Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alliance for Research and Technology
AsianScientist (Feb. 1, 2019) – Few can claim to have had a transformative influence on technology, but Professor Eugene Fitzgerald, newly appointed CEO of the Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alliance Research and Technology (SMART), has bragging rights.
Having played a significant role in the discovery and development of strained silicon—a silicon layer in which individual atoms are stretched beyond their typical inter-atomic distances—Fitzgerald paved the way for microchips that are smaller, faster and more versatile.
In addition to being an academic, he is also a serial entrepreneur, leveraging his materials science and engineering expertise to unlock business value in the semiconductor industry. The book he co-authored, Inside Real Innovation, debunks the traditional concept of innovation as a linear process and instead introduces the concept of iterative advancement.
In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Fitzgerald shares his vision for SMART and his insights on innovation.
- You were previously the lead principal investigator of the Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES) at SMART. What was your research focus then?
- What does innovation mean to you?
- You’ve been involved in Singapore’s research and innovation landscape for some time now. What do you notice has changed over the years?
- As the new incoming CEO, what are your priorities for SMART?
- Could you explain what you mean by early-stage innovation?
- How do you think Singapore can stay relevant in a disrupted economy?
Up till now, the entire progress of silicon has been in the size of the transistor. Moore’s Law basically states that the number of transistors on chips doubles every year while costs are halved, and that’s how you improve electronics. But we’re already seeing the limits of Moore’s Law, where it’s less and less economical to shrink the transistors.
So when we started LEES, we knew that the technology landscape was going to shift and we knew that chips for communication and human interfaces were going to be valuable. Furthermore, we identified some markets that haven’t been addressed by silicon because silicon lacks certain properties, and so we had a materials science focus as well.
Now it’s like the new Moore’s Law, where the number of materials you can put in and the functionality you can add to silicon essentially determines the future trajectory of technology. What mattered was we were playing a different game. If you’re playing the same game as everyone else, you’re never going to create the next big thing.
I think we need to start by acknowledging that the definition of innovation has changed. You have to look at how people use the word in the modern context.
In the past, the word ‘innovation’ was basically equivalent to ‘an idea.’ Now, it’s evolved such that the idea is still part of it, but it has expanded to encompass the application of an idea as well. When governments, universities or industry started using the word ‘innovation’ at a higher rate, they were using the connotation of impact in the marketplace. They were purposely choosing the word innovation to represent something that’s not just some idea, but something that’s actually working and creating value in the marketplace.
So, to me, innovation is the embodiment of a useful idea in the marketplace. It’s an overarching process where you’ve got an idea, you refine it, you find a place to plug it in and if it goes to the marketplace, then it’s innovation.
And that separates innovation from invention. I have many patents, and I’m lucky in that maybe ten percent of them are actually useful. The fact is that you can file a lot of patents that aren’t useful—what you have are inventions that don’t go to the marketplace, so they’re not innovations.
Innovation is also different from science and technology. For certain, science and technology go into the innovation process, but they are simply discoveries of existing phenomena or some relationship that we learn about. They’re not necessarily a finished innovation.
I think when Singapore talks about innovation, it’s very clear we’re not talking about just R&D, talent and human infrastructure, but we’re very specifically talking about the translation of ideas, finding a market application and a path to profitably.
I came to Singapore for the first time in 1998 as part of the first Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA). We didn’t have a physical research space in Singapore back then, but we collaborated with the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore on their teaching and research programs.
I think Singapore has gone about research and innovation at a very measured pace. So as much as we were helping to build the landscape in the early years, it eventually got to the point where we at the SMA were asked if we would like to be part of the Singapore ecosystem. And so we became part of an international research campus here.
Now, we’ve moved into another phase that I’m very excited about—innovation process and ecosystem. This is how the SMART Innovation Centre came about, where we’re helping ideas turn into companies and connecting that to Singapore ecosystems. That means engaging with Singapore SMEs, creating corporate projects and so on.
It’s hard to predict where innovation is going to have an impact, but by creating a larger and interconnected ecosystem, you increase the chances of it finding a niche and becoming successful.
We already have in place what I call the ‘opportunistic model,’ where we look at the things being done between Singapore and MIT and capitalize on them through larger projects. Then we have the SMART Innovation Centre, which is also opportunistic in the sense that it’s building on collaborations or ideas that were already there.
What I want to do is take a more proactive approach to innovation, which means looking at larger problems, either from the economy or from the Singapore government, and starting to do early-stage innovation that allows us to eventually find out where a research project could have the most value.
I want to focus on expanding the SMART Innovation Centre and have it interface with other elements in the Singapore ecosystem like the Economic Development Board, Enterprise Singapore, the National Research Foundation and companies to really increase innovation efficiency and generate value for Singapore and the world.
Of course, we also need to focus on developing people. We start off from a strong base since SMART already has a lot of experts and collaborators. I also have my own partners that I’d been doing some innovation work with. But the intention is to grow the pool of innovators, and so we plan to bring in fresh talent and early-career researchers as well.
Early-stage innovation is what we call fundamental innovation, where you don’t just have a technical idea, but you can see that there’s a diverse range of applications that the science of technology could be useful for. The idea could affect so many markets, but you can’t really tell yet which of those markets are more important. So there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty at the beginning, and in general, that’s been uncomfortable for people because you can’t really define an end point.
If you think about early-stage innovation as a quest for a pot of gold, you can imagine gold in a lot of places. But knowing which path to take can be difficult, and this is where you need to have a rigorous process to find out where the gold is not at. You need to be able to see why certain things won’t come together, or why a problem can’t be addressed by this field of science, even if I do the research.
This process of distilling down the possibilities early on is so valuable because then you’re essentially killing a lot of pathways that would have consumed a lot of investment capital. If you look at the overall efficiency, it’s much better to find out at least what not to do at the front end of the innovation process.
Along the way, as you’re going down one path and doing things, you might realize there’s missing science and technology. But then you’re justified for having taken that path because otherwise, you would never have encountered this knowledge gap.
It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of things happening in Singapore concurrently, and there’s the constant pressure to keep on asking the right questions. But I think Singapore is a place for experimenting, and through that I think we can really develop thought leadership on innovation processes here.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: SMART.
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