Singapore innovation: The local tech companies making it big globally

What do a security software company and a nanotechnology firm have in common? A strong belief in continuous growth and development to stay future-ready

Local mobile security software firm V-Key is innovating to solve a broad range of digital problems with its technology, says chief executive officer and co-founder Mr Joseph Gan. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA LIMITED
Innovation has been local deep tech firm Nanofilm Technologies International's guiding light since 1999, says group chief commercial and strategy officer Mr Gian Yi Hsen. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA LIMITED

How can Singapore companies remain relevant and competitive in an ever-evolving business environment? That's one of the key questions that the Future Economy Council – chaired by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat – seeks to answer. 

One of the council’s solutions: Industry Transformation Maps. These sector-specific roadmaps focus on areas such as internationalisation and innovation. 

Why innovation in a time of economic uncertainty? From digital security software that helps making banking transactions smarter and safer, to the sheen on your smartphone, the transformative journey of two successful homegrown firms behind those ideas is clear: To be globally great, innovate.

A virtual key to enhance security

Just 10 years ago, hardware tokens were the most commonly used authentication method for internet banking transactions. 

If you use online banking services, you’d know that these physical tokens have since been replaced by virtual ones embedded within mobile apps. 

The man behind this innovation is Mr Joseph Gan, CEO and co-founder of local mobile security software firm V-Key. Like many, he found those hardware tokens inconvenient to use. They were also clunky to carry around.  

Mr Gan set out to create a solution that was not only convenient and easy to use, but more secure than existing authentication methods. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA LIMITED

Mr Gan, 44, who holds a Bachelor of Science in computer hardware and a Master of Science in network systems from Stanford University,  remembers asking himself, “Isn’t there a better way to solve this?” 

In 2011, he took a two-week break from work with his previous company, and spent a week coding software. He wanted to create a digital security software to streamline the online banking transaction process without compromising security.

That software would grow to become the company’s flagship technology today: V-OS, which Mr Gan says is the world's first virtual secure element embedded in mobile apps and compatible devices. It replaces passwords, hardware tokens and one-time passwords via SMS.

Staying agile and relevant

In the same year, Mr Gan formed V-Key with two other co-founders, and filed the company’s first patent for its core technology.

A round of US$4 million (S$5.6 million) funding was closed the following year. Investors and clients in industries like banking were interested. Why? 

“As a start-up, you have to be very agile,” says Mr Gan. “We knew what we needed to do, so we engaged investors and potential clients very early on. We make sure that our product is relevant and that our technology meets the requirements of our clients.”

V-Key has since made significant progress. In 2014, it secured a US$12 million (S$16.7 million) Series B funding from Ant Group, formerly known as Ant Financial, the fintech affiliate of China-based conglomerate Alibaba Group. 

The software, V-OS, is now used by three local banks and regional financial institutions for digital authentication in their mobile banking apps.

Product refinement has continued relentlessly, says Mr Gan. V-Key also pursued global security certifications for its various technologies, which helped with global reach. 

The first accreditation the company had was through the Accreditation@SGD programme, launched by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

“Having our technology accredited gives the reassurance to clients that our technology does what we claim it does, that we have enough financing, and our internal processes are in place and robust,” Mr Gan says.

Global expansion has taken off, especially with the ongoing pandemic accelerating digital transformation for companies worldwide. As the number of digital transactions surged, V-Key attracted more clients, including ride-hailing companies and governments. 

A helping hand for businesses

Progress has been satisfying, says Mr Gan, who adds that the company has been profitable even before the pandemic. Key to V-Key’s growth have been innovation and government assistance.

Mr Gan stresses: “Innovation is critical for us.” The company is committed to identifying areas where it can innovate to solve a broader range of digital problems quickly, says Mr Gan.

Mr Raymond Lee, 52, V-Key’s chief operating officer, says that they are “fortunate” to be connected with Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), a government agency that supports the local and overseas growth of homegrown companies.

