Jump in pace of R&D investments by SMEs

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the Economic Society of Singapore Annual Dinner on Aug 2, 2017.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the Economic Society of Singapore Annual Dinner on Aug 2, 2017. ST PHOTO: DON WONG

Heng Swee Keat urges firms to continue seeking opportunities outside their sector

Investments by small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) in research and development are growing at twice the pace it was in the past decade, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

Speaking at the opening of the second annual Leaders in Science Forum held at the Biopolis research hub in Buona Vista, he said R&D investments by SMEs grew 7 per cent yearly from 2010 to 2015.

In the previous five-year period, that rate was just 3 per cent.

Overall, R&D investments by businesses grew 8 per cent yearly from 2010 to 2015, topping $5 billion in 2015.

"This is very encouraging. Today, Singapore is regarded well as a vibrant international research hub," Mr Heng said.

And even as he hailed the increase in R&D investment, he stressed the need for companies to continue spending some of those resources looking for opportunities outside their sector.

"The real world is messy and does not fit neatly into one specific discipline," he said.

CROSS- DISCIPLINARY APPROACH

The real world is messy and does not fit neatly into one specific discipline. Often, to innovate, we have to bring together knowledge and insights across different areas, and to keep an open mind about new possibilities.

FINANCE MINISTER HENG SWEE KEAT, on the need for firms to look for opportunities outside their sector.

"Often, to innovate, we have to bring together knowledge and insights across different areas, and to keep an open mind about new possibilities."

R&D activities may not have immediate payoffs, but Mr Heng said they spawn new businesses, entrepreneurs and ecosystems, which are key to creating a competitive edge for Singapore.

Singapore-based Addvalue Technologies, a 23-year-old satellite communications product maker, is among those that have boosted R&D spending, having invested some US$3 million (S$4.1 million), or about 20 per cent of its revenue last year, in product R&D.

"We need to expand beyond the traditional shipping and oil and gas sectors for business to grow," said Dr Lim Wei Ming, vice- president of advanced development at Addvalue.

Its R&D efforts allow the company to target the smart agriculture space, where its satellite communications products can be deployed in plantations to allow sensors to monitor environmental and soil conditions. Most of these plantations in Asia do not have 3G or 4G connections.

In January last year, the Singapore Government renewed its five-year $19 billion research fund to sustain the R&D momentum here.

The sixth Research Innovation and Enterprise road map will see R&D investments in sustainable energy, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing, among other areas, through 2020.

And "open innovation" is the way forward, as set out by the Committee on the Future Economy tasked to chart Singapore's blueprint for economic growth.

This means tapping the expertise of overseas entrepreneurs or the many research institutions in Singapore.

One example is the opening of Block71 Jakarta last month to allow businesses from Singapore and Indonesia to explore R&D and collaboration opportunities.

The 1,500 sq m facility in Jakarta's Kuningan district is a tie-up between the National University of Singapore's entrepreneurial arm NUS Enterprise and Indonesia's Salim Group conglomerate.

It is based on Singapore's Block71 in Ayer Rajah Crescent, the heart of Singapore's entrepre- neurship scene and home to a community of start-ups, venture capitalists and incubators.

"We must continue to forge closer partnerships and strengthen our innovation ecosystem (to) keep Singapore competitive and relevant to the world," said Mr Heng.

And if innovation is about new combinations and new possibilities, even cross-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary work may not be adequate.

"We will need a sense of wonder and curiosity," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Jump in pace of R&D investments by SMEs'. Print Edition | Subscribe