Singapore A*STAR: Designing a World-Class Innovation Ecosystem

Over twenty years, Singapore has transformed itself from an entrepôt economy to one driven by knowledge and innovation. This important transition has resulted from strategic investment by the government, in science, technology and medicine, enabling it to improve its position in the global value chain and overcome its size limitations to become Asia’s ‘innovation capital’ and global R&D hub.

At the heart of this transformation is the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) – until 2001 known as the National Science & Technology Board – which represents a major conduit for financing the country’s cutting-edge research facilities, as well as coordinating collaborative R&D with global business partners. Most of its 14 biomedical, physical sciences and engineering research institutes are located in One-North, a wooded 200-hectare innovation hub where research facilities, business parks and educational institutions can ‘meet, share and discover’.[1] Impressive breakthroughs in cancer drug discovery, nanotechnology and ‘smart’ systems are the result of a world-class innovation ecosystem in which front-line research is carried out alongside global research partners, including multinational corporations and some of the world’s top universities.

As part of Imperial’s Global Business Vision event series, this post considers some organisation design elements that have contributed to A*STAR’s world-class innovation ecosystem. Whereas innovation scholars often discuss national innovation systems (NIS), as a comparative tool used by economists to determine ‘national innovativeness’ of OECD countries,[2] current research has introduced the concept of ‘innovation ecosystems’ to management scholarship. This offers a more suitable framework for business practitioners seeking to understand the interdependencies between collaborative organisations, and introduces a fresh perspective on specialisation, co-evolution and the co-creation of value.[3]

So how did A*STAR establish an innovation ecosystem capable of attracting worldwide business interest? Firstly, it introduced an open innovation model, which offered appropriate incentives to private actors in order to obtain a critical mass of multinational companies. Relocating corporate R&D facilities is a risky and expensive business, based on long-term strategic objectives. To overcome this, the government actively courted multinationals to base their investments and set up corporate laboratories in A*STAR, touting policy incentives, generous government grants, directed at translational research, as well as Singapore’s proximity to a vast Asian market.

GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, two high-profile pharmaceutical companies with R&D labs in its Biomed research centre Biopolis, have since been leading the way, with a number of collaborations with research institutes in Singapore, as well as the two main universities. A*STAR is also home to initiatives such as HP Research Labs and the Experimental Power Grid Centre (EPGC) which leverages Singapore’s superior telecommunications and energy infrastructure and its research strengths in computer science and ‘intelligent grids’ to test and deploy front-line technologies in distributed energy resources. Singapore also offers a sophisticated market of early adopters and unique opportunities for innovative public-private partnership.

The second important factor, which precedes involvement of multinational companies, is a long-standing research base, especially one that has evolved to promote and propagate interdisciplinary research. In the early days, the cluster focused on a single strategic research area, with the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology representing A*STAR’s first foray into life sciences R&D in the 1990s. Early research institutes were established and incubated within universities to support emerging industry clusters around research areas that were complimentary to the R&D objectives of target companies.

The prestigious Biopolis Research Centre which evolved out of these early research institutes was part of a bold vision to establish biomedical sciences as a key pillar of the Singaporean economy, which would then catapult the country onto the world R&D stage. The strategy worked, and more mergers followed along with the formation of new research institutes in engineering and information technologies to broaden its spectrum of R&D capabilities. A*STAR has since been able to foster synergies across different research disciplines in order to better tackle complex challenges posed by new cross-disciplinary research categories such as systems biology and high value manufacturing.

Finally, integrated support programmes to nurture and attract talent from local and global talent pools have been essential in establishing A*STAR as a vibrant innovation ecosystem with global reach. It has managed this through numerous international partnerships as well as internal programmes alongside local universities. Singapore benefits from a small but highly educated population. Coupled with its world-class research infrastructure, global networks and open policy towards international talent, its research institutes and centres benefit from a highly effective, international talent pool. As part of this drive, the government has attracted universities from overseas to complement its growing research pedigree. Twelve leading US institutions have set up branches in Singapore, including Harvard and Stanford, whilst twenty European universities have some form of research partnership or talent development programme, including Imperial College London’s own Graduate Scholarship with A*STAR.

To conclude, there is much we can learn from Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology & Research. Not only does it provide a useful case study from a national innovation perspective, concerned with engaging a global business community around public and privately funded research which contributes to economic growth. But it is also offers important insights into innovation ecosystem design. At present, this question is of particular relevance to Imperial College London, having recently announced a new West London campus; to include a £150m cross-disciplinary, academia-industry Research and Translation Hub. The challenge Imperial College London now faces is how to redirect the energies of an already vibrant research community towards industry through effectively coordinated translational research. Addressing many of these concerns, research carried out at Imperial College Business School suggests ways in which corporations can create more productive partnerships with universities.[4]

It is likely these rich learning insights will not stop there. With the Singaporean government showing strong commitment to research and innovation through an additional investment of nearly £10 billion between 2011 and 2015,[5] A*STAR’s position within the global knowledge economy will continue to grow from strength to strength.

[1] A*STAR, (2012) 20 Years of Science and Technology in Singapore, Commemorative Publication.

[2] OECD, (1997) National Innovation Systems, OECD Publications, Paris.

[3] Autio, E. & Thomas L., (Forthcoming) Innovation Ecosystems: Implications for Innovation Management in Dodgson, M., Gann, D., Phillips, N., Oxford Handbook of Innovation Management.

[4] Perkman M., & Salter A., 2012 How to Create Productive Partnerships with Universities MIT Magazine, Summer 2012

[5] A*STAR (2012), Science & Technology Enterprise Plan. STEP 2015

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