Challenge conventions and create possibilities to innovate: Dr Lim Tit Meng

The Chief Executive of Science Centre Singapore believes that to create new possibilities, one must dare to challenge conventions and dogma

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Dr Lim Tit Meng is a scientist wearing many hats. An alumnus of NUS and Cambridge University, he is concurrently the Chief Executive of Science Centre Singapore and an Associate Professor at the NUS Department of Biological Sciences. Along with these commitments, he is also extensively involved with science education and science communication, being the Vice President of the Singapore National Academy of Science (SNAS).

A firm believer that science plays a critical part in innovation and entrepreneurship, Prof Lim, the Chairman of the upcoming Singapore Science Festival, talks to e27 on innovation, education, science and the role played by the universities in the startup ecosystem.

This year’s Science Festival celebrates scientific innovation, technologies and engineering. With events and workshops happening from July 18 to August 3, this year’s edition of the festival aims to rebrand scientists and technologists – a topic that we discuss in the course of the interview.

Also Read: Up close and personal with Steve Blank

An excerpt from the chat:

What is the role of a scientist and academic in the entrepreneurial process?
Being a scientist and academic, you’re in the knowledge-making and knowledge discovery business. You’re asking the questions of “What, Why, When, Where and How”. You can translate these into entrepreneurial processes. For example, we can use gene sequences to tell apart the genders of animals, using a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to amplify gene fragments in order to differentiate expensive birds that are monomorphic (i.e. look the same). This has applications for nanotechnology, since we’re dealing with molecular biotechnology by this point.

To bring concepts to the market is not a job of the scientist. The market entry is by the businesspeople, to make it commercially viable you need other partners coming in. Nowadays, knowledge is power and knowledge is the economy, and this is where academics have an important role – to facilitate this transformation from theory into practice. Look at Hyflux, which was founded by Olivia Lum. She was facilitated by her professors during her education, where she had a heavy practical component to her training. That may have sparked off her entrepreneurial process.

There is a notion that if you don’t succeed at business or entrepreneurship, you go to the university to teach the subject.
That shouldn’t be a common thing. If you can’t succeed, ‘try try try’ and go on to share it. But then, you can’t claim to be an expert in teaching people. In this instance, I can tell you how I failed, but I cannot tell you how to succeed. But someone who’s gone through the whole cycle, who then comes back to teach, is highly inspirational. Someone who does that wants to be a mentor and is giving back to society. But by teaching half the story, that’s not someone who’s a good role model. You need successful narratives to inspire people.

With reference to the essay “Can China Innovate without Dissent” by Stephen Sass of Cornell University, does a startup ecosystem need freedom to explore entrepreneurship and innovation?
I agree that if a culture is not for freedom of speech and expression, then innovation will be impaired. You need to challenge conventions and create new possibilities, you must dare to challenge convention and dogma. Through that, you come up with a paradigm shift. In Singapore, we are driven by “model answers”, so we tend not to be as innovative. The new generation of students who are savvy in terms of seeking knowledge, they’re becoming more innovative. Look at the Maker Movement!

For William Hooi (Founder of Singapore Makers), it gelled with his dream. Now, there is a strong private sector component driving it from the grassroots due to him. He was with us for three years, then went on to form Hyperflow Ventures. Singapore has hope with so many youth moving into innovative movements. It’s a trend, and we hope to have more of such developments.

Also Read: Singapore needs IP awareness in 3D printing: William Hooi

What’s a good strategy for attracting youth to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, rather than professional fields (e.g. law, accountancy, medicine, etc.)?
That’s a big questions we’re asking ourselves a lot, on how to promote STEM to the general public. The Minister of Education has taken a personal interest, as MNCs are voicing out how they’re seeing a lack of engineers and might move out. The top earners are the bankers, which is a trend in many developed countries.

STEM-related careers are seen as tough, but those top bankers are only top one per cent of cohort in business. And the peak in business is a narrow peak. There’s a broader bell curve in terms of salary spread in STEM. You can’t use salary or prestige to attract people, and now many youth believe in meaningfulness at the core of their careers. We highlight the power of STEM to create solutions and possibilities. In STEM, you create opportunities for wealth, while bankers and lawyers only manage wealth.

Look at NEWater, which wouldn’t be possible if not for technology. If not for innovation, Apple would never have come up with iPad. Innovative understanding springs from STEM and creates solutions. It’s a calling and an aspiration, a way to solve many global issues. STEM is noble, empowering and constructive. It’s fundamentally good for mankind. Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar, said about her discovery that, “I feel very lucky. So many people work all their lives and they don’t make a discovery that’s of benefit to other people.”

What’s your opinion on the role of universities in entrepreneurship and business, with bodies like NTU Ventures and NUS Enterprise?
They’re doing the right things. I’ve heard a lot of good stories. Even in the polytechnics that have incubators and other organisations, this is creating a conducive environment for youth to experiment. I think it can only help, since there’s a clustering of talent, where they can interface and interact, sparking off ideas. This is something healthy and should be encouraged. At NUS, there’s a programme that combines engineering and entrepreneurship, currently being led by Professor CC Hang. Engineering graduates partner with business school graduates and look into commercialising NUS IP, like patents.

What are the major developments that would enhance life sciences as a whole?
Food security and safety is an area of growing concern, so biosensor that can sense food contaminants and toxins would be a game-changer in detecting chemical contaminants. With the world having so much contaminated water, radiation, chemical leaks and additives, biosensors are critical. With people moving towards food as medicine, they’re going to start looking to food to optimise health outcomes.

Your opinion on bioprinting.
I think it’s a tissue engineering innovation. Now you can shape and structure tissues and organs specifically to a person. Bioprinting ear cartilage and heart valves are possible now. It’s the dream of one fine day, we’ll all have spare parts.

Also Read: Inventor predicts 6 technologies to shape the future

Shiwen Yap

Shiwen is passionate about exploring science, technology and entrepreneurship ideas and is an avid advocate of open source technologies and methodologies.

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