Thriving enterprises run by astute businesspeople in Singapore's Science Park--the island's bustling technological hub--are a dime a dozen. But the stories get interesting when one hears of academics with Ph.D.s in technical subjects steering profit-making concerns toward stock market listings. Next Wave Singapore met two such technopreneurs, both of whom insist that their scientific backgrounds have helped pave their success in business.

"What I enjoyed and benefited from most in my work from my scientific training is the ability to conceptualise what I see as the right way of applying technology to learning, to follow up with a solution, and then to test and refine it," says Richard Yen, founder and managing director of Ednovation Pte Ltd., of his physics background.

Yen's foray into education was a result of his leanings toward academia. "I have always had an interest in education, as I find that I can explain things in a simple way. That was why I started out wanting to be a professor," he says. "Although there is no direct link between physics and education, my training and ability to conceptualise, create, and test abstract concepts came in useful in the course of my work."


Dr. Richard Yen, 47

  • Founder and Managing Director of Ednovation Pte Ltd.

  • Born in Hong Kong; migrated with family to the United States at 15.

  • Obtained a master's and Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University.

  • At 27, he joined AT&T Bell Labs as a research scientist.

  • At 31, he became general manager of Wearns Technology Pte Ltd. in Singapore.

  • At 34, he relocated to Silicon Valley as president of Wearns Technology Corp.

  • At 37, he founded e-learning solutions provider Ednovation and became his own boss in Singapore.

  • Has published more than 40 articles, some in journals as prestigious as Physical Review Letters, on lasers and high-speed fibre-optics communications.

"What I enjoyed and benefited from most in my work from my scientific training is the ability to conceptualise what I see as the right way of applying technology to learning, to follow up with a solution, and then to test and refine it," says Richard Yen, founder and managing director of Ednovation Pte Ltd., of his physics background.

Yen's foray into education was a result of his leanings toward academia. "I have always had an interest in education, as I find that I can explain things in a simple way. That was why I started out wanting to be a professor," he says. "Although there is no direct link between physics and education, my training and ability to conceptualise, create, and test abstract concepts came in useful in the course of my work."

Ednovation, a name that was chosen to emphasise the synergy between education and innovation, is an e-learning solutions provider with product lines targeted from preschool to the pre-university market. These products run the gamut from curriculum-specific learning and teaching aids, resources from publishers, and repositories for schools' educational materials, to prepared lessons that can be modified to match specific teaching objectives.

Ednovation, which began with only 12 employees, now employs over 200 people and has offices in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Revenue has snowballed 30 times in the last decade. Half of the staff are R&D personnel--"a very big percentage by Singapore's standards," concedes Yen--due in part to his research background. These R&D staff are categorised into "software engineers; creative staff who do the graphics, audio, and animation stuff; and educators--ex-teachers who are in charge of content development." Counting Singapore's Ministry of Education and innumerable kindergartens and child-care centres as its clients, Ednovation is undoubtedly the largest developer of e-learning solutions here.

How does a scientist metamorphose into a businessperson with such ease? The U.S. citizen and now Singapore permanent resident says, "I went to work in AT&T Bell Labs as a research scientist right after [earning] my Ph.D. During that time, I felt that whatever I did was too far removed from the real world. Wanting to do something where I can see the relevance of my work, I was mentally prepared to go into business."

The jump from a behind-the-scenes research job to a front-end customer relations job came about when Wearns Brothers Limited (WBL) in the United States needed someone with technology know-how to come to Singapore to manage technology transfer to its arm here. Yen jumped at the opportunity and in doing so took the first tentative step toward entrepreneurship.

The courage to start Ednovation came after his return to the United States in 1988 to head WBL's venture capital (VC) arm in Silicon Valley. "I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug while working in the VC environment in Silicon Valley," he explains, recounting his contact with endless young start-ups looking for funding.

The rest, as they say, is history.

His advice to would-be scientists considering the crossover: "It's useful to have exposure in the business world before starting your own company. The business world is very different from the scientific world. You have to enjoy the business world, or you will find yourself very miserable."

"As with all things new, you also need optimism to go into business, as there are many obstacles along the way," adds Yen, citing "a stubbornness to see things through" that helped him pull through Ednovation's early years.

