Back home to inspire next generation

Computer scientist Lim has returned to head the department of industrial and systems engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering.
Computer scientist Lim has returned to head the department of industrial and systems engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Three Singaporean scientists at the top of their game overseas are returning home to boost research efforts here. Carolyn Khew talks to the recipients of the National Research Foundation's Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme.

Most people will never start a company in their lives.

Professor Andrew Lim has founded five, and some of these start-ups have worked with multibillion-dollar companies. Now, he is back in Singapore to inspire students to follow in his footsteps.

Starting today, he will head the department of industrial and systems engineering at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Faculty of Engineering.

The 49-year-old computer scientist, who is back under the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme after spending 12 years in Hong Kong and China, hopes to attract talent to his department and to instil a spirit of entrepreneurship.

"It's important that NUS students can spin off some companies and, hopefully, some of them can become very famous. Imagine if we created Google or Apple," he said.

"Research must contribute to our society and economy."

Given his experience, you could say Prof Lim, an expert in industrial engineering and operations research, walks the talk.

His previous positions were at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, City University of Hong Kong and Nanjing University.

But Prof Lim was interested in more than just academia and his tech start-ups worked on projects with big companies like the German retailer Metro Group.

He was also a visiting professor at Nanyang Technological University's School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences previously.

Drawing on his knowledge of computing, engineering and business, he came up with new processes and tools that organisations could use to remain competitive.

For instance, he designed a real- time Web platform for electronics giant Philips to help the company decide in a more efficient way how to award logistics contracts worth about US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) annually. This allowed the company to see the pros and cons of awarding the contract to one bidder over another, helping it to save about 10 per cent to 15 per cent in costs.

"Sometimes, there is a gap where world-class research may not have direct translation (into commercial outcomes)... But it is not true that all research has to wait a long time before it can benefit company and society," said Prof Lim, who has published over 100 technical papers.

Despite his success in the commercial world, Prof Lim says one of his proudest achievements in teaching was helping a Singapore team of four junior college students win the 13th International Olympiad in Informatics in 2001, when he was an associate professor in the NUS School of Computing. It was the first time that Singapore clinched the first place in any international Olympiad.

The father of two children aged 16 and 19 said he is looking forward to teaching.

"NUS is really at the top now... It would be more meaningful if we can go the next step of producing students who go to top places or to produce a Nobel prize winner. I hope we can produce some of these superstars in the future," he said.

Prof Lim will also be involved in the smart-nation research cluster at NUS. The cluster is an inter-disciplinary group which will study big data and apply the results to solve real-world problems.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2016, with the headline 'Back home to inspire next generation'. Print Edition | Subscribe