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Engineer racing to put Singapore on the tech map

Mr Peter Ho gave up his job as a race car engineer and started Hope Technik with three others in 2006.
Mr Peter Ho gave up his job as a race car engineer and started Hope Technik with three others in 2006.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Mr Peter Ho believes in "super soldiers". They may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies such as The Avengers, but the co-founder of start-up Hope Technik is not being ingenuous.

The home-grown company specialises in high-performance engineering for the military, motorsport and biomedical industries.

A jaunt through its Penjuru Close workshop yielded glimpses of exoskeletons, such as mechanical limbs that Mr Ho said would allow "a skinny guy like me to lift four people with one hand".

These exoskeletons could enable a shipyard worker to carry otherwise-impossible loads, or a nurse to lift elderly patients from wheelchairs to hospital beds.

"2016 is going to see the rise of the exoskeletons," said Mr Ho, 37.

If life at Hope Technik sounds like the titles of blockbuster science fiction movies, it is because, Mr Ho believes, films predict the technology trends of the future.

"Five to 10 years ago, we had all these movies with drones, like Transformers. Then suddenly, drones proliferated across the world," he said.

"Recently, pop culture has been about movies like Iron Man, Edge Of Tomorrow and Elysium, where the heroes used exoskeletons to be more powerful. Now, we're looking at this becoming the next cutting edge of technology."

In many of these films, ordinary humans are transformed by machinery into super soldiers. Likewise, Mr Ho sees technology as the way to transform tiny Singapore into something far greater than its natural capacity allows.

He said: "We are a little country. We don't have natural resources. We have one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world. We're trying to grow an economy with a shrinking labour force.

"These are real problems that we need to turn to innovation and value creation to solve. It's damn tough, but we need to try."

Nine years ago, he was living life in the fast lane as a jet-setting race car engineer, but he chose to give that up, and the five-figure monthly salary, to stay put in Singapore.

"I would spend months living out of a suitcase," he recalled. "It just wasn't home. Also, I missed chicken rice."

In 2006, he and three former National University of Singapore classmates - Mr Michael Leong, Mr Ng Kiang Loong and Mr Jeff Tang - founded Hope Technik with $10,000. Asked where they got the money, Mr Ho said: "The ATM. We each took out $2,500 in cash. That was all we had."

The young firm struggled at first to find its footing. Mr Ho did not draw a salary for 15 months and racked up hefty debts. "It was a long, painful road," he said.

Nearly a decade later, Hope Technik has grown to employ 100 staff, has delivered 350 contracts to 18 countries and is planning to start an overseas subsidiary next year.

It boasts big-name clients like Airbus, with which it inked a landmark multimillion-dollar deal in 2012 to build a research prototype of a plane that can take travellers to the edge of space 100km above earth. The space plane tests were concluded successfully in May last year.

It has also produced more than 60 Red Rhino emergency vehicles for the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and is looking to export the Rhino designs to five countries.

Mr Ho added: "We're going to be very patriotic. We'll emboss the Singapore flag on all the vehicles so that wherever they go, everyone will know where they were made.

"It's for our children's sakes. If we don't put Singapore on the map, if we don't get things overseas and brand them as Singaporean, what will our children have?"

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Engineer racing to put Singapore on the tech map'. Print Edition | Subscribe