 

Ask Jacob Phang about the suitability of scientists as businesspeople, and he will have you know that "scientists have the best unfair advantage to go into business because of their background, comprehensive knowledge, and extensive networks. This is something nobody else can compete against. Take for example a guy like me, who has been in this industry for more than 20 years. There is hardly anything left that he doesn't know. His level of thoroughness, a result of his years of rigorous scientific training, is also hard to surpass."

This indefatigable dynamo wears a few hats full-time at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is on the board of the Electronic Device Failure Analysis Society, and continues at Semicaps Corp. till late everyday. "Academics sometimes don't want to go into business because of the high risks involved," Phang says. "Or they worry that it may dilute their research efforts in the university. But Silicon Valley is what it is today because of commercial spinoffs from Stanford and UC Berkeley."

Semicaps Corp., formed in 1988 and formerly known as Image Transforms, is a global leader in providing semiconductor and disk drive failure analysis equipment and services. Its clientele of more than 350 multinational corporations include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, and Fujitsu.

It introduced the first batch of scanning electron microscope image processing systems into the market in 1990. Invented by Phang and three of his research colleagues at NUS's Center for Integrated Circuit Failure Analysis and Reliability, the system revolutionized the way electron images were captured, analyzed, and manipulated. It became and still is the industry benchmark that other competitive products are measured against.

Commenting on the birth of Semicaps, Phang smiles. "Being in the engineering faculty and therefore closer to the industry, it was only natural for us to harbour business ideas or want to be businessmen. Semicaps was formed with the approval of NUS to commercialise our research work through a license agreement."

The road toward its current success was hardly a bed of roses, though. "As academics, we learnt a lot over the years on how to grow the business. When we realised we couldn't survive just by developing and manufacturing equipment, we diversified with two additional lines of work: distributing similar complimentary products and, in the last few years, by offering analytical services to companies that cannot afford to buy the machines," says Phang.

The recipe for Semicaps' success was fine-tuned as the company matured, he says. "Our competitive advantage lies in our use of cutting-edge technology and our ability to deliver to customers' doorstep anything between a S$1 product and a S$3 million [piece of] production equipment--complete with comprehensive marketing support and installation, as well as training and application. This is a strong business model."

Semicaps--which is now worth anywhere between S$25 million and S$50 million, depending on the method of valuation--employs 80 staff members in Singapore, 10 in Malaysia, and another 5 each in Thailand and in the United States.

Nevertheless, Phang admits that there were expensive lessons involved in learning to run a business: "The greatest challenge to me was learning on the job. For example, very early on, we made a mistake by taking in a business line that we were not familiar with and, in doing so, confused our customers. The best decision was to bite the bullet and cut the line. The mistake, however, cost us half a million dollars."

On his vision, he says: "My aim is to continue to do more research, for as an academic, I want my work to be important to all the problems in this industry. I want to anticipate the problems and build up technical expertise and manpower in this field."

And he is doing his part grooming his graduate students by having them present papers at international conferences such as the International Reliability Physics Symposium in the United States.

His parting shot to naysayers: "Nobody thought we could make it in Singapore. Yet Semicaps is now selling high-tech equipment to established companies in the U.S. What is important is to focus efforts on one's core competency."

 

Prof. Jacob C. H. Phang, 49

  • Founder and Chair of Semicaps Corp.

  • Born in Singapore.

  • Obtained his B.A. (with honours) and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Cambridge University.

  • At 26, he joined the National University of Singapore (NUS) as a lecturer in the electrical engineering department. Was conferred full professorship in 1998.

  • At 35, he won the National Young Scientist and Engineer Award from Singapore's National Science and Technology Board.

  • Started Semicaps Corp. together with three other research colleagues to commercialise semiconductor failure analysis equipment.

  • At 43, he received Singapore's Public Administration Medal (Silver). Has published 59 works internationally, presented more than 100 conference papers, and holds 9 patents.

  • Current research interests include scanning electron microscopy, failure analysis of integrated circuits, reliability mechanisms in integrated circuits, and metrology for semiconductor wafer fabrication.