Year in review: Internet of Things

Granny's blood glucose monitoring chip firm thinks big

Madam Long (above) has a firm - Singapore Biomicro - which is developing a wireless, implantable blood glucose monitoring device (left) to eliminate daily finger-prick blood tests for diabetics.
Madam Long (above) has a firm - Singapore Biomicro - which is developing a wireless, implantable blood glucose monitoring device to eliminate daily finger-prick blood tests for diabetics.ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
Madam Long (above) has a firm - Singapore Biomicro - which is developing a wireless, implantable blood glucose monitoring device (left) to eliminate daily finger-prick blood tests for diabetics.
Madam Long has a firm - Singapore Biomicro - which is developing a wireless, implantable blood glucose monitoring device (above) to eliminate daily finger-prick blood tests for diabetics.ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM

Internet ofThings trend levels playing field in semiconductor sector, letting SMEs compete

A sprightly 71-year-old grandmother is among those at the forefront of a rapidly emerging trend in the semiconductor industry.

Madam Long Qiongzhen's medical technology firm Singapore Biomicro is one of the start-ups making products for the fast-growing Internet of Things (IoT) - the network of devices connected to the Internet or to one another.

Her firm, in partnership with a multinational and a United States university, is developing a chip-containing, surgically implantable blood glucose monitoring device.

The device, to be tested on animals early next year, has a sensor to send blood glucose readings wirelessly to an external reader. It will eliminate the need for diabetics to do regular finger-prick blood tests - a troublesome and painful process.

Madam Long, herself a diabetic, empathises with those forced to do this regularly.

"I'm at an age where I should be resting at home, but I'm putting my retirement money into this company because I believe this will benefit many people," said Madam Long, who is also chairman of offshore logistics company Longzhu Group.

The rise of such connected devices is fuelling a resurgence in demand for semiconductor components - needed to collect or transmit information across networks.

With growth rates for the smartphone market levelling off and the personal computer market already in decline, the Internet of Things could reinvigorate the semiconductor industry and serve as an important new source of growth.

Beyond consumer electronics such as smartwatches, fitness trackers and smartglasses, the trend is also manifesting in a wide range of other applications - from self-driving cars and drones to energy management and security.

There could be anywhere between 30 billion and 50 billion connected devices by 2020, according to a PwC study. These connected devices will drive the total Internet of Things market to US$8.9 trillion (S$12.5 trillion) by 2020, with three segments - consumer electronics, automotive and healthcare - accounting for more than 50 per cent of the total market in revenue terms.

SMALL FIRMS DISRUPT PLAYING FIELD

The semiconductor industry here is keen to get in on the action, given that Singapore accounts for about a tenth of the world's semiconductor output. Electronics manufacturing makes up nearly 5 per cent of Singapore's economy, with semiconductors accounting for 60 per cent of that output, according to the Economic Development Board (EDB).

An industry-wide effort is now under way to develop talent and ramp up research collaborations between public research institutes and semiconductor firms.

"The Internet of Things is one of the biggest inflection points in our industry," said Mr Ng Kai Fai, president of global industry association Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International South-east Asia.

Unlike previous industry trends such as the rise of personal computers and mobile phones, however, the Internet of Things favours small, nimble firms - like Madam Long's Singapore Biomicro - rather than the large companies which have traditionally dominated the semiconductor sector.

"PCs and mobile phones are a mass production business - for instance, companies might sell 10 million pieces of one product each month," said Mr Ulf Schneider, the president of the Singapore Semiconductor Industry Association.

This will not be the case for the Internet of Things trend, given the sheer variety of possible devices and applications.

"Instead of huge volumes of the same product, demand will be more fragmented and companies will have to develop specialised technologies for each application," added Mr Schneider, also the general manager of Intel Technology Asia.

"Suddenly, the scaling is completely different and the playing field opens to smaller companies. This will be very interesting and will give additional flavour to our industry."

