SMART Professor Eugene Fitzgerald On Innovation In Singapore

We chat with Eugene Fitzgerald, PI of the Low Energy Electronic Systems at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, on innovation in Singapore.

AsianScientist (Sep. 5, 2013) – For Eugene Fitzgerald, the Merton C. Flemings-Singapore MIT Alliance Professor of Materials Engineering Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Visiting Professor of Management at the Johnson School, Cornell University, leading a large research group in Singapore is but another step in his distinguished career path as an academic, researcher and serial entrepreneur.

Eugene Fitzgerald: Inside Real Innovation
Fitzgerald co-authored a must-read book on innovation – Inside Real Innovation – a book that debunks the traditional concept of innovation as a linear process and argues it is a highly iterative process where one goes through several cycles in the areas of technology, market and implementation.

And there’s no better place for Fitzgerald to dig deeper into the highly iterative process of innovation than in a country which he describes as a “high-innovation region.”

“I believe that Singapore is on the threshold of being one of the places in the world where a high rate of innovation activity will take place,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine.

The wealthy city-state has long served as a business and finance center in Southeast Asia, but it is also emerging as one of the world’s most innovative cities. A study issued by consulting firm Solidiance in March identified Singapore as the top city in Asia-Pacific in innovation, outranking Sydney, Tokyo and Seoul.

Singapore, the report said, attracts entrepreneurs and creative talent thanks to its stable politics, low government regulation, high saturation of global brands and multicultural environment.

Early investments into R&D

Fitzgerald said many countries are now working to create innovative environments as they now realize that innovation will sustain growth over the long-term and raise the quality of life of citizens.

“An increase of living standard requires higher growth from innovative activity; low growth just related to factors from population growth is not sufficient. Singapore started in this modern approach earlier than most (countries),” he said.

One component of its innovation is Singapore’s early investments into research and development, Fitzgerald said.

“It is quite possible that in the future, Singapore will be a third high-innovation region in the world, like the Boston and Bay Area hubs in the US,” he said.

Fitzgerald’s interest in innovation was fueled very early on and influenced his academic and entrepreneurial pursuits. In 1989, armed with a PhD degree in Materials Science and Engineering from Cornell University and a BS degree in Materials Science and Engineering from MIT, he joined AT&T Bell Labs as a research scientist.

He later built upon this research experience at AT&T to invent and market high mobility strained silicon through AmberWave System Corporation, a company he co-founded in 1998 with his former MIT graduate student Mayank Bulsara. AmberWave is just one of the several start-ups that Fitzgerald will launch as he focused on commercializing fundamental technology, with an emphasis on new materials/devices, nanotechnology, energy and water purification.

In 2004, he was a founding team member of Contour Semiconductor – a start-up focused on a new, low-cost memory technology, and a year later established Paradigm Research LLC, which provides research and consulting for semiconductor firms. In 2007, he was a founding team member of The Water Initiative (TWI®) – a team of leading global business executives and renowned scientists who develop and deploy “Point-of-Drinking” water systems to fit local conditions. TWI delivers customized and sustainable technology solutions that effectively remove water contaminants such as pathogens (bacteria and viruses), unsafe levels of inorganic materials (such as arsenic and fluorides) and harmful chemicals.

A SMART move

In January 2012, Fitzgerald moved to Singapore to become the Lead Principal Investigator of the Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES), one of the research projects of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) – MIT’s first research center outside the US. MIT faculty members have laboratories at SMART, mentor postdoctoral associates and graduate students, and collaborate with researchers from universities, research institutes and industries in Singapore and Asia.

Fitzgerald himself has been involved with MIT activity in Singapore since its start in 1999, first with the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA), and since January of 2012 with SMART. His recent involvement with LEES – a project that aims to shape innovation in semiconductor and integrated technology, leading to new low-energy systems – continues and intensifies his global research on innovation.

“In LEES, we have put together an interdisciplinary team of materials, process, device, and circuit experts to converge on new methods of increasing system integration, and therefore, continue to lower energy consumption per desired task. We are working towards new applications that will drive such an increased integration,” he said.

Fitzgerald welcomed the opportunity to work in LEES, noting how SMART’s funding mechanism helps to form a large team of professionals from various disciplines; and by being located in Singapore, LEES has access to a large amount of research-accessible 200mm silicon-wafer infrastructure and the benefits of local industrial partnerships in developing low energy systems.

But more importantly, Fitzgerald hopes to thrive in an environment that encourages a culture of innovation.

“Since fundamental innovation takes place, at a minimum over 10 to 15 years, there are large delays to building such ecosystems, including institutions that are in such an ecosystem, like MIT. I do not believe that many countries are both stable enough and committed enough to invest over such long periods, but Singapore has shown that mettle,” he said.

He believes that indigenous innovation will move forward and will be rewarded with abnormally high returns. In this sense, Fitzgerald said Singapore and the partnerships it has created (such as SMART) are positioned well for the future.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: MIT.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Prime Sarmiento is a Manila-based travel and science journalist. She specializes in reporting on health, environment and agriculture in Southeast Asia.

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