Technology

5 questions with... Scientific Innovations

Scientific Innovations Company chief executive Mervyn Fathianathan in the Mirakel lab, where they are trying to use electrochemistry to infuse molecules into the hair. Mirakel is one of the companies the start-up studio has. Dr Fathianathan says he t
Scientific Innovations Company chief executive Mervyn Fathianathan in the Mirakel lab, where they are trying to use electrochemistry to infuse molecules into the hair. Mirakel is one of the companies the start-up studio has. Dr Fathianathan says he thinks of it not as looking for companies to invest in but as being able to create the companies that he would have liked to invest in.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Scientific Innovations Company bills itself as an ideas factory. Annabeth Leow talks to co-founder and chief executive Mervyn Fathianathan about what that means.

Q How did you go from heading clear dental braces manufacturer BioMers to running what you call a "start-up studio"?

Dr Fathianathan: When I was working on that, I spent many years on a single idea and a single start-up. The world just went by. Things happened and I missed out on a lot that was going on. I wanted to go back and really look at how we can look at early-stage ideas.

One of the things that I really wanted to do was work on multiple, different ideas at the same time. This is inherently counter-intuitive to most people who are in the start-up world because the words "start-up" and "focus" tend to go together.

But I really looked at it from a diversification strategy perspective - I was inspired by portfolio theory. I looked at incubators and accelerators and the models that were already there for early-stage venture capital. And I realised what was key there to the success of any one of these other models was deal flow.

You're only going to be as successful as the companies that you have access to and that you can invest in. In a start-up studio, you can be very deliberate about how you design your portfolio. I think of it not as looking for companies to invest in but as being able to create the companies that I would have liked to invest in.

Q: What does your team do?

Dr Fathianathan: What we want to do is start companies and spin these companies off. It starts off with the idea.

How do we come up with ideas? I make people come up with three ideas every single day.

Today we have 50 people, so in a month we would have 3,000 ideas.

People become very observant. If you look at their ideas, you can almost tell what they've done for the day because they start looking at what's working, what's not working, so that they can come up with the three ideas.

At the end of the month, we would have all these ideas and decide: Let's take several of these and let's see if they are viable for us to take to the next stage.

Then what we do is have a product development team that looks at taking that idea and turning that into a product.

When I first started, I didn't really say "we're going to work on only these kinds of companies".

But we ended up with three areas that we're in.

One is what we call "beauty technology" - we have two hair care companies.

We have two companies in the medical space - one is a preventive cardiology company, the other is a dental company.

And then we do food - we have a company called Homebakee and then we have Prescribed Nutrition, where we do personalised meals for people.

We have spun off six companies and then four other projects.

Q: How does this process work?

Dr Fathianathan: We test everything that we do. The process that we adopt is, we create prototypes that are at different levels of granularity and test them to see whether, conceptually, they work.

So if you take Mirakel, for example, it's a project where we're trying to use electrochemistry to infuse molecules into hair. This was an idea - now, how do we test this idea?

So we do something very simple: We take two plates, run an electric current through it, put some hair in between and see whether it works. Based on that, we keep on refining it.

Even when it comes to business, we prototype the business itself.

Let's take Mirakel as an example. We built the technology, we tried it on people, it works. Okay, great. We need a salon where we can test it.

So what we did was actually set up our own salon and marketed to people - they came in and we charged them - to see how they reacted to it.

By then, we'd know how much people were willing to pay for it, what their feedback is, how a stylist would work with it.

All of the various parameters that are involved in that business, we have already tested.

The next stage is, we're very confident and we know we can take this to existing salons.

Q: What are some challenges you've encountered?

Dr Fathianathan: I actually think the biggest challenge is explaining this concept of the studio. People always wonder: How can you work on multiple different ideas or projects at the same time? Which is why I'm continuously looking at how I can better communicate my idea.

Obviously, finding people is always a challenge. Regulatory challenges, too, definitely, because we're always trying new stuff, like Homebakee, for example - a home-based bakery.

Q: And where do you want to take the start-up studio in the future?

Dr Fathianathan: Every one of these companies has its own team, and when it's already spun off, we look to scale the businesses. One goal is definitely to get the companies to be commercially successful. Right now, we're very focused on that.

Now the companies are at the stage where we need to be executing very strongly. It's one of our goals, that every one of our products delivers a magical experience within three to five years.

A lot of the companies are still in their early stages so they're probably doing, I guess, above $1 million in the past year over the six companies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline '5 questions with... Scientific Innovations'. Print Edition | Subscribe