Outgoing A*Star chief to head S'pore Food Agency

Mr Lim Chuan Poh is taking on the role of chairman of the new Singapore Food Agency, which will harness the research and talent that he has spent the last 12 years building up at A*Star, the country's largest public-sector research agency.
Mr Lim Chuan Poh is taking on the role of chairman of the new Singapore Food Agency, which will harness the research and talent that he has spent the last 12 years building up at A*Star, the country's largest public-sector research agency.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

After 38 years in public service, Lim Chuan Poh will next oversee nation's food security

It's not so much goodbye as see you later. When Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) chairman Lim Chuan Poh's retirement from public service was announced recently, speculation was rife as to where the career public servant of 38 years would go next.

In fact, the former defence force chief, 57, will continue protecting Singapore - albeit from a more insidious threat.

He will oversee food security as chairman of the new Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the statutory board tasked with all food-related functions here from next month.

And the agency will harness the research and talent that he has spent the last 12 years - "a whole zodiac cycle" - building up, in his term helming the country's largest public-sector research agency.

Under his watch, the research and development landscape here has grown.

In 2017, for instance, 93 of the top companies that partnered A*Star contributed $4 billion to the country's total business expenditure on R&D. And the year before, biomedical sciences manufacturing accounted for some 4 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product, employing over 20,000 workers.

"The food story is one of the new growth opportunities," he said.

DOING IT RIGHT

Some things cannot be rushed. You just have to do it right. If we sustain the efforts, it will happen.

MR LIM CHUAN POH, acknowledging that no blockbuster drug has yet emerged from Singapore's research drive, and expressing confidence that this will happen.

PRIORITISING PEOPLE

If you stay focused on the people, you will do the right thing.

MR LIM, on his main takeaway after nearly four decades in the public service.

  • A*STAR IN NUMBERS

  • • A*Star's capacity to engage the industry has increased close to six-fold from about 1,500 projects between 2005 and 2010, to close to 9,000 projects from 2011 to 2015. It is set to maintain this new level for the 2016 to 2020 period.

    • In 2017, 93 of the top firms in Singapore that partnered A*Star contributed $4 billion to the country's total business expenditure on R&D (BERD).

    • In FY2017, A*Star engaged in over 2,100 projects with companies, a third of these with local enterprises. In total, the industry projects resulted in more than $340 million of R&D spending, an increase of over 50 per cent from FY2016. R&D spending by local enterprises outpaced this increase, growing by around two-thirds to $102 million.

    • In 2010 to 2017, at least 60 local drug-development and related biotech companies were incorporated in Singapore. One-third were A*Star spin-offs.

    • From 2010 to 2016, BERD generated by the local biotech sector increased nearly nine-fold to over $180 million.

    • Singapore placed No. 1 in biopharmaceutical innovation in newcomer markets in the 2017 Biopharmaceutical Competitiveness & Investment survey.

    • R&D manpower has grown 30 per cent from 38,000 in 2007 to more than 49,000 in 2017. RSE (research scientist and engineer) jobs have jumped close to 50 per cent, from 24,500 in 2007 to more than 35,000 in 2017.

    • To date, A*Star has nurtured a pipeline of around 1,600 Singaporean PhD holders through various scholarship schemes. More than half have completed their PhD/ postdoctoral training and are actively contributing to the Research, Innovation and Enterprise ecosystem here.

"It will be made possible through our sustained investment in research, and aligning it with this whole concern with sustainability."

With climate change threatening crops worldwide, Singapore is shoring up its efforts in food production. It aims to produce 30 per cent of the food needed here by 2030.

Just as the country's investments in advanced manufacturing had paid off handsomely, this same focus on intensive, high-tech solutions would also transform agriculture here, he predicted.

"We're very strong in advanced manufacturing, we're No. 5 in the world for manufacturing value-added and we produce four of the top 10 drugs in the world. These same capabilities are what you need to transform agritech."

The strong research climate has given the nascent effort a head start. Already, he pointed out, A*Star scientists have created a company that aims to produce meat grown in the laboratory, and researchers here are also harnessing insects as a rich source of protein for feed stock.

"We want Singapore to be the hub in this part of the world for all these things to be demonstrated and accepted, and for it to grow and scale up," said Mr Lim, who added that he will spend about one-third of his time in his role as non-executive chairman of SFA, but has not committed to a full-time job yet.

Leaving A*Star, he said, will allow for public-service leadership renewal, and a fresh pair of eyes and fresh minds to take research to the next level.

"Compared with 12 years ago, I think we've made a remarkable push, and we are now showing the fruits of what happens when you collaborate through joint research efforts across the wider landscape."

Acknowledging that no blockbuster drug has emerged from Singapore's research drive yet, he said he had full confidence this will happen, and noted that drugs were being tested in clinical trials.

Singapore-based biotechnology firm Tessa Therapeutics, for one, is ahead in the race to turn cancer patients' own immune cells (T-cells) against tumours in their bodies. It is conducting the world's first and largest US Food and Drug Administration Phase Three cancer T-cell therapy trial.

"Some things cannot be rushed. You just have to do it right. If we sustain the efforts, it will happen."

But the importance of staying the course does not mean "continuing with the same investments and the same set of people from beginning to end".

In his tenure, widespread changes to the funding structure of A*Star institutes caused anxiety among scientists. Amid the evolving research landscape, researchers looking to collaborate with the industry were given a higher percentage of core or guaranteed funding, while those involved in more upstream research had to compete harder for funding.

Mr Lim said the changes were an ongoing process of evolution, and industry observers have said they were a result of the need to be nimble and to spur competition.

As he looked back at almost four decades in the public service, three examples stood out for him as to the overarching purpose of leadership.

One was waiting at the finishing line as his men completed a 2.4km run for a fitness test, as a battalion commander in 1990.

"This soldier crossed the finishing line in nine minutes and 44 seconds, making it to gold and monetary award with one second to spare, before collapsing into my arms. He was exhausted but he was okay. I found out that he had failed his IPPT in his first year."

The second was when he was permanent secretary at the Education Ministry from 2003, and learning that some pupils who failed their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) were falling through the cracks because they

 
 
 

had to wait until they were 14 before entering the vocational institute.

"This was the genesis of NorthLight School," he said, referring to the school set up in 2007 to keep pupils who do not do well in the PSLE engaged in their studies.

The third was when he gave an A*Star scholarship for the first time to a candidate formerly from the EM3 stream - for those who were academically weakest - and who is now an A*Star scientist.

All three examples showed him one thing, he said. "If you stay focused on the people, you will do the right thing," he said.

"You can't find a more contrasting situation between a world-class research agency and NorthLight, yet it is all about giving opportunities and giving hope, showing them they can have a better tomorrow, and that they can shape a better tomorrow for themselves and for Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'Outgoing A*Star chief to head S'pore Food Agency'. Print Edition | Subscribe