When ideas take flight

Five firms lauded for tapping intellectual property to grow amid Covid-19 pandemic

In spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies have been tapping their intellectual property (IP) to grow, with many using Singapore as a base to manage their intangible assets.

Last Tuesday, five companies were recognised for their work at the ninth World Intellectual Property Organisation-Intellectual Property Office of Singapore IP for Innovation Awards.

They ranged from a company that turns mushrooms into leather for fashion products, to an online marketplace resembling a video-streaming site for companies to buy and sell rights to their shows.

The awards consider factors such as the strength of an organisation's intangible asset and IP portfolio, its business strategy to leverage that portfolio including commercialisation efforts, and the impact on stakeholders, industry and society.

Here is a look at the innovations from the winning companies.

Using pregnant mother's blood to test if baby has genetic conditions

• IPOS IP for Innovation Champions winner

• WIPO IP Enterprise Trophy

Singapore molecular diagnostics firm Inex Innovate, which won two awards, holds 48 patents and 12 trademarks for women's and foetal health diagnostics.

These innovations help the company detect genetic conditions in foetuses, as well as ovarian and breast cancers, said the firm's chief executive Kane Black.

For instance, Inex has patents related to isolating foetal cells from a pregnant mother's blood for non-invasive prenatal diagnostic tests. These can potentially identify up to 7,000 different conditions that arise in the womb.

Inex, which has close to 50 employees, has also developed a liquid biopsy test using micro ribonucleic acid biomarkers for the early detection of ovarian cancer.

Unlike other liquid biopsies, which can only predict the likelihood of cancer, the Inex test can confirm the presence of genetic materials that will determine if there are cancerous cells.

The ovarian cancer test, which is currently undergoing phase 2 patient study, has so far been able to accurately diagnose over 90 per cent of Asian patients.

The intellectual properties (IPs) owned by Inex were developed in Singapore, including innovations co-developed with the National University of Singapore and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

The company's four founders are Singaporeans from A*Star, National University Hospital, National University Health System and England's Southend University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

  • 48

    Number of patents for women's and foetal health diagnostics that Inex Innovate holds


    Number of trademarks for women's and foetal health diagnostics that the molecular diagnostics firm holds

The women's and foetal health diagnostic tests are offered in hospitals and clinics here, as well as in the region, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. The patient samples collected here and overseas are tested in Singapore.

Sustainable leather made from mushrooms

• IPOS IP for Innovation Champions winner

An Indonesia-based firm with a Singapore office established in 2018, Mycotech has three patents related to the development of leather made from mushrooms - specifically the mycelium or "root structure" of the fungi.

The mushroom mycelium is grown on agricultural waste and besides being harvested to make leather, it can be used to create building materials such as for furniture.

The research for these innovations was done here, in partnership with researchers such as those from the Future Cities Laboratory and the Singapore University of Technology and Design. The patents are owned by the Singapore office.

The mycelium leather, Mylea, has been used by fashion brands.

One of them, Japanese street-wear label Doublet, worked with Mycotech to launch a collection, including jackets and boots, made using Mylea instead of animal leather. Singapore brand Gege Fashion used Mylea for some of its handbags.

Mycotech is piloting the use of its mushroom material with a United States luxury furniture brand whose Asia-Pacific headquarters is located here.

Compared with animal leather, Mycotech said mycelium leather technology is environmentally friendlier and more sustainable.

The technology has the potential to cut 68 per cent of the global carbon footprint, 70 per cent of the water used, and 90 per cent of the toxic waste produced in making leather from animal hides, it said.

Mycotech chief executive Adi Reza Nugroho said the firm will be focusing on the Asian market first, and collaborating with "tens of major global brands" to bring its mushroom materials to market.

Marketplace to buy and sell films, TV shows

• IPOS IP for Innovation Champions winner

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Ian McKee, chief executive of local start-up Vuulr (pronounced "viewler"), and his business partners saw a gap in the market for matching sellers and buyers of films and TV shows.

