Speech by Minister for Education Mr Lawrence Wong at Sginnovate's Virtual Career Showcase "New Frontier 2021: Build Your Deep Tech Future"

Published Date: 10 April 2021 05:00 PM

News Speeches

Ms Yong Ying-I, Chairman, SGInnovate,
Dr Lim Jui, CEO, SGInnovate,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

1. I am very happy to join you today for SGInnovate's virtual Deep Tech career showcase. It's great to see so many of you at this event – although I cannot literally see you as many of you are signing on remotely – but I think it is good that even in this pandemic, we have different creative ways to come together and engage with one another.

2. Back in the 70s and 80s, engineering was the preferred choice of study for many university graduates, and they aspired towards engineering jobs when they graduated. When I was a student in the 90s, there was a shift towards business and economics. Many of my peers and school mates aspired towards careers in the finance industry, which was then growing rapidly. Indeed, many became bankers. These days, I think the pendulum is shifting – I can see and sense a perceptible shift in sentiments now in favour of hard sciences and technology.

3. Well-known tech companies are already the choice employers of many young people. You have names like Facebook, Amazon and Google. But even home-grown tech companies like Grab, Razor and Sea and Shopee – young people aspire towards jobs in these companies. But there are also opportunities in Deep Tech. These are different from the general tech start-ups engaged in internet, mobile or e-commerce. As the name suggests, deep tech companies develop products based on more profound scientific discovery or engineering innovation, especially in fields like advanced materials, AI, biotech, blockchain, robotics, or quantum computing.

4. We can expect more Deep Tech innovations in the coming years, because knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. In 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010, it was doubling in half that time. And that's one of the reasons why we've been able to roll out new and effective vaccines so quickly to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

5. If you reflect a bit further, there are three fundamental kernels of human existence: there is an atom, there is the bit, and there is the gene. We have already witnessed the revolution driven by physics over the first half of the twentieth century – the revolution driven by the atom. We have been experiencing the IT and digital revolution over the second half of the 20th Century—and with faster chips, massive data sets and cloud computing, we will see further acceleration of this trend especially in AI and machine learning. Now, we are entering a life science revolution. We've seen how effective RNA technology can be in delivering vaccines against COVID-19. But there are applications beyond vaccines. With the RNA vaccines, you are sending genetic constructions to get your immune system to respond. But it's always delicate business doing something with your immune system. We don't quite know how the immune system will respond. And there are new genetic coding technologies – editing technologies – that will allow you to edit your gene directly, to cure disease or to even fight the virus. These are all possibilities that are opening up. So, in the future, I expect students to study not just digital code, but also genetic code.

6. So with all these changes, it's not surprising why around the world, funding for Deep Tech companies has also increased over the years. Partly because there is a lot of liquidity in the global system, there is a perception that tech companies – the mainstream ones, at least – are somewhat overvalued. That's why investors everywhere are looking for new opportunities. Some are prepared to take more risks and make bets in Deep Tech in the hope of a bigger payoff over the longer term. Business accelerators too are also shifting focus from traditional digital startups towards Deep Tech ventures.

7. In Singapore, our Deep Tech scene is still relatively new, but it is growing. For example, there are more than 200 job opportunities across over 40 companies being offered today.

8. Some of our Deep Tech startups are already making an impact. One example is Accredify and SGInnovate coming together to co-develop the Digital Health Passport, very important during this period. They are making use of blockchain technology to issue secure, tamper-proof digital medical records, because with COVID-19, especially for travelling, we need to be able to certify that somebody has tested negative, and also certify that he or she has been vaccinated. It is one thing to say that an individual has a record, but how do we know if it is authentic, and how do we go about verifying it? So, with this technology, using blockchain, swab test results issued by partner clinics can be safely stored and accessed in the Digital Health Passport. And authorities can instantly verify health records by scanning the documents' unique QR codes on the Digital Health Passport. This solution can later be expanded to provide verifiable vaccination records to support the return of cross-border travel. Lucence is another startup specialising in developing genomic tests for cancer detection and treatment. They make use of their technology to launch a saliva sample test for detection of the virus, and this test kit has been supporting the Government's efforts in rolling out mass testing all over Singapore to slow down the spread of the virus.

9. These are just two examples. There are many other examples where Deep Tech has demonstrated great potential in creating positive impact. So the future looks bright for the sector, around the world and in Singapore.

10. We therefore are doing several things to better equip Singaporeans for opportunities in the Deep Tech space.

11. First, across our schools, we will continue to strengthen the interest and capabilities of our students in STEM, starting from a young age. It's not just about pushing out more content and getting our young people to do more memorisation of facts. We really want them to be curious, to foster innovation, think critically, challenge assumptions, and to be able to continually pick up new knowledge and skills. At a young age they really have to be fascinated and passionate about STEM, and keep on learning and growing.

