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Move the Needle: 3 Things Emerging ASEAN Economies Need To Benefit From Deep Technology

Talent, among other things, is key to the deployment of life-changing deep technology

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BY Tricia V. Morente - 09 Jan 2019

emerging asean economies

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When it comes to deep technology ecosystems in Southeast Asia, Singapore is undoubtedly ahead of the game. The island-nation’s strategic location, its large base of multinational companies, as well as its leadership in the areas of scientific research and intellectual property protection, makes it the ideal deep tech hub in the region.

It also helps to have the financial support of a strong-willed government who understands the importance of seizing new opportunities offered by technology. “Promoting innovation with technology,” affirmed Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in a speech delivered on the 2nd anniversary of deep technology enabler SGInnovate, “sits at the core of our economic transformation efforts. Deep Tech startups can be a powerful engine of innovation, either on their own or in collaboration with large corporates in open innovation platforms.”

According to SGInnovate Founding CEO Steve Leonard, the fact that Singapore is located at the crossroads of Southeast Asia—a diversified group of high-growth markets—indeed makes it the ideal hub for deep tech startups. But the market itself isn’t the big kahuna. The idea, Leonard says, is “to develop deep tech startups into high potential companies with global impact, to build and scale their products from Singapore for Southeast Asia and the world.”

One such startup is SGInnovate’s portfolio company, Adatos, which addresses a genuine problem in the world—food security. Adatos uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to interpret very large amounts data collected remotely by satellite, then advises farmers on crop management, predict potential risks to crops, and increase their crop yield. “While the company is based in Singapore, it is working with some of the biggest food producers in Southeast Asia who own massive plantations, playing a key role in making a long-term impact in the region and the world,” shares Leonard.

With Singapore acting as the jump-off point for deployment to emerging markets, what can ASEAN countries do to benefit from deep technology? Leonard tells Inc. Southeast Asia three enabling factors that need to be in place:

1. Education

These days it’s understandable that people are wary of anything with the prefix “deep”—hearing the words ‘deep state’, ‘deep learning’, or ‘deep web’ (among others) one too many times at a conference can have the danger of putting one into a deep snooze. There’s a need to not only communicate its many benefits, but its very definition.

Deep tech, according to Leonard, is “science-based research expressed through engineering.” Simply put, these are cutting-edge, often patent-protected next-generation technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space tech, precision medicine and genetic editing, to name a few, whose product development often takes years and where customer adoption, raising funds, and finding talent are pronouncedly more challenging.

And then there are the technologies themselves. “To many, deep tech may seem like a black box where the lack of understanding often stands in the way of widespread adoption. Take AI for instance; most workers are wary of this technology as they are afraid of AI displacing them in their jobs—this aversion will cause resistance to the deployment of AI, hindering the true potential of this game-changing technology,” says Leonard. Through education, “people will gain a deeper understanding of AI, and the fear of ‘ceding control’ to AI can be addressed.”

2. Regulation

Southeast Asia is among the most diverse regions in the world—in terms of language, culture, levels of development, among others. As such, Leonard says it is crucial that the right regulations are implemented so deep tech innovations are not stifled. “Concerns around data privacy, political accountability, as well as ethical and moral dilemmas posed by deep tech are gaining traction around the world and Southeast Asian economies should study these developments carefully to build regulatory environments that are conducive for the growth of deep tech,” he says.

Emerging markets can take a leaf out of Singapore’s book, with its recent announcement that an Advisory Council on the Ethical Use of AI and Data was formed to look at the various ethical questions and scenarios that will arise as a result of the widespread adoption of AI. “Emerging technologies bring economic and societal benefits, but they will also come with their own sets of ethical issues. Proper regulations are thus needed to encourage innovation by building accountability and public trust,” emphasises Leonard.

3. Talent

For deep tech to really take off and drive the economies of Southeast Asia, startups in the region will need access to a large pool of highly skilled and capable talent. Leonard says, “This will only be possible through an open innovation platform where the convergence of Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), large corporates and deep tech startups, create opportunities where creative ideas can be commercialised into innovative products and services.”

Human Capital is a key area of focus for SGInnovate, which works with IHLs, startups and partners to develop deep tech talent and to create a “deep tech marketplace” where talent and startups can seek each other out. On its second anniversary Q4 last year, the company announced investments into three deep tech startups:

Horizon Quantum Computing is Singapore’s first quantum computing startup that aims to ‘democratise’ quantum computing locally to help companies harness its full power for the next big deep tech breakthrough.

Involt is developing new energy storage cells that are set to help the world transition towards a low-carbon future. The technology it is developing will accelerate the adoption of green technologies such as electric cars as well as solar and wind power generation and distribution.

Portcast uses proprietary machine learning and real-time trade data to provide predictive analysis for the logistics industry, helping logistics companies better predict global cargo flows to price dynamically and utilise their assets more efficiently.

What drew SGInnovate to invest in such startups? Leonard says, “Our investment philosophy is based on our belief that difficult problems can be solved using deep tech. With this in mind, we look at companies and evaluate their products and solutions based on proven technology and market traction, as well as considering the scaling potential of their innovations. To us, investing in deep tech is more about ‘moving the needle’ on a large scale as opposed to purely seeking returns.”


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