Science sells in field of speciality chemicals

Solvay Novecare Asia Pacific's R&D laboratory in Singapore, which was opened last year. The company also opened a manufacturing plant here in July and is looking to hire 40 more researchers.
Solvay Novecare Asia Pacific's R&D laboratory in Singapore, which was opened last year. The company also opened a manufacturing plant here in July and is looking to hire 40 more researchers.PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

More jobs expected as niche industry set to grow along with Asia's consumer market

Ever wondered what ingredient in shampoo makes hair feel silky after a wash? Or what is in that pot of face cream that makes it feel velvety on the skin?

How about pesticides that are absorbed by the leaves of plants instead of bouncing off, thereby minimising environmental pollution?

The answers lie in speciality chemicals - chemical ingredients that bring out unique functions in products.

Some categories of products in which speciality chemicals are found include home care chemicals and animal feed.

Speciality chemicals are being developed in Singapore and scientists who can come up with new chemical recipes are in high demand.

STRONG FOUNDATIONS

We want to take advantage of the country's strong research capabilities, talent and ready infrastructure.

MR PIERRE-FRANCK VALENTIN, vice-president and general manager of Solvay Novecare Asia Pacific, which opened an R&D lab in Singapore last year and a manufacturing plant in July

Around 800 more people were employed in the speciality chemicals industry from 2008 to 2013, as multinational companies expanded their presence here, according to the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).

At least six production facilities and three research and development (R&D) laboratories have opened here since 2013. Output has doubled in value from $4.8 billion in 2003 to $9.6 billion in 2013.

The energy and chemicals industry, which employs 26,000 people and includes speciality chemicals, is the largest contributor to Singapore's manufacturing output.

The industry, while still niche, is set to expand further.

The growth of Asia and the middle-class consumer market will drive demand for speciality chemicals, which can be used to tailor more sophisticated products, said Ms Cindy Koh, EDB's director of energy and chemicals.

The strong framework for intellectual property rights in Singapore also provides a base for the growth of firms' R&D departments here, since much of the work is in creating new formulations of chemicals.

"The manpower requirements will be higher because the sector is going to be growing a lot more," said Ms Koh.

Jobs in the industry range from chemistry technicians and research assistants to chemists and R&D managers. A diploma or degree related to chemistry is usually required.

Chemistry technicians in Singapore earn a median monthly gross salary of about $3,000, while chemists earn around $5,350, according to Manpower Ministry figures from June last year.

According to industry estimates, an expert-level research scientist can earn up to $12,500 a month.

One company that is looking to hire more people is Solvay Novecare Asia Pacific.

The Belgian company opened an R&D lab here last year and a manufacturing plant in July. It is looking to hire 40 more researchers in the next few years.

"We want to take advantage of the country's strong research capabilities, talent and ready infrastructure," said Mr Pierre-Franck Valentin, the firm's vice-president and general manager.

Companies here are already working with educational institutions to offer internships and attract fresh graduates to the industry.

Swiss firm Clariant, for example, launched a 24-month graduate programme in Singapore in March this year, after establishing its regional headquarters here in 2012.

The programme includes six months of working abroad, to help those on it to gain exposure to a variety of company functions.

"We hope to attract a pool of talents and potential leaders," said Mr Chew Kok How, Clariant's South-east Asia and Pacific head of sales for the catalysts business unit.

For Mr Benjamin Wong, 28, a formulation development chemist at Syngenta Asia Pacific, the attraction lies simply in understanding how new products are made.

"When I was younger, I used to look at product labels and wonder why there are so many chemicals involved and what their functions are," said the chemistry graduate who started work for the company three years ago.

His work has already taken him to Japan and Malaysia where he visited rice farmers.

"It helped me better understand our customers' needs," he said.

"I hope to design a product that helps make their work easier."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Science sells in field of speciality chemicals'. Print Edition | Subscribe