"Innovation is a challenge in Singapore, like many other places," said innovation guru Dr. Geoff Nicholson, "but Singapore can do it."
He was talking to a group of media persons on Friday (15 March) in Singapore, introducing advanced nanomaterials company, Cima NanoTech.
Dr. Nicholson is most famously known as the key contributor to the development of 3M's highly successful "Post-It" notes and the subsequent line of "Post-It products." At present, he is a 3M brand ambassador and serves as the Board of Director of Cima NanoTech.
"I'm 75 and retired," he said, "but when Jon called me to help with Cima, I said yes." Jon Brodd is the founder and CEO of Cina NanoTech who was also present at the media luncheon. At one point of time, both Dr. Nicolson and Brodd had worked together at 3M.
Dr. Nicholson divides his time between Texas and Minnesota, USA. He also lectures on innovation at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
"I ask my students, what research is?" he said with a dramatic gesture. "Research is transformation of money into knowledge. And what is innovation? Transformation of knowledge into money."
There is nothing called failure
If the world 'impossible' did not exist in Napolean's dictionary, the word 'failure' does not exist in Dr. Nicholson's lexicon. "I tell everyone to stop using the word failure. Call it a learning experience."
"A few decades ago, the buzzword was quality," he continued. "The buzzword of today is innovation. But no one knows the meaning of innovation. We know it as we have a culture of supporting innovation."
The Startup Genome project, which tracks start-up ecosystems in 141 countries, ranked Silicon Valley in the US on the top of its 2012 start-up ecosystem index, followed by Tel Aviv. Singapore is at No. 17, followed by Melbourne and Bangalore.
When asked if Singapore can emerge as a hub of innovation, like the Silicon Valley in the USA or Tel Aviv in Israel, his answer is affirmative. But the condition is that the culture here has to change.
"In Singapore, the challenge is to get it (innovation) into the lab, into the culture of learning," he said. "Here, failure is taken as losing face. Stop calling it failure. Take it as a positive thing. Innovation requires positive thinking people. Only 10 percent of the people are positive thinkers. We have got them in our lab."
First do, then explain
He also explained what it takes to innovate at an industrial scale. His mantra is do it regardless of success or failure. It sounded more like the Hindu concept of Nishkam Karma, doing one's duty without expecting any fruits out of it.
"Successful innovators do it first and explain it later," he said. "They get theoretical people to explain it later."
Share and collaborate
Another mindset that obstructs innovation in Singapore (or Asia in general) is the idea of being an exclusivist, Dr. Nicholson points out. Why should I share my idea with others? That is the mindset. But, according to him, that is not an innovator's mindset. "Sharing of technology is important," he said.
Supporting his idea, Brodd said, "What I have seen in Singapore so far is that there is great research-based academic innovation and there is also a start-up culture. But what is lacking is collaboration with the industry. Sharing and collaboration is a must for successful innovation."
Brodd's own journey is a proof of this concept. He found his flagship technology, SANTE, a self-aligning silver nanoparticle network, in Israel. He brought the idea to Asia and set up his operations with 12 people in 2003. Today, his company has 46 people working from various locations, of which 14 are based in Singapore. Besides Singapore, Cima has offices in US, South Korea, Japan, Israel and Taiwan.
"We are going through a frenetic growth phase," said Brodd. "We will start our China lab soon."
The company's Asia headquarters and Applications Development lab is located at the new CleanTech One building in Singapore, and has manufacturing facilities in Japan and Isreal.
Brodd said that his company's cutting-edge technology has found many enthusiastic supporters in Asia and has applications in electromagnetic interference shielding, touch screens, transparent heating, OLED lighting and other flexible electronics.
"A lot of innovation is happening in Asia but what is needed is that people share and collaborate and talk to each other," he said.