The Basement Tinkerer

Professor Freddy Boey has gone from basement tinkerer to the provost of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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AsianScientist (Aug. 28, 2015) – As a child, Freddy Boey took no plaything at face value. A metal helicopter was something to be taken apart and put back together. Wooden blocks and a pile of sand became railroad tracks and tunnels. Two pieces of wood and some nails became a replica of a toy airplane. He progressed from taking apart and reassembling his toys in the zinc-roofed kampung house he shared with his grandmother, parents and ten siblings; to tinkering with inventions in the basement of his home; to becoming a serial inventor and entrepreneur winning more than S$30m of grants and licensing biomedical devices worth millions of dollars over the years.

As he is being readied for this profile’s photo shoot, the 59-year-old professor of materials engineering—also deputy president and provost at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU)—looks uncomfortable.

“Do I need a jacket? You can take all the pictures you want, I’m not going to get any more handsome,” he quips.

From kampung to basement lab

Professor Boey has always been more ready to get his hands dirty than pose for corporate pictures. The ninth of eleven children born to a mechanic and a housewife, he was largely left to his own devices as a child.

“My parents and siblings didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he says.

Even without parental pressure, he breezed through secondary school, then topped his cohort at St Andrew’s Junior College. But he was denied a government scholarship due to his congenital kidney illness.

Instead, Professor Boey scraped together savings from odd jobs during National Service, and went to Australia’s Monash University, which at the time offered free tuition. There, he remembers sneaking out of a dull chemical engineering lecture into the next class. It happened to be on materials science.

“The professor was explaining how an airplane wing can bend, and it blew my mind,” he says.

With that, Professor Boey switched to materials science—and evangelised to friends about it. (The department’s class size promptly doubled, said Ian Polmear, a materials science professor at Monash, in 2011 at an award ceremony recognising Professor Boey as Monash’s Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.) In 1980, he graduated top of his class—all while holding down a variety of jobs, from cleaning pubs to delivering eggs, to make ends meet.

Professor Boey then spent a year as a metallurgist at the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR), developing its trademark gold-plated Risis orchids, and a further ten months volunteering with an aboriginal community in a remote part of North Queensland. He then began graduate studies at the National University of Singapore under Teoh Swee Hin, a materials engineering pioneer.

There, Professor Boey examined the impact of impregnating polymer into wood—wood’s fire- and water-resistance is raised, boosting its value.

“My job was to do the modelling,” he remembers. “I had a modelling equation with nine or ten variables, and we were using this so-called ‘supercomputer’—you put the question in in the morning, and you could go to lunch before the answer came out.”

By 1987, he had completed his PhD and found a job. “I joined NTU because I was given the freedom to do what I could do, and I’ve been here since,” he says. And one thing he could do was invent things.

For instance, for Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which began running in 1987, he made soft plastic ticket barriers—the distinctive red fare gates. He developed the material, then ordered a first batch from plastic moulders in Australia.

Another project involved developing carbon fibre parts for the A-4 Skyhawk jet fighter. At the time, he says, use of the laboratory for nonacademic pursuits was frowned upon, so he set up a lab in his home basement.

“For two years, late at night when my children and wife were asleep, I’d work for a couple of hours,” he says. “I bought my own materials—I remember buying carbon fibres from Russia as they were cheaper.”

Professor Boey’s carbon fibre parts, though approved, were never used by the Singapore Air Force, which later decided to upgrade its fleet of A-4 Skyhawks.

For Hewlett-Packard’s semiconductor factories, Professor Boey designed a series of carbon foam indexer wheels on which to mount robotic arms. His wheels were less than half as heavy as conventional aluminium ones, and less susceptible to vibrations that slowed the pace of the robots’ work. To get the wheels perfectly flat, he cast them on large pieces of float glass—glass made by floating molten glass on a bed of molten lead.

All this work in the basement laboratory caused little marital friction, until his wife Celina, a general practitioner, discovered epoxy cooling in the kitchen fridge.

“When I told her what it was, it was not funny,” Professor Boey grimaces.

Robot arms to nanomedicine

Such tinkering, he says, was not discouraged by NTU, but neither was it actively promoted at first. Only from around 2000 did the university begin to ramp up its research and innovation efforts. That year, NTU’s materials engineering division was upgraded to a full-fledged engineering school, and Professor Boey became its vice-dean of research.

When Professor Boey’s eldest sister died in London of lung cancer that year, in her early 60s, he was driven to study biomedical devices.

“Why can’t a device delivering a small dose of radiation be implanted next to a cancer?” he asked himself.

He soon realised that the techniques and ideas used in one domain could be applied to another. For instance, to make very thin biodegradable heart stents of an even thickness, he used a technique called multilayering, commonly used in microelectronics, which involves spinning drops of liquid material till they become flat layers.

“It’s a lot of lateral thinking,” he says.

With colleague Subbu Venkatraman, a polymer chemist, he developed fully biodegradable heart stents that can deliver drugs. They spun off a company, Amaranth Medical, in which Boston Scientific, a medical device giant, bought a stake. They also redesigned the surgical tissue retractor, which surgeons use to expose a surgical site. Their now ubiquitous disposable version is gentler than conventional metal ones.

Profesor Boey’s newest company, Peregrine Ophthalmic, expects in three years to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a treatment that would replace glaucoma-drug eyedrops with an injection that delivers drugs slowly for months.

Though he holds countless patents, Professor Boey does not believe in filing new ones uncritically.

“I don’t file unless I believe they can be licensed; more than two-thirds are,” he says.

Fostering innovation

“I’m glad the experience I have is helping to shape the whole of NTU,” he says. “The culture here today is very different from the time I was doing things in my basement.”

In 2011, Professor Boey was appointed NTU provost, and created a new path for researchers to get tenure through world-class, high-impact innovation. Likewise, as dean of the school of materials engineering, he challenged the faculty and students to spin-off at least one company a year—a target they promptly exceeded.

For instance, Hydroemission Corporation makes biodegradable controlled-release technology for water treatment, waste treatment, and other applications; and NanoFrontier develops nanoparticles for applications such as detecting biochemicals. Meanwhile Vincent Lau, a materials science alumnus, developed an online-retail solution called Paywhere.

“I think innovation can come in any environment; but you need to have an inquisitive mind, and you need a sense of optimism,” Professor Boey says. “Most of the time invention comes when you persist, and it happens by accident more often than not. If you are a pessimist looking for a perfect answer, you’ll never get it done.”

And as provost, he is trying to encourage that happy optimism and innovation in the undergraduate population.

“I believe in having an education, not a degree,” he says. “A lot of our education is spent on feeding the students information, where exams are the focus.”

He would like to teach students the basics better and faster, perhaps using online learning technologies, “and the rest of the time educate them as a person, as a leader. What you learn in class lasts only for a couple of years, but inquisitiveness and learning how to learn lasts you longer.”

As Professor Boey shows off photos of his family—three daughters, a son, three dogs, “and one illegal cat who walks in and out and doesn’t even pay rent”—he shares his equally relaxed approach to parenting.

“I am not someone whose aim in life is to sit down with all my children and make sure they pass their PSLE [Primary School Leaving Examination] with flying colours,” he says. “I said to them, whatever result you get is all right; there will always be a place for you whether you are a top student or not.”

In the long run, he believes Singaporean researchers are capable of inventing things that will have a world-class impact, and materials science is a field ripe for such invention.

“Today, energy depends on new catalysts and storage; clean water depends on new materials to purify the water. Materials science is going through a golden age—and the sun hasn’t set.”

This feature is part of a series of 25 profiles, first published as Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.


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

Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.

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