12. Importantly, learning must not stop when you graduate from school. It's important to have this culture of continuous learning and innovation. In fact, all of us must make this a personal habit and an integral part of our lives. To constantly find out how things are done, and how they can be done better. This is what spurs creative ideas, and it will enable us to create value – not just add value, but create new, interesting, value-adding solutions.

13. Second, while deep domain knowledge is important – and in deep tech, you need a high level of specialisation – we also need inter-disciplinary skillsets to tackle real world problems. Such inter-disciplinary collaboration can itself be a source of innovation – because very often, new breakthrough ideas are found in the intersections between domains, where different disciplines come together. That's when you have that spark for new, creative ideas.

14. Part of being more broad ranging includes focusing on human skills, something we often neglect, and we think it comes to us comes naturally. But in fact, the ability to empathise, to build relationships with one another, to collaborate well in teams, to think creatively, and to be able to challenge one another in order to have more serendipitous conversations and breakthroughs – these are all important human skills, and we should nurture them consciously and deliberately. That's why we also want students to come together often to collaborate, get involved in projects, and learn from one another. Remember always that learning is not an individualised endeavour you do by yourself. It is not about being a bookworm and reading all by yourself, or doing research in a lab. We all learn more when we learn together. Collaboration is critical.

15. That leads me to my third point. We do want to develop greater synergies between research and the industry. Technological progress is not a one-way linear progression that goes from science to application, or from the research lab to industry. We often think of it that way, as a one-way street. But very often, it is a two-way process. It's an iterative dance amongst researchers, scientists, practical investors, and business leaders, all coming together as part of ecosystem. And we can see many examples of this throughout history, from the development of the transistor to steam engines, to powered flight, and more recently to breakthroughs in Crispr and genetic engineering. A lot of these breakthroughs are not just from a research paper to industry, but it is a very collaborative process. Sometimes, it starts from a company, and they realise it has relevance for research, and they go in an iterative manner. And that's how new discoveries are made.

16. And that's why I am glad to hear that SGInnovate has indeed been collaborating with Institutes of Higher Learning and companies. I think you have a role to play in bringing the two together. You are also creating more apprenticeship and immersion opportunities in Deep Tech. For example, you have the Summation Programme, an apprenticeship scheme placing students into high-potential Deep Tech projects to hone their skills in the fields of AI, Cybersecurity, Internet of Things, Robotics or Quantum Computing. Ong Wei Ching, a fresh graduate with a bachelor's degree in Social Science, is one beneficiary of this programme. While Wei Ching did not study computing as a major, she has a keen interest in AI and took up additional relevant courses on her own and sought data science internships on top of her course work, and she is now benefitting from this programme.

17. Infinity Series is an immersion programme for participants to develop technical capabilities in areas such as software development, data analytics and UI/UX design. One beneficiary is Muhammad Naufal, a final year undergraduate with a major in Economics and second major in Data Science and Analytics. He is now attached to Portcast, an AI startup that works on improving maritime supply chain visibility. He is working on predictive supply chains as a back-end engineer at the company. During the recent Suez Canal incident, he played an important role in updating the back-end systems to handle fluctuating predictions for affected vessels. So even as an intern, even as part of this immersion programme, he was able to tackle a very important real-world challenge.

18. Powerx, is a full-time traineeship programme that aims to equip people who are already in the workforce – our mid-careers – with the skills necessary to switch to a new career in Deep Tech. There are three tracks under the programme – Robotics, Cybersecurity and Software, and Product Development. Perlin Chu is one of the trainees under the Robotics track. She started her career as an Accountant, but soon realised that her work could be made more efficient with technology. So she picked up programming as a hobby. This hobby developed into a strong interest in tech, and she later signed up for this programme to deepen her skills. She is now on a full-time attachment with an AI company and helping to develop user-friendly UI for the company's robotics software system.

19. So, I've just highlighted three beneficiaries of programmes that SGInnovate has been rolling out. Some are fresh graduates; some are mid-careers. Not everyone studied computing or data science for their undergraduate degrees. Some came from different courses of study, but embodied the spirit of lifelong learning, picked up new skills, and now they are finding opportunities in this space.

20. To conclude, COVID-19 might have thrown the world a curveball, but it has also shown us what innovation and technology can do to solve problems that impact societies and the world. To grasp these opportunities, I encourage all of you to embrace this mindset of curiosity. Step out of your comfort zone and actively look out for new knowledge or skills to acquire. Today's virtual career showcase is a good beginning. Please do take advantage of today's programmes, which include panel discussions and sharing sessions from Deep Tech innovators, as well as training workshops in areas like AI, Blockchain, Data Sciences and Design Thinking.

21. It will take time; it will take some effort. Nothing worthwhile in this world can be achieved without effort. So, it will take hard work and some effort, I'm sure, to pick up new skills and embark on a new career. But we have seen from the examples I've highlighted, and many other examples we've seen in Singapore and around the world, that this is not an impossible task, and in fact, can be very rewarding.

22. I wish you all the very best in exploring a career in the Deep Tech sector, and a fruitful time at the virtual fair today. Thank you very much.

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