Helping Research Collaborations Flourish

Plant the seed of collaboration well, and an ecosystem of meaningful research will grow from it, says Professor Lam Khin Yong.

Lam Khin Yong
Vice President (Research)
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


AsianScientist (Sep. 26, 2018) – Bridging minds and creating opportunities for science to flourish is all in a day’s work for Professor Lam Khin Yong, vice president (research) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU). An engineer by training, he also has a knack for brokering research partnerships.

Since he assumed the position of research vice president in 2014, Lam has helped the university establish collaborations with major industry and academic stakeholders. Under his stewardship, corporate labs with Rolls-Royce, ST Engineering, SMRT, Delta and Singtel have been set up on the NTU campus, making it a hotbed for developing and testing cutting-edge technologies.

His steady hand in fostering close ties among universities, research institutes and enterprises across the globe has earned him multiple accolades over the years, such as a knighthood in the French Legion of Honor, an honorary professorship from Shandong University, China, and most recently, the President’s Science and Technology Medal at the President’s Science and Technology Awards 2018 in Singapore. Lam was also featured in the book Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers, which was published in 2015 under a Singapore50 Celebration Fund grant to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.

In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Lam shared his perspectives on the increasingly interconnected enterprise that science has become, also providing insights into the rising prominence of China in the global scientific community.

1. As vice president (research) of NTU, what are your priorities when stewarding research programs?

Establishing strategic partnerships is among NTU’s top research priorities as they enable our researchers to stay at the forefront of cutting-edge scientific research. Partnerships not only provide a continued pipeline of resources for research to be translated based on real-world needs but also encourage diversity, which in turn creates a positive impact on research citations.

It takes a team of committed faculty, research staff and students to deliver on these large-scale research-intensive collaborations. Therefore, it is our top priority to attract outstanding talent to NTU. With good talent, we can come up with compelling research ideas and innovate at the same level of intensity and speed-to-market as global industry R&D leaders like BMW, Rolls-Royce and ST Engineering.

NTU researchers also work closely with industry innovators. A case in point is in autonomous vehicles (AVs), where CETRAN (Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of AVs—NTU) has attracted companies worldwide who are looking for the right infrastructure and team to support their corporate R&D ambitions.

2. What are your thoughts on the growth of China’s R&D in recent years?

I think it is clear to most observers that China is rapidly becoming a powerhouse in scientific research, outstripping the rest of the world in terms of research output. By investing strongly in R&D, China is establishing its own trajectory in engineering and technology. But because scientific endeavor is not a zero-sum game, the rise of China should be welcomed by the global research community.

What it means for Singapore (and the rest of the world) is that there are now more opportunities to foster mutually beneficial research with China. Given the enormous size of its population and land mass, China represents fertile soil for testing ideas and evaluating the scalability of innovations. This is where universities and research institutes in Singapore and China can work together to bring solutions from lab to market, bench to bedside. For my part, I have worked to anchor strategic partnerships between NTU and Chinese universities, research institutes and industry players.

3. Could you please describe some of these collaborations between NTU and Chinese universities?

One area that NTU has strong competency in is artificial intelligence (AI), and given the deep penetration of AI in China, the country is an effective implementation partner for R&D solutions in AI.

For example, NTU and Tsinghua University jointly established the Association for Crowd Science and Engineering in 2016, and within a short of span of just a few years, one of our crowd AI solutions—the social insurance AI system developed by NTU’s LILY Research Center, Shandong University and Dareway Software is now being rolled out in over 20 locations in China. This AI system is capable of handling three million social insurance cases per year, significantly reducing waiting time. It recently received the Deployed Application Award at the 2018 Innovative Applications of AI Conference, marking it as one of the seven most innovative applications of AI technologies in the world in 2018.

Over the years, our list of collaborators in China has grown to include technology giants such as Lushang, Tencent and SenseTime. NTU’s Rapid-Rich Object Search (ROSE) Joint Lab with Peking University has also recently released the ROSE-Youtu Face Liveness Detection dataset, which was developed in collaboration with Tencent as a public benchmark for protection against face spoofing in mobile devices. This is a step towards better solutions for enhancing privacy and security in this digital age.

