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Australia's national science agency sets up base in Singapore to lead Asean innovation drive

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation brings together diverse coalitions of partners and scientific disciplines

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CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall with Australian startups at SWITCH 2018.

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The rapid growth of the Asean region presents both a diverse and complex array of opportunities, says Dr Marshall.

IN A more interconnected world facing rapid disruption, regional collaboration presents an opportunity for each country to play to their respective strengths, while creating more new value than any individual nation can alone.

Recognising this opportunity, Australia's national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has announced a new presence in the Asean region, based in Singapore to reach out across the region.

CSIRO has been solving the greatest challenges with innovative science and technology for over 100 years. From decades-old challenges like reinventing agriculture for the harsh Australian climate to today's challenges like saving the Great Barrier Reef, CSIRO has brought together diverse coalitions of partners and scientific disciplines to take on bold missions.

While its base in Singapore is new - strategically located to work with local innovation leaders and access the rapidly growing Asean region - international collaboration has long been an intrinsic part of Australia's national science agency.

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Fifty years ago, CSIRO's famous astronomy satellite in outback Parkes, NSW, known as "The Dish", received the first images of man walking on the moon through partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) in the United States.

That same radio astronomy technology informed CSIRO's invention of WiFi, which today connects the entire world. And as the world's next generation of astronomy infrastructure is built, CSIRO's expertise developed the 19-beam receiver at the heart of the world's largest radio telescope, FAST, being built in China.

From literal moonshots to figurative ones, CSIRO will use its hub in Singapore to strengthen coalitions beyond Australian borders to deliver on regional moonshots like transforming human health through precision medicine; or sustainable management of the environment despite unprecedented industrial growth.

CSIRO's chief executive, Dr Larry Marshall, talks about the Australian science agency's plans in Asean.

Q: Dr Marshall, why is CSIRO establishing a presence in the Asean region?

A: CSIRO exists to solve the greatest challenges, and the rapid growth of the Asean region presents both a diverse and complex array of opportunities, as well as a rich network of partners for us to work with on solving them. Applying our expertise at scale in the region means we can tackle the next generation of common challenges, identify mutually beneficial partnerships and bring different perspectives together.

Q: What specific Asean challenges is CSIRO thinking about?

A: In recent years, our work in the region has included optimising supply chains through South-east Asia with our TraNSIT modelling technology to increase the distribution efficiencies of goods and services around the region and reduce waste.

We're currently exploring new partnerships in additive manufacturing, precision medicine, and futures modelling in pursuit of scientific excellence. We just started a new precision health project with Nanyang Technology University to look at healthy ageing, starting with the importance of gut health and exercise through the gut microbiome.

We're enthusiastic about bringing together the emerging field of precision medicine with CSIRO's strong record of research in areas like agriculture through value-added foods, like increasing fibre and resistant starch in crops, and digital health, like the small, unobtrusive sensor we're currently developing that people with diabetes can wear to monitor their individual glucose levels.

These are powerful responses to the rise of lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain kinds of cancer, which are big challenges for both Australia and Asean.

Energy demand growth is a big topic in Asean, and the forecasts are the energy demand will grow quicker in Asean than even in China over the next 15 years.

Q: What are the opportunities for CSIRO to play a role in Asean's energy future?

A: We're really excited about the opportunities already emerging in hydrogen. Our researchers can now extract ultra-high purity hydrogen from ammonia by using a unique membrane technology, making it possible to safely transport hydrogen using existing fuel transport infrastructure.

Our faith in this work was recently affirmed when Fortescue Metals Group signed a $20 million partnership with us to continue development and commercialisation of hydrogen technologies.

In the broader Asian region, we're seeing commercial demand from nations such as Japan and South Korea rapidly improving and organisations like Toyota and Hyundai investing in hydrogen-powered cars.

A hydrogen-powered future could unlock growth and jobs for the Asean region while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Q: Silicon Valley has dominated innovation narratives, but now Asian nations are becoming their own digital hubs. How do you see Asean and Australia achieving that vision?

A: Working in Silicon Valley for 25 years, I saw first-hand the magic of their ecosystem, but looking at the global growth of new ventures here in Asean and in Australia, the Valley certainly doesn't have a monopoly on digital innovation.

A few years ago, CSIRO created the nation's first science accelerator, ON, and our innovation fund, managed by Main Sequence Ventures, to move more of our benchtop breakthroughs into market.

Our Singapore launch showcased a number of ON graduates, including telehealth platform Coviu, biofuel developers Folear, weather-forecasting technology Cloud180CAM, and gut-health diagnostic tool NoisyGuts, demonstrating the depth and breadth of innovation coming out of Australia's research organisations and developing people-to-people connections between Australia and the region. We're also thrilled to have Temasek make a substantial investment in the CSIRO Innovation Fund.

Q: You mention Temasek there, and Nanyang Technology University earlier, so what are the partnerships CSIRO will pursue to bring this all together?

A: Around the world, nations are realising that real innovation is too hard to do on your own anymore. It requires too many disciplines, too many insights. It needs to be a team sport. Fortunately, collaboration has always been CSIRO's business model.

Singapore is an innovation beacon in the Asean region, and CSIRO already has some great partnerships we're excited to continue growing, especially with A*Star, Nanyang Technology University, National University of Singapore and the Singapore University of Technology Design. Collectively, we're also engaging with Asean governments businesses, investors and entrepreneurs as essential team players in an ecosystem to make innovation happen.