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‘NUS has incubated about 25% of all the startups in Singapore’

Interview - November 28, 2018

In this interview, Tan Eng Chye discusses how NUS is helping students to prepare for Singapore’s future economy, how it is contributing to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the city state, and gives some examples of some of the successful startups created by its alumni and professors.



One of the first signs of Singapore embracing digital disruption was the CFE report with the objective of becoming a value creating economy. How important is it for Singapore to upgrade its value proposition and how have you seen its implementation?

Singapore is renowned for its foresight, planning and preparations. We’ve always looked to and prepared for the future for the past 50 years. The operating environment has changed rapidly. It is very timely for the future economy report to come up to guide Singapore’s industry, and the educational institutions on the steps to take. The key is the value creation instead of value adding, and this is the transformation we have to go through. We do have a very strong base from where we are going to launch our value creation. The universities, particularly NUS, play a big part in driving innovation.

How do the universities come in to the picture? Innovation is about value-generating ideas – universities are one key source of these ideas. At NUS, we have been creating value for our students and country for generations, particularly with the NUS Overseas Colleges program. The NOC program which began in 2002 was a precursor of entrepreneurship and innovation at NUS and Singapore, particularly at the undergraduate level. The move to value creation for the Singapore economy is very much needed and innovation continues to play an important role here. This is a very useful direction for the whole country.


Today universities are playing a bigger role than before especially within the enterprise ecosystem. How have you felt that change in your mission statement?

NUS is very mindful. There are two key missions for us. One is in training our graduates so that they can adapt to the new economy. There is a strong need to train our graduates to be more adaptable because of the rapid changes. They must have strong skills that enable them to keep learning, to enhance their capability and competencies to progress further in their careers. This is why lifelong learning is today a key component of the NUS educational strategy. We have moved from a university with a fixed duration of study to a university that sees learning as a life-long journey. We are not going to have alumni anymore, because everyone is going to continue learning even after their retirement. That is a big change to the way we view education.

The second part which is critical in our mission is our research. How can NUS, which is an immense engine of knowledge creation, ensure that we can translate our research into solutions that would impact society? Conducting basic research is important, but so is translating research outcomes to benefit society. These are the two big drivers that are transforming NUS.


The biggest disruptors are automation, IOT and AI, which are predicted to have a very big impact on the labor market here. What is your role from a social point of view, to make sure that the students are still able to find a job or to re-skill themselves in the future? How has that impacted your approach to the economy?

The model that we had adopted several years ago was based on building American “T”-shaped competencies – where the vertical part of the "T" refers to a major that a student would need to learn in-depth knowledge, the horizontal part of the "T" refers to his or her broad-based learning. To ensure that our students have strong foundations, we need a thicker and broader base. A "T" is not good enough. We are now suggesting that our students need to have a double "T", which in mathematics is a Pi or π. Moving from a "T" to a Pi is one change. It may be a small perturbation but it is a very critical one. We know that students need to graduate within four years for undergraduate programs, and that no matter how long you keep them in the university, they are not going to be able to learn everything, because of the rapid rate of change. There are many other things which are still not yet available in the universities, but will soon be important for the working world. That is how fast things are changing.

The World Economic Forum has estimated that 2/3 of the children going into primary school today would end up in jobs that do not exist right now, 65% according to them. This is frightening. No university would be able to provide you with the skills that are going to be needed 20 years down the road. This is why the concept of lifelong learning is key. With a π-shaped competency, one of the majors a student takes at NUS would be in STEM, while the other major would be in the humanities or social sciences. This versatility gives our graduate an easier time to skill up in either areas or in a multidisciplinary area, when needed, in the future.

At this point in time, our students learn statistics, quantitative reasoning and computational thinking because knowledge in these areas is very critical for AI and data analytics. Concurrently, we are very mindful that our students need enhanced soft skills. We have our Roots & Wings program which is now in version 2.0. ‘Roots’ refer to personal skillsets like resilience and mindfulness and ‘Wings’ refer to interpersonal skillsets. Through this program, students learn about empathetic communication and hopefully, they become more effective when interacting with their peers and leaders in the future workplace.

We also prepare our students by ensuring that they go for internships, which are now mandatory for engineering and computing students. Many faculties want to make internships last for about six months as part of their curriculum. To date, 70% of our students go on some form of internship. It is a good opportunity for students to understand industry needs and changes, and to also practice their soft skills.

This very “thick” layer of general education at NUS has been reinforced with many more of the new skills that we feel all our students would need to have when they go out into the working world. They need to have global orientation and adaptability. They need to have a core set of soft and hard skills, to be prepared for continual learning as they progress. We recently initiated our Lifelong Learners’ program which is the very first in any university around the world. It is a 20-year commitment. All NUS graduates will enjoy automatic enrollment into all of our continuing education programsfor 20 years, from the point of undergraduate admission. This is part of our efforts to integrate lifelong learning into the higher education framework.


When we talk about Singapore's transformation, we see, for example, FinTech as the result of incorporating digital disruption into the finance sector. What is your analysis of the smart nation initiative and how important is it as a test of Singapore's readiness to incorporate digital disruption? What role you are playing within this initiative?

One of the key enablers in Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative is talent. The second is whether you have the environment to support that research and the ecosystem to support translation. The third is about access to markets. Even if you have ideas, the access to markets would be quite critical.

