The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the largest public sector R&D organization in Singapore, drives mission-oriented research that advances scientific discovery and technological innovation. In this interview, Chairman Mr. Lim Chuan Poh explains how the agency is helping Singapore – and the wider ASEAN region – achieve their goals in line with the Singapore government’s innovation agenda.
Could you tell us about the role A*STAR plays in promoting innovation and capability development, and A*STAR’s contribution towards Singapore’s success as the world’s seventh and Asia’s most innovative economy?
As a mission-oriented Science and Technology organization that bridges the gap between academia and industry, A*STAR is a key catalyzing and driving force in Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) ecosystem. It undertakes mission-oriented research and engages industry via a variety of platforms.
A*STAR plays a key role in executing the government’s innovation agenda, helping local enterprises remain relevant by enhancing their capabilities to exploit technology and digitalization, as well as conceive and scale-up new products and services. A*STAR also helps to anchor multinational companies (MNCs) in Singapore through strategic public-private partnerships such as joint labs and research collaborations.
In FY2017, A*STAR worked on over 2,100 projects with companies, a 20 per cent increase over FY2016. At the same time, A*STAR achieved around $340 million of R&D spending from industry through collaborations with our research institutes, a more than 50% increase from $220 million in FY2016.
As chairman of ASEAN, Singapore is actively promoting innovation, digitalization, and ecommerce among other policies. How important is the role it plays for the economic and social development of the region?
Singapore is in a particularly good position to lead Industry 4.0 initiatives for the region. Manufacturing remains an important pillar of Singapore’s economy, contributing to about 20% of GDP and 13% of total employment in 2017. Singapore is also globally competitive as a high-value manufacturing hub. In 2015, it was the
fourth largest contributor of high-tech exports in terms of value, behind China, Germany and the USA.
Concerted innovation efforts can also boost a wide variety of industry sectors across ASEAN, from agriculture to retail and health services that will bring about critical social developments.
What is A*STAR’s contribution to ASEAN-wide innovation?
A*STAR represents Singapore in the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology (COST), that endeavors to strengthen the science and technology capabilities in the region through collaborations across ASEAN institutions of higher learning and centers of excellence. COST is guided by the ASEAN Plan of Action on Science, Technology and Innovation (APASTI). In the latest APASTI 2016-2025, greater emphasis has been placed on developing leading-edge technologies to grow innovative capabilities in ASEAN, as well as an increased recognition for the need to engage the private sector and groom the youth of ASEAN.
How would you assess Singapore’s progress so far in driving innovation?
Singapore started off with the intention of creating a value-added economy through industry-oriented R&D. The current Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 Plan seeks to further align with the Committee on the Future Economy and the Future Economy Council’s goals to help key industry sectors upgrade their capabilities and thrive in the age of digital and technological disruption, and to create value for society.
We are on a right trajectory so far, as last year A*STAR achieved $340 million in industry R&D spending, a 50% increase from 2016. Significantly, R&D spending by local enterprises outpaced this increase, growing by around two-thirds from around $60 million to over $100 million. More local companies are also licensing A*STAR technology and innovations, ranging from antibodies to artificial intelligence services to automation tools. These enable companies to grow their innovation capacity and bring exciting new products and services to market.
In addition to growing a promising Fintech ecosystem and launching Smart Nation initiatives, Singapore has also achieved significant breakthroughs in other areas. For instance, our local biotech ecosystem has reached an inflexion point. Over the years, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of local biotechs with innovative drug pipelines and services that were made in Singapore.
A*STAR has played a significant role in nurturing Singapore’s nascent biotech ecosystem. Between 2010 and 2017, at least 60 local drug-development and related biotechs were incorporated in Singapore, tripling the 19 of the preceding decade (2000-2009). One-third of these biotechs were A*STAR spin-offs, and more than half of them have some form of IP, co-development projects, or joint labs with A*STAR.
As an indication of the rapid growth of Singapore’s biotech ecosystem, from 2010 to 2016, the Business Expenditure in R&D (BERD) generated by the local biotech sector increased nearly nine-fold, from around S$20m to well over S$180m.