Mr Mike Holt, founding partner and managing director of Get2Volume, a start-up incubator and advisory firm, said start-ups are driving innovation in the Internet of Things space. The incubator is working with 11 start-ups which have developed Internet of Things applications in areas such as smart energy management, healthcare, logistics fleet management and retail.

"Singapore is not a big market for consumer products, but it can be an interesting market for business-to-business products - for instance, systems which control street lights, or smart health devices which can be sold to hospitals," he said.

"We're playing to Singapore's strengths and partnering with multinational companies, many of which have operations here."

PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

Even as start-ups challenge old business models, they often have limited resources when it comes to bringing new products onto the market. This is where the Government and larger firms can play a role, said Professor Kwong Dim-Lee, executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Institute of Microelectronics (IME).

IME hopes to become a platform for collaborations between public research institutes and the private sector, as well as linking up start-ups and strategic investors.

"We hope big companies can become strategic investors involved in funding and screening start-ups, to help reduce entry barriers for new products and ideas," said Prof Kwong. "We have been quite successful in engaging the entire semiconductor supply chain, and many major players have a presence in Singapore. We have to develop an ecosystem that is ready to receive start-ups, or larger companies keen on joint ventures."

One key research area IME is focusing on is packaging-related technology, which involves novel ways of densely packing chips together in small devices, to allow for lower power consumption.

"We need strategic investors, a network of mentors and companies keen on joint ventures… The Government and private sector have to work together to make that happen. If not, the opportunities will be taken up by others," he said.

EXISTING TECHNOLOGY STILL ESSENTIAL

Small firms are still driving much of the early innovation in the Internet of Things trend, but multinationals have not been resting on their laurels either.

Applied Materials, the world's largest semiconductor equipment maker, is among the companies investing significantly in research and development efforts here.

The firm, which develops and designs production equipment for factories that make chips, has partnered A*Star to jointly invest in research labs focusing on advanced semiconductor technologies.

Mr Russell Tham, regional president for South-east Asia at Applied Materials, said the Internet of Things presents two broad opportunities for the company. The trend will drive up demand for chips, but not necessarily of the most cutting-edge variety.

This means existing factories which make chips - and are equipped with older manufacturing technologies - will also have a larger market to serve in the long run.

"Existing technology can be used to fabricate the chips for a lot of consumer electronic devices, such as smartwatches," said Mr Tham.

"Some of our customers here have more mature semicon processing technology, but can still take advantage of this trend."

Applied Materials aims to produce half of its global semiconductor-related output in Singapore in the coming years, he added.

Mr Pee Beng Kong, director of the electronics cluster at EDB, said the semiconductor industry here is focused on growing in four key areas: communications, sensors and actuators, store, and power.

"These focus areas are chosen as the ability to sense, store and share information in a power-efficient manner will be key to most emerging trends such as pervasive connected devices, smart homes, cloud or autonomous vehicles," he added.

Meanwhile, most firms are still trying to figure out how to take advantage of the Internet of Things, a trend still very much in its infancy.

"Every major customer is going into it, but everyone is still trying to guess what the market demand will be like," said Mr Chiou Lid Jian, general manager of ASE Singapore, part of the global Advanced Semiconductor Engineering (ASE) Group.

"The technology is already available. Now it's about applications and making it into something big. A lot of things are happening at the same time and no one can guess how the whole thing is going to unravel."

Madam Long, though, is brimming with ideas. Besides the blood glucose monitoring device, Singapore Biomicro is also developing an implantable device that will help patients manage pain without the need for medication, and a medical device based on traditional Chinese medicine principles, among others.

"I hope to one day set up a chain of low-cost health and wellness centres for the ill and elderly with all our products," said Madam Long, in Mandarin. She was originally from China, but has been a Singapore citizen for more than two decades.

"I hope people can be healthier and happier, to benefit society as a whole."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Granny's small firm thinks big'. Print Edition | Subscribe