Singapore: Paving A National Framework for Research, Innovation and Enterprise

In July 2009 I was compelled to write a paper on how I saw the Australian Federal government could assist in creating a ecosystem for research, innovation and entrepreneurship. At the time they had announced that they were going to set up a Commonwealth Commercialisation Institute. I wanted to give them some of my insights after more than a decade in the space in Australia and the US.

Fast forward more than two years. My paper was largely ignored. Instead the Federal government set up Commercialisation Australia, which is essentially yet another granting body. It does little more than hand out staged grants, there is no hint at the matrixed ecosystem this country so desperately needs to move itself forward.

In contrast let’s take a look at one country that is powering ahead: Singapore. Note that there are others doing great things too, but let’s just focus on one, that’s close enough geographically to really show off how far behind Australia is lagging.

Set up as a department within the Prime Ministers Office in 2006, Singapore’s National Research Foundation sets the national direction for research and development by putting in place policies, plans and strategies for research, innovation and enterprise, funds strategic initiatives, builds up R&D capabilities and capacities through nurturing Singapore’s talent and attracting foreign talent, and co-ordinates the research agenda of different agencies focused on transforming Singapore into a knowledge-intensive, innovative and entrepreneurial economy. One of the NRF’s aims is to make Singapore a talent magnet for scientific and innovation excellence.

In March 2008 Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, approved the establishment of a National Framework for Innovation and Enterprise (NFIE). This framework was set up to encourage universities and polytechnics to pursue academic entrepreneurship and turn their R&D results into commercial products for the marketplace, while also assisting entrepreneurs to start-up technology based companies.

Currently the NFIE has a budget of $360 million, which is used to support a range of ecosystem creating initiatives, namely:

  • Early Stage Venture Funds – the NRF invests $10m, on a 1:1 matching basis, to seed VC funds for investing into Singapore-based early stage high-tech companies. The VCs can buy out the NRF’s share within 5 years by returning NRF’s capital with a nominal interest;
  • Proof of Concept Grants – grants of up to $250,000 are provided for technology proof of concept development projects, both for researchers and companies;
  • Disruptive Innovation Incubator – this scheme supports a business incubator which invests in Singapore-based start-ups with disruptive innovation;
  • Technology Incubation Scheme – the NRF invests up to $500,000 in Singapore-based start-up companies that are incubated by selected technology incubators;
  • Translational R&D Grants for Polytechnics – the provision of development grants of up to $500,000 to researchers to carry out translational research;
  • University Innovation Fund – the provision of funding to the Singapore universities for approved innovation-related activities;
  • National Framework of IP Principles – a framework designed to speed up the licensing of IP from universities and research institutes to industry;
  • Innovation and Enterprise Institute – the Institutes objective is to help develop the innovation and enterprise ecosystem by providing the necessary information, research methodology and relevant networks to galvanise innovation and enterprise activities in Singapore;
  • Global Entrepreneur Executives – this scheme is aimed at attracting high-growth and high-tech venture-backed companies with global entrepreneurial executives in ICT, medtech and clean tech to relocate to Singapore. The NRF invests up to $3 million in matching funding to eligible companies via convertible notes; and
  • Innovation Vouchers Scheme – local enterprises are give vouchers under this scheme that are redeemable for R&D and technical services from universities and public research institutes.
I’ll be visiting Singapore in a few weeks time and look forward to learning more about their vision to become a leading entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Stand Up Paddling: That First Glide

Summer is all but here in Sydney. It’s a fantastic time of year especially if you are a waterman. Long warm days with loads of surf and flat water to paddle on. As a fanatical believer in the transformative power of sport and especially of stand up paddling I thought it was timely to share this movie trailer – get out on the water this summer!

Palo Alto Pays Its Respects To Steve Jobs

When I lived in Silicon Valley I stayed for a while on an estate in downtown Palo Alto on the same street as the original HP garage. It was a special place, in many ways timeless – surrounded by massive redwoods and a quiet haven from the hustle of the 101.

But in the true Silicon Valley way it was also a seriously connected and yet very understated place. For example, one of the other cottages on the property was occupied by Tim Cook. At the time Tim was Acting CEO at Apple, but as we know he then went on to replace Steve.

One of my other neighbours, Bill Daul, made the following observation following Steve’s passing:

Palo Alto was a really quiet place today. Steve only lived 10 blocks or so from me…they were worried about people gathering at his home…only about 40 people were there. It is really strange to have one of the greatest businessmen of our time and all US time pass away here in our town. It is also sort of special how respectful Palo Alto is of Steve’s family.

Respect, Palo Alto-style.

I’ve added in some pics taken at Steve’s house by¬†Susan Neville.

Using Science Fiction Prototyping To Break Through The Consensus Innovation And Get Big Things Done Barrier

One of my favorite science fiction authors, Neal Stephenson, has written an article titled Innovation Starvation, in which he discusses how science fiction can be used to spur scientists on to make big breakthroughs. I want to extract a few comments from his article before exploring the exciting world of Science Fiction (SF) Prototyping.

Neal worries that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy…

Yet fast forward to today and where are we? Neal uses the example of energy:-

We’ve been talking about wind farms, tidal power, and solar power for decades. Some progress has been made in those areas, but energy is still about oil. In my city, Seattle, a 35 year old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares.

Frustrated by our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff, Neal has turned to the tools of his trade – science fiction writing for a panacea. He believes that science fiction as hieroglyph-maker has relevance in this area:-

Good SF supplies a plausible , fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and (another of my favorites) William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs – simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Neal continues to define the problem and how SF can address it:-

Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more and more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem.

I agree that this ‘specialisation’ is an issue. However, I also believe that a culture of consensus is greatly affecting our ability to focus on and get big things solved. Much research is being driven by consensus innovation – academics are recognized and rewarded for publishing highly cited papers. Controversy does not increase citation count, nor does publishing in areas that fall outside the scientific vogue of the day.

Neal notes that many researchers and engineers have a fondness for SF, which reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision.

The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments.

This meme that we should all be working on solving big stuff that matters is something of a bug bear for me. I’ve written, for example, ¬†about harnessing the power of social to solve big problems like the obesity pandemic. Others are echoing this – Tim O’Reilly recently tweeted:

…someone else makes the appeal for entrepreneurs to work on stuff that matters…

He pointed to an article in which Alyson Shontell picks up on the meaningful innovation meme over at Business Insider. She writes that young founders seem to be enthralled with building fun but meaningless apps. She quotes VC Mark Suster as saying, “The auto industry alone is a $1.6 trillion industry, and you want to f*ck with bars and restaurants?”

But how do we inspire researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs to break out of the consensus innovation mould?

This is where SF prototyping as a means of exploring Hieroglyphs and providing inspiration for big products to solve big issues can come to the rescue.

Just as Neal Stephenson is calling for SF writers to think big and bold and inspire generations of researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs to tackle projects that can allow us to escape our current problems, so SF prototyping provides a useful tool to harness science fiction, the playground of our imaginations, tethered to science fact to both imagine our future and enable the development of new technologies and products.

Intel futurecaster, Brian David Johnson, has written a book on the interesting arena of “Science Fiction Protyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction” in which he explores the use of three publishing genres to create SF protyptes – short stories, movies and comics.

For anyone involved in exploring the boundaries of possibility and charting the trendmaps of the nextnow and the distant future, SF prototyping can be an extremely useful tool. I’ll be writing more on this area in due course.

Think big, think ahead and let’s solve for the future.