When V-Key has plans to move into new markets, such as its ongoing expansion into the Middle East, it contacts EnterpriseSG, says Mr Lee. “EnterpriseSG has strong connections. Through them, we meet people we normally wouldn't be able to see,” he adds. The agency has a network of overseas centres worldwide.

V-Key is also working closely with IMDA to establish global product leadership for the company, through strategic government projects under the Accreditation@SG Digital programme. Initiatives include the launch of V-Key’s cloud technologies, which the Government relies on to support its digital solutions.

Deep tech takes green steps

For nanotechnology solutions provider Nanofilm Technologies International (NTI), innovation is more than just coming up with a "genius idea", says Mr Lars Lieberwirth, 46, NTI's group chief technology officer.

“A lot of people think that innovation comes suddenly,” he says. “It’s actually the result of a very systematic and methodological process, where you assess the problem, and understand the requirements and arising conflicts. 

“That process forms the foundation of innovation. The ability to take that to a solution is the actual innovation.”

Nanofilm Technologies International was founded in 1999 as a tech spin-off from Nanyang Technological University. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA LIMITED

The mainboard-listed company’s approach towards innovation has been its guiding light since its inception in 1999, says Mr Gian Yi Hsen, 46, NTI’s group chief commercial and strategy officer. 

NTI specialises in advanced materials and nanoproducts, which stem from its pioneering Filtered Cathodic Vacuum Arc (FCVA) technology. 

“We pride ourselves as a deep tech company focused on advancing technology into applications in different industries,” explains Mr Gian. Its products can be found in optical sensors, engine parts, biomedical implants, and mobile devices.

That smartphone with the colourful casing you’re using? NTI’s coating services may have been responsible for the vibrant sheen. The glisten on the logos on tablets and laptops? It may have come from NTI’s thermal history coating, which protects them against scratches.

Redrawing boundaries with tech

The company expanded into the computer, communications and consumer electronics – or the 3C – industry in 2015, says Mr Gian. Over time, he adds, NTI has evolved its technology and redrawn the boundaries over what can be achieved application-wise.

Intensive research and development (R&D) is integral to NTI’s innovation. The company has three R&D centres situated in Osaka, Shanghai and Singapore. Its five production facilities support the volume demanded across various markets, including the US, the UK, Europe and Asia.

NTI debuted on the Singapore Exchange's mainboard in October 2020, raising $470.1 million. About a quarter of the funds raised were earmarked for R&D and engineering.

A fourth R&D centre, to support its foray into the emerging hydrogen energy market, is in the works. “We started exploring the commercialisation of the hydrogen space and found many opportunities,” says Mr Gian. “We could sell components, provide coating services or create systems and solutions like electricity-producing fuel cells.”

Sustainability is also a contributing factor in NTI’s keen interest in hydrogen energy, which can be a clean energy source.

“If we really want to make a change (to help meet climate goals), we need to accelerate the adoption rate of hydrogen energy technology and the deployment of hydrogen as an energy carrier,” says Mr Gian.

Boosting R&D and globalisation

Talks are ongoing with Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG) and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), says Mr Gian. 

“We are hoping for fiscal support, and access to talent and various R&D ecosystems,” says Mr Gian on the agencies’ potential roles in the upcoming R&D facility. Assembling a strong international team to be based in Singapore would also reinforce NTI’s position on the global stage, he adds.

Since 2001, NTI has been working with agencies like EDB and EnterpriseSG to boost its innovation and globalisation efforts. This includes participation in trade delegations to Germany and Japan. In tandem, market penetration was amplified.

“The whole range of agency activities laid out groundwork where critical connections were made, and stepping stones lined up,” says Mr Lieberwirth.

It’s been 23 years since NTI charged into the nanotechnology landscape. Throughout, says Mr Lieberwirth, Singapore’s government agencies have been instrumental. 

“In our latest move of branching into the hydrogen energy market, we hope that the agencies can do what they did before: help us set the foundation and lend support by facilitating some initial activities.”

This is the first of a six-part series titled "Transforming today for tomorrow’s challenges" in partnership with the Ministry of Trade and Industry

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