June Cover Story: Deep Tech

The hottest Southeast Asian startups in AI, Biotech, Blockchain and NewSpace. And why they make everyone else look boring.

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BY Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh - 19 Jun 2018


Doug Parker, COO at nuTonomy PHOTO CREDIT: Joel Lim

Driving can be deadly. In 2017 the automotive sector saw 1.4 million deaths globally; while the commercial aviation sector saw zero. Part of the reason for the relative safety of the skies, according to evangelists of autonomous vehicles (AVs), is that people travel on planes operated by companies obliged to keep them safe. The operators try to ensure, among other things, that their vehicles are serviced and their pilots competent. Contrast that with automobiles: some 95% of road accidents are due to human error.

AVs will usher in a similar era of safety, says Doug Parker, COO at nuTonomy, an AV software firm currently conducting experiments in Boston, Las Vegas and Singapore.

All AVs must do three things: perceive the world; predict what will happen next; and perform the right action. For perception most AVs currently rely on a combination of cameras, radar and LIDAR, which uses reflections of laser light pulses to form a 3D representation of an area. “My feeling is that we’re going to replace each of those with systems that haven’t even been invented yet,” says Parker. “It is a space ripe for startups.”

Identifying non-standard objects, like flying plastic bags, has been one of the toughest challenges. “More importantly, what their intentions are,” says Parker.

Parker is a trained architect and former real estate developer. Born in Philadelphia, he later completed an MBA at INSEAD and then spent six years at McKinsey in Seattle, building up its product development practice in work with the civil aviation, aerospace and automobile industries.

To be sure, there is a blizzard of corporate activity in AVs, with traditional manufacturers like GM, new ones like Tesla, computer hardware firms like Nvidia, software firms like nuTonomy and ride-hailing firms like Uber piling in, forming a web of alliances. They are attracted to a mobility market that could be worth $7 trillion by 2050, according to Strategy Analytics, a consultancy.

Two aspects of nuTonomy differentiate it from the rest, says Parker. The first is the collaboration with its new parent company, Aptiv (a spinoff from Delphi), which acquired it for $450 million in 2017 (before which nuTonomy had raised $4 million in seed funding and $17 million in Series A). It represents a marriage of cutting-edge software with traditional hardware strengths—Delphi first put radars on Jaguars and school buses 20 years ago. “This is a chance for us to move from being a research project to really industrializing us,” he says.

The second is its decision, along with ride-hailing partners Grab and Lyft, to run pilots in three different cities—Boston, Las Vegas and Singapore—which will provide its machine learning systems experiential breadth (“Northeast, desert, tropics”). With the exception of Cruise Automation, which has been testing in San Francisco, all other AV firms are testing in suburban America, says Parker, where the road networks are wide and driver behavior more predictable.

But it is the dense cities of the world, like New York and Singapore, where demand for robotaxis will be highest, he says. And in those places an AV might have to learn how to “negotiate” with a dumpster or a car that blocks the road.

“That’s the real prize; if you can start to negotiate with humans in a way that’s safe, repeatable, predictable, a place where you don’t get stuck and need human intervention,” says Parker. “All those people testing in Western cities in America where you don’t have those types of situations, they’re not going to be able to go to France, Paris, Tokyo, London, because there’s just too much complicated driving that you need to be able to do.”

By 2020 nuTonomy—a portmanteau of the Greek letter nu (v, also the symbol for velocity) and the word ‘autonomy’—hopes to expand to ten more cities around Asia, the US and possibly Europe. The company was founded in July 2015 as a spin-off from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). It now has over a hundred employees in the city state, part of a global team of “hundreds”.

Humanity might one day look back at the last century’s personal automobile revolution as a reckless era, when people with minimal training and prone to tiredness, texting or drunkenness operated heavy machines at sometimes over 200mph.

Speed junkies, have fun while you can.


Web Biotech

Philip Wong, Cardiologist & Co-founder of Web Biotech Photo Credit: Joel Lim

Soon we might all have doctors in our pockets. “The smartphone is going to be the cornerstone of healthcare in the future,” says Dr. Philip Wong, a cardiologist and co-founder of Web Biotech, which has created what it calls the world’s first cloud-based, tether-free continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring machine.



Andreas Schmidt, Co-founder of AyoxxA Biosystems Photo Credit: Company Courtesy

Having trouble reading this? Age-related macular degeneration typically starts affecting people in their 60s (older than Inc. Southeast Asia’s average reader), and is the result of chronic inflammation leading to abnormal vascularization or atrophy of the retinal layers in affected eyes.


Gilmour Space Technologies

Adam Gilmour, Founder & CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies Photo Credit: Joel Lim

For bankers keen to beat those mid-career blues, consider becoming a rocketeer. “I went from spreadsheets filled with derivative calculations to spreadsheets filled with rocket calculations and it was an easy transition,” says Adam Gilmour, founder and CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies (Gilmour Space henceforth).



Emma Weston, CEO & Co-founder of AgriDigital Photo Credit: Courtesy Company

Forget cryptocurrencies. Look at supply chains to understand blockchain’s magic. In December 2016 an Australian farmer sold 23 tonnes of wheat to a wholesaler and received payment in an hour—in what is believed to be the world’s first live settlement for a physical agricultural commodity using blockchain.



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