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A Hope for the future

Hope Technik has evolved from its free-spirited start-up beginnings to become the rigorous, multi-faceted engineering firm it is today.

Hope Technik wants to rely less on projects - which may be irregular - and more on steady product revenue. "We need to create a sustainable business to sustain the innovative side," says chief technology officer Jeff Tang.

TRANSFORMATION is often seen - if erroneously - as an exercise meant for traditional firms which have not yet made the leap from old methods to future-ready approaches.

Yet even cutting-edge technology firms have to reinvent and redefine themselves.

Hope Technik is one firm that has evolved from its free-spirited start-up beginnings to become the rigorous, multi-faceted engineering firm it is today.

Granted, it saw its share of false starts along the way. The first course correction occurred barely half a year after the company was founded in 2006.

The four co-founders - Jeff Tang, Peter Ho, Michael Leong and Ng Kiang Loong - were originally brought together by their love for motorsports. All four were engineering students at the National University of Singapore, though across two different cohorts.

In their time at the university, they took part in the Formula SAE programme, an international competition in which student teams design and build racecars.

A while after graduation, they got back together and decided to try to go into the automative industry.

But after trying for half a year, they discovered that the industry was practically "non-existent" in Asia, recalls Mr Tang, who is the firm's chief technology officer.

So the founders took their first and most defining turn: they went into engineering services instead.

"We wanted to change the perception of engineers as a profession - (to show that) it's cool," says Mr Tang.

The young engineers had long been irked by how the engineering profession did not seem highly regarded in Singapore.

There were not many success stories of people in the engineering industry making it big, either. "So we wanted to prove everybody wrong."

Initially, as the founders comprised three mechanical engineers and one civil engineer, many of the jobs they took were largely mechanical in nature. The firm did some electrical work, but for its first three years or so, it had no expertise in electronics and software.

In time, the founders realised that they would need to add these skills to their team in order to take on more complex jobs.

"Of course it's inevitable," says Mr Tang. "Once you move from small sub-systems to system-level work, you need electronics and software."

They thus began hiring. Yet that process, too, was very different from how it is today.

"Initially, we looked for jacks of all trades." As a small start-up, the only way to survive was for everyone to do everything, he adds.

Their recruitment method was also highly informal: they would go to online forums for radio control enthusiasts - those keen on remote-controlled model vehicles - and send messages to members.

"Our first electrical engineer was from a radio control forum," Mr Tang recalls with a chuckle.

Now, of course, the firm is more targeted and specialised in its recruitment - a necessary change as it gained focus and direction.

"You have to evolve and go deep in terms of what expertise you want to hire, as you start to be more strategic in your business model."

For the first four years or so, the firm's approach was "very opportunistic", with the founders accepting whatever jobs were available: "There was no selection process."

But from the fifth year onwards, they decided they had to be more focused. Since then, two business units have been spun off: Sesto Robotics and Trigen Automotive.

The central Hope Technik team works on special projects, "keeping the innovation within Hope" and always looking out for the next potential business unit.

First spin-off

Their first spin-off, Trigen Automotive, deals with special function vehicles. Hope's first big break, after all, was helping to redesign and rebuild the Singapore Civil Defence Force's Red Rhino fire-fighting vehicle in 2009.

Sesto Robotics focuses on automated guided vehicles - though its journey has seen some twists.

Previously, Hope Technik had worked with the military on drone projects. Having built up capabilities and expertise in this area, the founders felt it was a waste not to reapply this knowledge in the commercial market.

Enter Sesto. From around 2014 to 2015, the business unit started out with the aim of providing automation for the medical industry.

The team came up with robots that could move beds or transport linen and food around the hospital. "That didn't turn out very well," Mr Tang admits.

Although there was management interest in such automation, it was difficult for the medical community to embrace it, he explains: "On the ground, everyone's key concern is the patient."

It was thus hard for Sesto to conduct product trials, as the ultimate priority was - understandably - not hindering the care of patients.

What they learnt from that detour, says Mr Tang, is that any drive for automation has to come "from the bottom", with workers on the ground truly believing that they need this change.

Sesto therefore decided to pivot towards the manufacturing industry instead, where it has since made much more progress.

Manufacturing is admittedly a trickier sector to work with due to its numbers-driven nature, says Mr Tang: "The cost-benefit analysis is very, very clear-cut."

Sesto thus has to prove very rigorously that its products make business sense for clients.

Though Hope Technik runs on ideas, Mr Tang has no fear that they will run out. Quite the opposite, he says: "There will always be ideas out there. What is difficult is that there are too many.

"To be able to decide, to identify what is actually aligned with our direction and our strategy - that is the challenging part."

Given the firm's previous false starts in the automotive and medical automation directions, this caution is understandable.

"The ideas are not difficult. It is difficult to decide what to go into and whether it is relevant in the long term."

Some technologies may appear on the scene, make a big splash, yet disappear within a few years, he notes.

"We need something that's more sustainable, that has a way to scale and proliferate in the next 10 years, 15 years."

About four to five years ago, about 70 per cent of Hope Technik's business was in the form of projects, with the rest coming from products.

The firm wants to swap these proportions, relying less on projects - which may be irregular - and more on steady product revenue.

"We need to create a sustainable business to sustain the innovative side," concludes Mr Tang.

Long-term sustainability also requires knowing how and when to adapt. Mr Tang gives the example of drones. Initially, there was a huge gulf between the hardware standards of hobbyist drone and military drones, with the latter market providing plenty of room for companies such as Hope Technik to develop.

Yet with technological advancements, the differences in hardware are no longer as stark. As a result, says Mr Tang: "We no longer focus on the hardware (for drones)." Instead, Hope Technik's expertise is now in software and programming of drones.

Software is a particularly promising area to be in, he adds. Unlike hardware improvements which are usually linear, innovations in software, when applied to automation, can have exponential results.

Market focus

"You need to know how to shift your focus and your business based on the market," he concludes.

As the firm's focus shifts, so have its needs. Hope Technik is looking for people with deep technological capabilities, particularly in software - but it has been hard due to both competition and limited supply.

"Everyone's looking for software engineers," says Mr Tang.

And when they do find engineers, out of every 10 of them, only about two or three are Singaporean.

Still, the firm is making efforts to reach out. It has ties with most of the tertiary institutions, from the Institute of Technical Education to polytechnics and universities.

Besides being involved in judging projects and competitions in the institutions, Hope Technik also takes in about 100 interns over the course of each year.

Those in longer internships even get a chance to participate in design work, with some projects being 70 to 80 per cent designed by interns.

"We want to let students see a better side of engineering," says Mr Tang with a grin. The founders have not forgotten their dream of making engineering cool.

Read More: From machinist to production team leader

Brought to you by The Future Economy Council

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