NTU and A*Star patently ahead in their fields

Image of a cancer cell.
Image of a cancer cell. PHOTO: A*STAR

Study shows they've made breakthroughs in semiconductors and fight against cancer

At a time when high-tech patents are being rapidly churned out, Singapore has emerged a global research contender in two fields.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has forged ahead in semiconductor breakthroughs, while the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has excelled in the fight against cancer, according to the latest report by media and information firm Thomson Reuters.

NTU was listed as one of the world's most prolific institutions in semiconductor research, based on the number of academic papers published from 2010 to 2014.

Overall, it came in seventh in the 2015 State of Innovation report, behind the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Tokyo. In comparison, the University of Cambridge was 10th.

BRASS TACKS

A patent is useful only when industry seeks to license the technology, or when spin-offs are formed, to commercialise the innovations.

DR LIM JUI, chief executive officer of NTU Innovation and NTUitive

Separately, NTU was this year's highest-ranked Singapore institution on the Nature Index, a ranking by one of the world's most prestigious specialist research publications. NTU climbed two places to earn 40th spot, overtaking the National University of Singapore (NUS), at 42nd.

NTU scientists have been working on subjects such as nano-medicine, an emerging field where drugs can be delivered to specific cells with tiny nano-size particles thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand; satellite technology; and novel materials for mobile electronics and electric vehicles.

The other top performer, A*Star, put the spotlight on cancer research, applying for 80 patents in the 2010 to 2014 period, according to the Thomson Reuters report. It came in fifth in Asia for the number of patents filed in the category, after others such as the University of Seoul and China's University of Fudan.

Several A*Star institutes are involved in the fight against cancer. The Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, for example, looks at early detection and personalised treatment of different cancers.

A*Star is also developing a new cancer drug that is already being tested on patients.

The Thomson Reuters study examined scientific literature and patent data across 12 areas, including aerospace and defence, information technology, medical devices and home appliances.

It found global patent activity reached an all-time high last year, with pharmaceuticals and biotechnology showing strong growth. The number of inventions recorded by the sectors rose 12 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively.

Despite the report recording a 5 per cent drop in patents in the semiconductor field, there is no shortage of innovations in the industry, say those in the field.

Last year, the US Patent and Trademark Office gave out 34,575 patents to companies in the semiconductor and electronics industry, up from 31,838 in 2013, said Associate Professor Joseph Chang of NTU's school of electrical and electronic engineering.

"There are many new techniques in the industry because we've reached the size limit of how small the transistor can be," he said.

Transistors, the tiny switches that can be triggered by electric signals, are the basic building blocks of the microchips found in a myriad of things - from TVs to smartphones. They can no longer be miniaturised further from their current sizes, and scientists are now exploring revolutionary new technologies using tiny magnets and spintronics, a field of nano- scale electronics.

NTU filed 451 patents last year, compared to 174 in 2010.

Dr Lim Jui, chief executive officer of NTU Innovation and the university's innovation and enterprise company NTUitive, said it expects the surge in its patent applications to continue as the university focuses on turning research into practical outcomes.

"A patent is useful only when industry seeks to license the technology, or when spin-offs are formed, to commercialise the innovations," he said.

As of March, NTU had licensed 191 patents to industry and started 44 companies - 13 by professors and 31 by students. This is a far cry from its two licences and five spin-off companies in 2010.

Mr Bob Stembridge, senior patent analyst at Thomson Reuters' intellectual property and science unit, said that another dominant research player - NUS - did not appear among the top in any of the 12 areas as it did not chalk up enough patents in a specific field.

In response, an NUS spokesman said the university's research strengths are in areas such as renewable energy, environment sustainability and maritime studies. These are of economic and social relevance to Singapore, but do not match the report's 12 industry sectors, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2015, with the headline 'NTU and A*Star patently ahead in their fields'. Print Edition | Subscribe