The Asian Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Bernard Leong, Chalkboard Co-Founder & CTO
By Juliana Chan | Editorials
August 22, 2011
We chat with the entrepreneurial Dr. Bernard Leong, Co-Founder and CTO of Chalkboard, who tells us about his background in theoretical physics and computational biology, and his latest venture into mobile and web advertising.
AsianScientist (Aug. 22, 2011) – Dr. Bernard Leong may be better known for his entrepreneurial talents and for co-founding Chalkboard, the hyperlocal mobile and web advertising platform, but his unique career has taken a number of exciting turns that only the best of pundits could predict.
Dr. Leong – once upon a time a schoolmate at Cambridge University, then a colleague at the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) – has trained at the world famous Cavendish Laboratory and Sanger Institute, receiving rigorous academic training in computational biology and theoretical physics.
A Singaporean-born entrepreneur, Dr. Leong keeps watch of the interactive digital media space, and has invested under Thymos Capital LLP on online social media and applications, such as Eteract, iHipo, and AzukiSoft. He co-founded www.SGEntrepreneurs.com which focuses on the Singapore entrepreneurial scene, and lectures part-time at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). This year, he is also an entrepreneur-in-residence in INSEAD Business School.
Founded in February 2010, his latest Chalkboard venture has received strong financial backing from Neoteny Labs, expanding beyond the shores of Singapore and Malaysia to the US. For as little as SGD$1 a day, businesses can send messages instantly to people within a mile radius of the business location, and more than 4,400 businesses have already signed on.
Asian Scientist Magazine had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Leong, a self-dubbed “pragmatic idealist”, who believes that one should take an idea forward with passion and energy to change one’s environment.
You’ve always been an entrepreneur in the making, but we are aware of your rigorous scientific background in bioinformatics and physics. Could you share with us more about your scientific training at Cambridge University, and your previous research at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS)?
Although I have been an entrepreneur for a while, I still work and think like a theoretical physicist at heart. In fact, the guiding principle in my work every day is to make all the mistakes as quickly and possible and ensure that we build, experiment, collect data, and analyze new technologies that aligns with the business objectives of the company.
My first passion is in theoretical physics, in which I did my PhD in Physics, specializing in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology at the Cavendish Laboratory. The problem I was working on back then was finding realistic experimental signatures of extra-dimensions (based on String/M-theory) in the cosmic microwave background radiation, which is the remnant radiation left over by the Big Bang.
My thesis work brought me the experience in working with large data sets and working out how the signature would look like if we sent out better satellites such as Planck and WMAP.
During my PhD, I built up a lot of tools in mathematical and statistical models (for example, Bayesian Inference, Self-Organized Criticality) for analyzing experimental phenomena. It is also an implicit requirement for a theoretical physicist to learn computer science and computer programming (Fortran, Java, Perl and C++). That part provided the foundation for me to work in other areas of knowledge. For example, I wrote a paper with a few economists on football managers and analyzed how competition and incentives demonstrate self-organized criticality similar to what we see in physics.
After my PhD, I joined the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute as a postdoctoral fellow in the area of computational biology and bioinformatics. That was the most exciting time of my life. I was working on the large scale analyses of the human genome data and the use of machine learning to predict splice enhancers in exons. The reason why it is interesting is because a couple of diseases such as cystic fibrosis are caused by incorrect splicing of exons in the genome.
After my time in Sanger, I moved back to Singapore and worked for about 2.5 years at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), where I researched on searching for interesting sequences that are responsible for stem cell regulation and cancer biology.
Although I was in a research environment, I like to experiment with technologies that have real impact in real life. During my time at GIS, I developed a grid computing solution to make the search for genomic sequences using Apple Mac OS X technologies that led me to a free ticket to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) from Apple Singapore. So, I have a long history of fiddling with technologies and APIs and that experience prepared me for my entrepreneurial career.
Even though I have worked in different disciplines whether it is in physics, economics or computational biology, the tools I have used to analyze them are very similar.
It also carried forward to my current work as the CTO of Chalkboard, when I searched for customer insights via 70 million datapoints on how consumers are assessing information (which they may be interested) in a location which may be influencing their purchasing decision.
While I am in business these days, I will try to write a research paper each year, and my last paper was to solve the distribution problem for galaxy mergers in the Universe. (Note: You can find my publications here: http://www.bernardleong.com/publications/)
How early did you catch on to mobile apps, and could you describe the path that led you to becoming the co-founder and CTO of Chalkboard?
I did spend some time as an early stage investor after I exited from the first start-up (a biotech start-up in Cambridge). During that time, I worked with developers and entrepreneurs in product development, mainly in the mobile apps and social media space (social networks). As a technologist myself, I have dabbled in programming with the iOS and Android platform.
As for how it led up to Chalkboard, the story is rather different. Both my co-founder, Saumil Nanavati and I have been interested in building a digital marketing platform for small and medium businesses. The basic problem that these businesses faced is that they do not understand digital technologies (internet and mobile), the metrics of marketing (like impressions and click thru rates), and the ease of use for them.
We were both thinking of how to help small and medium businesses to make use of technology to provide information to consumers in the market. Taking the idea of traditional chalkboards which businesses use to drive traffic for customers nearby, we extended the concept of a chalkboard into the digital space as more mobile handsets have the location detection capability (GPS) and browsers becoming more and more location aware (based on HTML5).
So, the basic value proposition about what Chalkboard is: a real-time local communication network that helps to connect small and medium businesses to reach their customers via mobile or web and allowing to communicate promotions, today specials, or new product launches.
Chalkboard’s seed funding comes from a Singapore-based VC. While you already have an office in San Francisco, are there any advantages and disadvantages of having your VC based in Asia, instead of the Valley?
The key advantage is that we are in the Asia market where a lot of US companies are still figuring how they are going to expand in Asia.
In San Francisco, you get the advantage of the ecosystem not just in the funding from the venture capitalist but also hiring the correct talent that can help you to scale the company globally at a short time.
In our interview with Mr. Joi Ito of Neoteny, we asked him for advice for new online websites. Do you have any general advice for online media outlets based on your experience with sgentrepreneurs.com and Chalkboard?
Just as a quick disclosure, Joi is one of the investors who have funded Chalkboard.
I don’t have advice as such for most online sites or platforms except that I believe the most important thing about being in a start-up is to be agile, iterate quickly based on data and feedback from customers, and then pivot if things go wrong.
To learn more about Chalkboard and Dr. Leong:
Bernard Leong’s Personal Website.
Dr. Leong will be speaking at Apps World Asia 2011, taking place from Sept 1-2 at the Suntec Convention Center, Singapore.
Copyright: AsianScientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.