards have also been a way of providing assurance to global customers who have not heard of a Singapore SME such as Ascent. As an innovator in Electronic Cargo Tracking Solutions (ECTS) - our iSPOT solution has been patented - Ascent is well placed to define the standards for ECTS. This not only raises the company's profile but more importantly allows us to write the rules for competitors to follow, which increases our competitive lead.
Mr Chew: They give us another perspective as to what are considered emerging areas of development and growth by industries and government agencies around the world, especially when we participate in international Standards work. They also provide us with opportunities to network with both local and international industry players, with the possibility of collaborating with other participants in the Standards space.
Mr Ho: The difference between a prototype and a real product is what Q&S differentiates. We put Q&S as a strategic selling point, and wrap our development around it.
This roundtable is brought to you by Spring Singapore