NUS has a very sizeable group of faculty members and researchers who are engaged in Smart Nation research, many of whom are located in our new Innovation 4.0 building. Our strengths in this area are in data science, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. NUS is a host to AI Singapore, a national program for artificial intelligence research, and the National Cybersecurity R&D Lab. We also have a partnership with SingTel, the biggest telco in Singapore, through a joint Corporate Lab on cybersecurity. We work with many fintech companies. Our enterprise ecosystem is very vibrant, and block-chain is one of the rapidly growing areas of research at NUS.

We have a faculty member who has six block-chain companies, and his most recent company was launched in the early part of this year. One of the companies is involved in cryptocurrency, and its value has grown to more than US$1 billion in just four months. He has another company called TrueBit which is about using a scalable verification solution for block-chain, and another company called SmartPool, which is involved in crypto-currency mining. We are very active in this particular area of fintech. Forbes recently wrote an article about the fintech and block-chain vibrancy in NUS.


How has technology changed your approach to research? How has it improved your ability to support industry research with commercial application by gaining economy of scales of doing research in one area and being able to implement in another moving forward?

Universities have to play a key role in the transformation by training the right people or collaborating with the industry in research, and the government needs to provide support to steer everyone in this direction. This is a multiplayer issue.

From the perspective of the university, we engage industry through internships where we expose our students to the relevant areas. We also have a lot of research collaborations with companies, and these projects are funded by the government, not just by the industry.

We would have our staff serving as consultants to close to 2,000 companies all over Singapore. There are also hundreds of projects that we collaborate on with industry. On the bigger scale, we have currently four corporate laboratories – one of them is a partnership with Sembcorp Industries which is on sustainable energy, waste and waste-to-resource technologies. The Corporate Lab with Keppel Corporation is in the area of offshore and deep-sea engineering. Right now, mining is done in ocean depths of not more than one kilometer but we have to move much deeper, possibly, in the Arctic area where the weather is extremely severe.

The government has invested, despite the downturn of the global maritime industry, S$107million for us to build a deep-water basin which is located at the back of this ridge. There is a big swimming pool, 60 meters long, 48 meters wide and 12 meters deep, with a big hole in the middle to do simulation. We are trying to excavate oil at a depth of up to 2.5 kilometers. We are doing a lot of modelling and in collaboration with companies. That facility is supported by the government and it is going to be open to companies in the maritime industry that are based in Singapore. This is a separate big project that the government has invested in to support the maritime industry.

Another recent collaboration is with Grab. It is one of the unicorns based in Singapore. Grab has collected a lot of data due to its presence in over 200 over cities in Southeast Asia. How do we optimize the travel time for everyone? The time you spend on the road is very unproductive, so they hope to reduce travel times in Singapore by 1/3 through technology – if you spend two hours, you could potentially spend 40 minutes less. These are some examples of collaboration with industry which is extremely important. We are trying to engage industries in many different ways and directions.


Entrepreneurship and internationalization has been quite challenging for the country. How important is it as part of your identity as a university to drive entrepreneurship? How has that process evolved in NUS since 2001 to where you are today?

We see entrepreneurship as a key pillar at NUS. In the early 2000s, we were fascinated by the organic growth of start-ups in Silicon Valley, and the resilient, never-say-die spirit of the innovators there. We felt that this innovative spirit and thriving ecosystem would be exciting for NUS and Singapore, and that we needed to develop this critical mass of Singaporeans with an entrepreneurial mindset. The quickest way to do this was to locate a small percentage of our people there.

Some 16 years on, we now have 11 NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) around the world, including in Silicon Valley, New York City and Toronto in North America, Stockholm in Sweden, Lausanne in Switzerland, Munich in Germany, Tel Aviv in Israel, two in China (Beijing and Shanghai), and Jakarta in Indonesia. We plan to set up a third NOC in China, and will also expand our network of NOCs in Southeast Asia. Asia is a very exciting place, and Southeast Asia, even more so. Southeast Asia will be a strong growth area for the next 15 to 20 years.

At our current NOC locations, we collaborate with partner universities - in Silicon Valley with Stanford, in Toronto with University of Toronto, in Stockholm withKTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Beijing with Tsinghua University. Students, who are mostly third-year students, are attached to startup companies for up to a full year. In the evenings, they take entrepreneurship courses at our partner universities. When these students return to NUS, they can choose to stay in a special residential complex – we call it ‘ENterprise House (N-House)’. Their overseas exposure, plus their work experience in startup companies, often lead to the development of many wonderful ideas.

Over the last 10 years, more than 350 companies have been set up by these students. Let me cite four: Zopim, which was acquired by Zendesk from California and listed on NASDAQ; ShopBack; Carousell; and PatSnap. They have been valued at US$300 to US$500 million. So far, NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of NUS, has incubated about 1,200 companies. The companies that are able to secure Series A, B or C funding, when compared with the Singapore average, are probably three times better.

We were able to do this because we put a lot of effort into developing the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Singapore. In 2011, we partnered with Singtel, a local telco, and the Media Development Authority at that time to create Launchpad space at Block 71 in the Ayer Rajah industrial estate, an area then slated for demolition. In two years, Block 71 became one of the densest startup hubs – the Economist wrote about it. The government then rebuilt two other nearby blocks, Blocks 73 and 75. The whole area, which is just across from our Kent Ridge campus, is now a launch pad for global and local startups. Block 71 has become our “ecosystem building” brand, and provides a suite of expertise needed to build a very vibrant innovation and enterprise system. To date, NUS has incubated about 25% of all the startups in Singapore.