ONE of Germany's leading specialty chemicals multinationals, Evonik, which made its single largest overseas investment of more than 500 million euros (S$800 million) in Singapore last year, has just posted its first woman regional chief here. This is highly unusual among listed German companies with operations in the Republic.
Shirley Qi, 38, is both regional president for Evonik's South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand (SEAANZ) region and head of Nutrition & Care division for Asia Pacific. She started in her new role here on Oct 1. Born in Shanghai, Ms Qi holds German nationality.
Evonik is one of the largest German investors in Singapore in recent years. Over the past five years it has invested more than one billion euros (S$1.6 billion) on Jurong Island alone. In 2014, the company's first methionine plant there went onstream. Last year, Evonik opened its second methionine plant there with an investment of more than 500 million euros for the construction of its latest plant.
Methionine is used by the animal feed industry in over 120 countries - with rising demand especially in Asia.
"I am excited to start in my new position here. Singapore is our gateway to markets in Southeast Asia and beyond. As the Regional President, I will be overseeing major business, investment and R&D projects in the SEAANZ region, among other responsibilities," Ms Qi says in an interview with The Business Times.
She studied business administration at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, before starting her career as a consultant at a management consultancy company in Munich, specialising in procurement. In 2012, Ms Qi joined Evonik in Shanghai, China, taking on various leading procurement roles, the latest being Head of Procurement for Asia Pacific.
"Making things better is in our DNA with sustainability being our key growth driver and the cornerstone of our R&D efforts. We aim to make a difference together with our customers in Asia, to turn good ideas into marketable solutions."
She adds that Evonik, as one of the world leaders in specialty chemicals, goes beyond chemistry to create innovative, profitable and sustainable solutions for its customers.
"We may not manufacture tyres, mattresses, medications, or animal feeds, but Evonik is part of all of those products - and many more. While we often contribute only small amounts of material, those contributions are precisely what make the difference and give our customers the competitive edge. That's because Evonik products make tyres fuel-efficient, mattresses more elastic, medications more effective, and animal feeds healthier. That's what specialty chemicals are all about."
With more than 700 employees in Singapore today, Evonik has been active here for over 50 years and has its Asia Pacific region headquarters here. In addition to the two world-scale production complexes for essential amino acid DL-methionine on Jurong Island, the company has an oil additives production site on the island. It also has a manufacturing facility in Tuas producing epoxy curing agent, ink and hotmelt resin, and polyurethane catalyst blends.
Singapore also houses Evonik's first Asia Research Hub as well as innovation and technical service centres for functional surfaces, additive manufacturing, tissue engineering, animal feed, polyurethane additives, and beauty and care.
Says Ms Qi: "We opened our Asia Research Hub in Singapore in 2018 with a clear-cut focus on Evonik's growth topics. We develop novel technologies in additive manufacturing (3-D-printing) for industrial application, particularly photoresin-based technology.
"Singapore's vibrant R&D ecosystem offers a conducive environment to attract expert talent not only in this field but many others. In the so-called tissue engineering, we are working closely with local researchers to find advanced biomaterial solutions in regenerative medicine. Our scientists' vision is to improve the treatment options for patients with severe burns or diabetes-related wounds."
Another interesting area that Evonik is working on is very relevant to Singapore. The company is attempting to adapt an innovation used in Germany to keep the cold outside buildings to instead keep the heat out of buildings in Singapore in cooperation with the HDB.
"HDB has started to explore the use of Evonik's high-performance insulation material that can offer superior heat protection for buildings in a tropical climate like Singapore. Installed on the roofs of HDB buildings, it will potentially reduce the heat gain in the building during day time while offering the best in class fire protection. This will also enable the buildings to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly," says Ms Qi.
Evonik has more than 2,500 employees doing R&D around the world. It invested a total of 428 million euros in R&D last year. The company is placing emphasis on six innovation growth fields: sustainable nutrition, healthcare solutions, advanced food ingredients, membranes, cosmetic solutions, and additive manufacturing. It plans for innovations in these areas to generate an additional one billion euros in sales by 2025.
"In Singapore, over 50 researchers at our Research Hub work towards developing technology solutions to meet the industry's challenges in the areas of additive manufacturing, functional surface and coating, and tissue engineering. These developments provide solutions to global industrial challenges and are well integrated into Evonik's global innovation network. With this hub in the Biopolis area, we are all set to expand our collaboration with research institutions and organisations not only in Singapore but in Asia as well," says Ms Qi.
She adds that Singaporean Dr Sher Lin Ee, who heads Evonik's Digital Labs Asia, and her team are working on the development of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions and engaging state-of-the-art technologies to support business lines and functions within Evonik as an integral part of the company's global approach to drive digitalisation.
"With respect to R&D, the overall target of the Digital Lab team is to use AI to increase the speed of new product-to-market processes. And across the disciplines of AI and chemistry, the team strives to find novel experiments outside a chemist's traditional box of experimentation, thus delivering one more example of how Evonik is leading beyond chemistry."