Open minds and innovative spirit: Why this MNC believes in S’pore talent

This big name in speciality chemicals is opening doors for Singaporeans - fitting testimony of foreign investment’s spin-offs for locals

Scientist Eva Loo was part of the inaugural team that worked at Evonik’s Tissue Engineering Project House, a Singapore-based initiative that focuses on developing regenerative medicine solutions.
Scientist Eva Loo was part of the inaugural team that worked at Evonik’s Tissue Engineering Project House, a Singapore-based initiative that focuses on developing regenerative medicine solutions.PHOTO: EVONIK

For most of her career, Dr Eva Loo, 39, researched and worked on regenerative medicine and cell cultures as a scientist in a local research agency.

While she enjoyed the technical nature of her work, she wanted to broaden her scope beyond the lab bench.

“As a scientist, you think about specialisation or broadening your areas of research. But often there are also other aspects of building a product, such as strategy, production and marketing,” she says.

She made the leap in 2019 when she joined Evonik, a German speciality chemical manufacturer with a presence in Singapore since the 1950s. The company has 33,000 employees worldwide, with about 800 based in Singapore.

Now the head of cell and tissue engineering in Singapore, Dr Loo is involved in the research and development of regenerative medicine products — from concept to market. One of the projects she is working on is the development of a recombinant collagen to promote healing and tissue growth.

Compared to animal-sourced collagen, this fermentation-based collagen can be produced sustainably and is suitable for vegan use.

Broadening one’s expertise, she says, is one of the benefits of working in a multinational company (MNC). “They provide the opportunity to experience different roles and to try new roles without actually having to switch companies.”

Since transitioning from a technical to middle management role in January last year, Dr Loo has seized the opportunity to develop her soft skills.

“When you are a scientist, you’re really focused on technical details because you don’t have to explain basic concepts with fellow scientists,” she says.

In her new role at Evonik, she deals with different departments such as sales and marketing and production. This has trained her to use clear and simple language to communicate her ideas. “It’s a blending of both worlds, which helps me to be more well-rounded.”

Another key benefit of working in an MNC is the international exposure, she says.

While Dr Loo leads a small team comprising mostly Singaporeans and permanent residents, she also works closely with colleagues from different countries. She believes the diversity of talent helps to “advance research efforts and broaden perspectives” — both useful in solving multidisciplinary problems.

Project manager Lim Teck Chuan, 37, who joined Dr Loo’s team two years ago, also values working with global research outfits.

Dr Lim Teck Chuan developed an interest in tissue engineering during his undergraduate studies. PHOTO: SPH

Large international companies like Evonik come with deep pockets and expertise to promote innovation and research in the healthcare industry, he says.

Exposure is one of the biggest draws of working in a multinational, world-class environment. “I think Singaporeans like myself seldom get the chance to work on such large projects on an international scale unless we venture out to other countries.

“MNCs in Singapore offer that experience to locals, which opens the doors to more opportunities.”

Benefits of working with locals

Ms Anna Verges, 29, had never been to South-east Asia (SEA) before January last year. But when the opportunity to join Evonik’s first Asia Research Hub in Singapore arose, the Spaniard promptly packed her bags and left for our shores.

As a research associate in Dr Loo’s team, Ms Verges supports regenerative medicine projects and experiments in the cell and tissue engineering department.

Drawing comparisons between her current role and previous job in the Netherlands, she says that Evonik’s diverse workforce has been particularly interesting and enriching.

“As the world we live in becomes more globalised, I think it’s important to have the opportunity to learn from each other and build international relationships abroad,” she says.

Dr Ronny Sondjaja, Evonik’s head of research, development and innovation in Asia, agrees.

In 2002, he moved from Indonesia to pursue a master’s in industrial chemistry and, later, a PhD in chemical engineering at the National University of Singapore.

Dr Ronny Sondjaja has been working at Evonik since he graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2008. PHOTO: SPH

Last August, he became a Singapore citizen. “I'd been in Singapore for so long that, at a certain point, I realised that it had become my home. That's why I decided to make the move in terms of my career and citizenship.”

In 2018, he became director of Evonik’s Asia Research Hub, heading a group of more than 70 researchers.

He highlights two factors that make Singapore particularly attractive to MNCs in the research and development sector: Its strategic location in the region and the unique perspectives that locals bring to the table.

Drawing from his experience with our education system, he says that Singaporeans are primed to work in an international ecosystem from the time they are in school.

Aside from tapping local talent, Evonik’s Research Hub also aims to develop chemical and biotech capabilities among young students and fresh graduates in Singapore.

Each year, up to 10 internship opportunities, each lasting at least six months, are up for grabs in four departments — tissue engineering, 3D printing, additive manufacturing and nanoparticle research.

“During the six months, our interns don’t only work on small projects. They also run bigger, more meaningful projects so they can develop useful skills,” he says.

This is the first of an eight-part series in partnership with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.