NUS aims to seed, incubate and launch 250 tech-based start-ups over the next five years

From left: NUS president Tan Eng Chye, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and NUS senior deputy president and provost Ho Teck Hua at the launch of NUS' innovation4.0 building on Sept 4, 2018.
From left: NUS president Tan Eng Chye, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and NUS senior deputy president and provost Ho Teck Hua at the launch of NUS' innovation4.0 building on Sept 4, 2018.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - National University of Singapore's (NUS) newest building, innovation4.0, boasts a smart cafe where robot baristas use facial recognition and machine learning technologies to serve customers the perfect cup of coffee suited to their tastes.

Going forward, NUS hopes that the state-of-the-art, six-storey building will serve up more than coffee. It will also serve as the base from which the university plans to seed, incubate and launch up to 250 tech-based start-ups. It will spend $25 million over five years in the process and use technologies such as AI and machine learning to do this .

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a scheme called the Graduate Research Innovation Programme (Grip) at the official opening of i4.0 on Kent Ridge campus on Tuesday (Sept 4) afternoon.

He said NUS will tap its highly skilled pool of graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and staff to establish and run the start-ups, employing cutting-edge technologies that will give them a sustained advantage over incumbents or create new markets.

Those selected will embark on an intensive three-month business validation and venture creation programme, and work alongside seasoned tech start-up veterans to learn the principles and practice of customer needs and marketing sizing.

"Grip will move research outcomes from NUS labs to the market and bring the next generation of technologies to the Singapore and global markets," said Mr Heng, who is also chairman of the National Research Foundation. He noted that by co-locating researchers and innovators working on cutting-edge technologies in one building, "the entire value chain to unlock innovation and create value from our digital assets can now be found at a single physical location".

Mr Heng said the Government has invested significantly to ensure that the economy can exploit the new opportunities enabled by digital convergence and it is prepared to invest more.

But he stressed that the Government "must also differentiate and go deep" because many other large corporations and countries are also investing heavily in digital technologies.

"So we will invest strategically and play to our strengths," he said.

Mr Heng also witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between AI Singapore and Element AI, one of the world's leading applied AI companies. Element AI will help local enterprises to understand and adopt AI more quickly and meaningfully.

"We cannot try to do everything in Singapore, but we can build our own peaks of excellence, and partner with the best from around the world to complement what we do, and create global impact together," said Mr Heng.

NUS president Tan Eng Chye said the first call for start-up ideas went out last month and the selection process is ongoing. Within three to six months of being selected, and after going through the venture creation process, the team will be evaluated by a panel for the first investment tranche of $50,000. This early investment will enable the start-up to continue engaging with its mentors and further develop its prototype.

When the start-up subsequently receives a further external investment or innovation grant, the second tranche of $50,000 will then be invested by NUS. As part of the programme, NUS will also be providing project management advice and prototyping services, as well as laboratory facilities.

Professor Tan said: "We hope to create a strong pipeline of research-based technology companies that will introduce innovative applications and technologies to Singapore and the global markets. Each of these tech-based start-ups would create innovation-based jobs, benefiting the Singapore economy in the long run."