At NTU, we are incubating many Singapore-based startups for the global market; a portion of these startups can be taken to China to tap into the larger consumer market, which doubles up as a springboard for testing on a regional scale. For example, NTU researchers have leveraged the Sino-Singapore International Joint Research Institute in Guangzhou to access China’s larger consumer base and scale up advanced R&D concepts.

4. What research topics are you excited about these days?

Among the many grand challenges facing society today, I find environmental sustainability to be arguably the most difficult to tackle. I believe that academic institutions have a role to play not just in analyzing the effects of human activity on the environment, but also in developing technologies that solve the problems of resource depletion, waste disposal, pollution and so on.

NTU recognizes the enormity of these problems and is moving to address them. Our research in sustainability and the circular economy reached a new high point in July 2018 following the signing of a collaboration agreement with the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). This marks the first overseas collaboration for CEA and the Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (SCARCE) project, supported by Singapore’s National Environment Agency. Under this partnership, our researchers aim to develop innovative solutions to recycle electrical and electronic waste. They will also explore and implement advanced separation and extraction processes for e-waste that are less energy-intensive and less toxic than current recovery methods.

Furthermore, the Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERIAN) is carrying out exciting research on hybrid microgrids at the offshore Renewable Energy Integration Demonstrator Singapore (REIDS). REIDS will demonstrate the ability to manage a new energy mix combining solar, wind, wave and gas technologies in an off-the-grid network, with the goal of providing access to sustainable, affordable energy access across Southeast Asia, while reducing reliance on diesel.

Another interesting project is the NTU EcoCampus initiative, which has also been scaling up rapidly since the start of 2018. On-road trials for different green urban mobility solutions are being carried out on the NTU campus, including e-bike sharing and Singapore’s first flash-charging electric shuttle, which uses advanced robotics at its charging stations.

In addition, the membrane and filtration technologies research group at NTU’s Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute has been expanding its research applications into the water, gas and energy, pharmaceutical, F&B and biomedical sectors. This is possible thanks to the newly established Singapore National Membrane Consortium. Finally, Nano Sun, a water technology start-up from NTU, has successfully released next-generation 3D-printed nanofiber membranes, which will allow for more compact water treatment plants with improved resistance to biofouling and lower maintenance costs.

5. In your view, how important is interdisciplinary research?

Modern science is no longer a solo or siloed effort. More often than not, discoveries are made at the interface of scientific domains, across multiple geographies, and with contributions by stakeholders from academia and industry.

Interdisciplinary research is therefore a key focus at NTU. For example, our Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering is advancing research on urban air microbiomes. This area of study links environmental microbiomes and microbial biofilms to public health, and has attracted collaborators from around the world, including the Israel Institute for Biological Research.

The SJ-NTU Corporate Lab with Surbana Jurong was also launched in July 2018 and will begin research on next-generation solutions for underground storage systems, sustainable building maintenance and sustainable building construction. Again, this collaboration brings together the fields of material science, environmental sustainability research, architecture and civil engineering.

6. What are some of the key lessons you have learnt about bridging academia and industry?

I believe that it is best to enter into a collaboration with the goal of creating a win-win situation for all parties involved. In a win-win situation, you may not always walk away with a windfall, but it is always better to have some percentage of an agreement than to have 100 percent of zero.

Over the long term, a well-built bridge between academia and industry would ideally take on a life of its own, forming a sustainable network of top-notch researchers carrying out meaningful science collaborations well into the future.

Many NTU collaborations, for example those with Rolls-Royce and BMW, have matured beyond laboratories into learning ecosystems that provide exceptional research exposure for both faculty and students.

In closing, I would like to give credit where it is due: we are very fortunate at NTU to have a pool of high-caliber researchers that has kept up with our vision to grow competitively as a rising global university.


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

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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