What It Takes To Build a Sustainable Deep Tech Economy in ASEAN
The average consumer may not realise just how deeply their lives are impacted and shaped by deep technology. Though smart apps on our phones now seem commonplace, for example, the mobile phone would never have been possible without South Korean investment into code-division multiple access (CDMA) transmission technology in the 70s and 80s.
Prescient investments like this eventually helped to launch the mobile phone industry in Korea, contributing to the birth of Samsung. Once a tiny trading company, it is now one of the largest consumer electronics manufacturers on the planet.
Likewise, our world today is being transformed by a new generation of visionary startups and corporations who seek to nurture new Deep Technologies that can propel the human race forward. Many experts are looking to ASEAN countries to lead the way. The region has enormous potential to produce sustainable businesses that use tech, including Deep Tech, to create a better world.
Let’s take a look at some of the insights from SGInnovate’s two complementary panels — ASEAN Deep Tech Economy: For A Resilient and Sustainable Future and Scaling Innovations: Corporate and Start-up Collaboration — and get a glimpse into how Deep Tech can improve lives and promote resiliency in our world.
The potential of Deep Tech in SEA is tremendous
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a groundbreaking free-trade agreement between 15 member countries in Asia-Pacific that was signed into creation in November 2020. The members comprise 30% of the world’s population and 30% of global GDP — it is the biggest trade bloc in history, and includes much of Southeast Asia, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore.
Collaboration across the RCEP’s member countries is expected to advance Deep Tech development in fields like Biotechnology, Photonics, Electronics, Artificial Intelligence, and Quantum Computing. Though not a direct result of the RCEP, examples of the power of cross-border collaboration between Asian countries can be seen in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, said Mark Lim, Managing Director of Digital Technology, Temasek, during the ASEAN Deep Tech Economy webinar.
He explained, "Because of digital technology, everyone can collaborate as a community. The borders of countries are no longer as important. The developers of the vaccine are sharing data to accelerate their processes, and the results are clear. Previously, it would be unbelievable to say that we could have a vaccine out in less than a year.”
Vaccine researchers relied on Deep Tech, including Biotechnology, Robotics-supported big data crunching, Cloud Computing and Machine Learning. Artificial Intelligence was also critical and will continue to be in the future because of how it allows researchers to spot patterns, predict future performance and reduce waste.
The role of corporates and startups in driving change
Deep Tech innovations, driven by scientists, enable us to make transformative discoveries more quickly and efficiently to strengthen and support the 670-million-strong population of Southeast Asia. Many researchers, including those at the heart of the Covid-19 vaccine development, have deep domain expertise and highly innovative minds.
In the past, however, groups of researchers would traditionally perform R&D, license out their findings and leave the work of commoditisation to companies. They were often isolated in research facilities, locked in tenure tracks or generally uninterested in business. This made it much harder to scale and accelerate innovation.
Fortunately, the road from ideation to commercialisation is more streamlined now — and researchers playing a more active role in bringing their findings to market.
“Innovation and scaling innovation often require separate skill sets,” said Diederik Zeven, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Philips ASEAN Pacific, during the Scaling Innovations webinar. By partnering with corporations that have a birds-eye-view of public demand, researchers can retain ownership and deliver powerful goods and services to end-users in the most impactful way.
Now that scientists are showing more interest in commercialisation, corporates must step up. Firms with a pure business background may not fully understand the science behind the Deep Tech presented by researchers. As a result, they often fall back on “low-hanging fruit”—innovations that are simpler to understand, more straightforward to commercialise and more immediately profitable.
During the ASEAN Deep Tech Economy webinar, Stephanie Chu, Senior Vice President & Head of Fintech and Partnerships, DBS Bank, warned that this is not the best approach. Although low-hanging fruit can be relatively easy to pluck, investors in the future will need to redirect their focus on the long-term and make an effort to understand Deep Tech concepts, effectively investing for the future.
She shared, “When you work in a large organisation alongside startups and innovators, you want to make sure that you can keep up with that ecosystem.”
For instance, CDMA technology may have seemed far-fetched in the 70s, but it helped transform South Korea from a struggling, war-torn country to a world leader in electronics in a fraction of a lifetime. Likewise, it is important for investors to ask: What are the Deep Technologies that can have brilliant impacts within the next few decades?
How startups and individuals can build momentum
Founders do not have to have a business background to change or improve the world. It is possible for a researcher to leverage a corporate’s business expertise to complement their own domain knowledge. These complementary strengths can be combined to identify, access, and capture the markets which would benefit most from Deep Tech.
During the Scaling Innovation webinar, Dr Philip Wong, Interim CEO and Chief Medical Officer, Web Biotechnology, shared his belief that firms and corporates are willing to take on market risk if they can understand the long-term value and potential use cases of the technology offered to them. Researchers, therefore, need to emphasise concrete benefits.
Whether a startup is looking for scale, access to data, integration or assistance in research acceleration, it is important to be clear about the type of help needed. This will make it much simpler for corporations to provide their support.
Contributing to a robust ecosystem on all levels
Thomas Abell, Chief of Digital Technology for Development, Asian Development Bank, mentioned in the ASEAN Deep Tech Economy webinar that over time, certain cities and countries have gained a reputation as leaders of specific industries — the most notable of these being Silicon Valley. He shared his hopes that ASEAN countries will continue to nurture their tech ecosystems, and one day boast their own thriving tech hubs.
However, the panelists from both sessions expressed that currently, a majority of applications they receive for their accelerators are from startups abroad. They encourage local startups from Asia to join the outreach initiatives and programmes that they have prepared to support them.
An increase in interested and qualified startups would, in turn, lead to the development of a stronger workforce. Startups provide a unique opportunity for young people to make immediate, industry-changing impacts, without having to climb ladders for 10 or 20 years. The more startups grow, the more local talent can as well.
Only by working together and building bridges can we create a more sustainable region for all. Rather than solely building on innovation that is coming from other places, let us come together and create a more cohesive market so that we can develop localised innovation.
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