Agents acting as middlemen prefer to fly to larger markets to pitch the rights to shows in face-to-face meetings with broadcasters and streaming sites. Since the process takes time and is costly, smaller markets are often bypassed and underserved.

Small show makers have other difficulties.

"If you were a talented creator of content, say, in Singapore, it was very hard to get your content distributed," said Mr McKee. "You didn't fit the mould of the old boys' club that Hollywood likes to see," he added, referring to the exclusive social and business network dominated by men in Hollywood.

Mr McKee has worked here for years and finds it an easy place to do business. He said Singapore has a good talent pool and infrastructure, and an accessible legal system that protects intellectual property (IP).

In 2019, Vuulr launched its online marketplace in Asia, followed by a global launch in January last year. The IP enabling this is owned by the Singapore start-up. Then the pandemic hit. "Everyone moved to doing business digitally and luckily, we were exactly the right proposition at the right time," Mr McKee said.

Registered users can browse over 170,000 hours of movies and shows in more than 90 languages on Vuulr. Buyers can put in an offer for broadcast rights through the platform directly to sellers and negotiate a deal. Some 1,800 licensing transactions have been done on Vuulr.

Gaining from shift in focus to product development

• IPOS IP for Innovation Champions winner

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, Singapore firm Critical Facility Group could not send engineers to service its overseas customers' lightning protection systems.

The firm figured out how to do so remotely and with its engineers freed up, it was able to turn its attention to product development and innovation.

Critical Facility was previously focused on designing, making and selling products. With the shift in focus, it now has over 10 projects in development and licenses its intellectual properties (IPs) to other firms.

The firm has over 20 registered IPs, including patents and trademarks, which it developed. Its main research and development team is located here.

With a licensing model where royalties are collected instead of product sale revenues, chairman Andrew Mui said the firm could "expand our business in a much faster and bigger way", without investing in more infrastructure to build products.

The firm's products protect a range of things, from telecommunications towers to oil and gas storage tanks.

A device for such tanks - the dynamic by-pass conductor - helped Critical Facility clinch an IP award last week, said Mr Mui. It cuts the risk of electrical arcing occurring during lightning storms, which can cause the tanks to explode. Since the device's launch late last year, the firm has received many queries from the Middle East and South-east Asia, he added.

Tech giant manages its 5G IP through Singapore

• WIPO Users' Trophy

Chinese tech giant Lenovo has research and development (R&D) teams in various parts of the world including China, Europe, Japan and the United States, with over 20,000 patent assets. But a significant portion of their R&D innovations is protected globally through Lenovo Singapore.

The office here, with more than 200 staff, is one of the company's global hubs for managing and commercialising intellectual property (IP) assets.

Lenovo has over 30 patent professionals across offices in Singapore, China, Germany, Japan and the US who manage its global IP assets and strategy. Among the patents managed here are those for devices and 5G-related innovations from a group in Lenovo that makes and sells consumer products. These include the Lenovo X1 Fold laptop-tablet hybrid and the Lenovo Yoga 5G laptop.

When the X1 Fold's single OLED screen is opened and used flat, it works like a tablet. But the screen can bend in the middle such that the device becomes a laptop, with the bottom half working as a virtual keyboard.

The Yoga 5G laptop has a proprietary 360-degree hinge that allows the notebook's screen to bend backwards so it functions like a tablet.

The two devices can connect to 5G networks with mobile download speeds that can be 10 times faster than with 4G.

The decision to have Singapore as a Lenovo global IP hub was an easy one, said Mr M. J Chai, the firm's senior IP counsel.

Among other things, the Republic's "accessibility to a diverse pool of talent has also made it easy for Lenovo in recruiting prospective employees for our Singapore operations and also for us in partnering with local IP firms for our IP registration work", said Mr Chai.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2021, with the headline When ideas take flight. Subscribe