Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SWITCH) on 31 October 2023.
Mr Peter Ong, Chairman, Enterprise Singapore
Mr Lee Chuan Teck, Chief Executive Officer, Enterprise Singapore
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning and a very warm welcome to the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology, or SWITCH, 2023!
Asia’s leading startup festival, SWITCH aims to catalyse innovation with impact.
Just as a physical switch connects different parts of a network to operate well, SWITCH connects innovators, entrepreneurs, government agencies and venture capital to collaborate, co-innovate and make an impact.
We are expecting around 15,000 in-person attendees at SWITCH this year, a 50% increase from last year. This is an all-time record and shows the global community’s recognition of the transformative power of technology and innovation.
We warmly welcome delegates from over 100 countries. I encourage all of you to make the best use of this gathering to explore new ideas and find partners to work together.
The Next Wave of Innovation
Since we started SWITCH in 2016, the impact of science, technology and innovation in reshaping the global economy has grown to be even greater.
Many years of intensive research into understanding mRNA enabled some innovative companies to develop new vaccines that helped the world combat and emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is fitting that the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Dr Katalin Karikó and Dr Drew Weissman for their groundbreaking research into how mRNA interacts with our immune system.
Similarly, many breakthroughs in artificial intelligence or AI have revolutionised the way we process information.
OpenAI’s ChatGPT4 captured public imagination the world over when it was released in November 2022. Less than a year later, there is growing anticipation that ChatGPT-5 could bring about even bigger transformations, and other companies are also working on Generative AI.
These two gamechangers that I just mentioned are products of deep technology, or deep tech, in which foundations are built over many years of basic research.
Indeed, many major challenges across the world all require deep research and new technologies.
This is true whether we aim to achieve net-zero emissions and make an effective energy transition to tackle climate change, or deal with ageing populations across the world, or combat new viruses and bacteria that threaten human lives and livelihoods.
Many of these deep tech innovations will happen at the convergence of different domains, across the traditional boundaries of scientific disciplines.
To effectively navigate a complex future, we will need T-shaped capabilities – depth of expertise within each field as well as lateral agility to reap synergies across domains.
If done well, deep tech will create entirely new industries, new value chains and new jobs.
Given its potential, interest and investments in deep tech have risen sharply around the world.
I visited innovation districts in the US, Japan and Europe recently, and learnt much from interacting with their different players about the paths that they are pursuing.
But while deep tech is promising, it is also very hard.
In fact, MIT in the United States prefers to call it ‘tough tech’.
It is a recognition that there are significant technological risks to deep tech innovation.
It takes many years of intensive and focused research, involving investments in talent and in cutting-edge equipment, with no guarantee of achieving breakthroughs.
It also has significant market risks.
The market may not accept deep tech breakthroughs, or the economics may not be right.
Additionally, given the typical long gestation period, competitors could develop better products within a shorter window and secure market share.
In Singapore, we are seeking to better understand the promises and challenges of deep tech, as well as the dynamics of the underlying innovation process.
One approach we are taking is to develop a richer ecosystem for deep tech partnerships.
This means building an ecosystem that allows innovative start-ups, big corporates, venture capital and venture builders, as well as government agencies, to tap on each other’s complementary strengths and accelerate the path to achieving breakthroughs.
And we will develop this partnership at 3 levels: first, within Singapore. Second, within the Asian region. And third, globally.
We aspire to position Singapore as a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise, connecting with vibrant nodes across Asia, and between Asia and the world.
Imagine a string of diamonds across the world, with each node sparkling and contributing to a brighter future overall.
Let me briefly share our efforts in each of these 3 levels and I encourage you to join us in this journey to create a better future.
First, to develop the ecosystem in Singapore, we seek to bring all potential partners to work together.
The government is an important enabler. It must provide adequate support for research in our universities and research institutes, and in companies based here.
Since the 1990s, we have invested billions of dollars in R&D. Between 2021 and 2025, we are committing S$25 billion or around US$18.3 billion to support our research and innovation work.
Approximately one fifth of this is specifically dedicated to strengthening innovation platforms and capabilities and developing entrepreneurial talent.
We are glad that the government investment is catalysing growing investment by the private sector.
Many sources of capital, including long-term patient capital that seeks to support projects with a long gestation, are now available in Singapore.
In 2022 alone, Singapore-based tech startups raised close to US$11 billion.
Building on our strong research base, our startup ecosystem is making good progress in translating breakthroughs in the labs to real-world solutions.
Today, we are home to about 4,500 tech startups, supported by a network of more than 400 venture capital firms and 220 incubators and accelerators.
Our deep tech ecosystem in particular is growing.
Deep tech investments in Singapore almost doubled between 2020 and 2022.
This includes into startups like Equatorial Space Systems, a rocket propulsion and space launch startup, and Xinterra, a AI-driven materials R&D company that has developed new CO2 capture materials.
Given deep tech’s transformative potential, we must continue to broaden and deepen our ecosystem to support opportunities to make an impact. One area that the government is working on, in partnership with the private sector, is to develop policies, rules and regulations to support deep tech innovation.
Let me use the example of AI to illustrate.
AI promises to be a general-purpose technology, with potential applications across many sectors of the economy and society.
It is also a rapidly evolving technology. A good ecosystem must empower startups and enterprises across different domains to use AI appropriately and help them build capabilities.
At the same time, we also need guardrails to harness the growing potential of AI safely and responsibly for the good of humanity.
To help harness this evolving technology, I am pleased to announce that Enterprise Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority will establish a sandbox for startups and SMEs to experience Generative AI enterprise solutions. The government agencies will partner with trade association SGTech to convene a panel of industry experts and recommend relevant solutions for enterprises.
Starting in early 2024, the sandbox will focus on clear business-use cases for Generative AI that are applicable across domains, including marketing, sales and customer engagements.
Enterprises participating in the sandbox will get to learn the functions and benefits of AI, and how to build their capabilities to use it even better.
To further support startups, Digital Industry Singapore will also partner Google Cloud on a tailored programme to help Singapore-based tech startups build new AI capabilities.
Starting early next year, startups using AI as a core technology for product development can benefit from equity-free funding, cloud credits and access to Google’s regional and global AI experts under this collaboration.
This will help to catalyse new and innovating AI solutions developed out of Singapore for impact in wider regional markets.
Even as we build enterprise capabilities to leverage AI for greater innovation and growth, we must also be mindful of the potential risks involved. As I mentioned earlier, enterprises and innovators must also use AI safely, ethically and responsibly.
This is critical to preserving trust, both among players within the ecosystem as well as with end-users, customers, consumers and partners from industry.
In June this year, Singapore established the AI Verify Foundation, an open-source community contributing to AI testing and governance frameworks, standards and best practices.
Today, I am pleased to announce that the AI Verify Foundation, in partnership with IMDA, will introduce a Generative AI Evaluation Sandbox.
The first of its kind, this new sandbox will bring together key global players to build capabilities in testing and evaluation in Generative AI.
Critically, the sandbox will equip app developers with the skills and methodologies to conduct Generative AI evaluation. Today, these capabilities reside largely with AI model developers.
More than 12 global players such as Google, Microsoft and Anthropic have come onboard to share their expertise in evaluating Generative AI, with IMDA providing the regulators’ perspective.
This new sandbox will help all stakeholders develop a better understanding of AI safety and risk mitigation, and work together to address the safety issue that is of global concern.
Beyond the national level within Singapore, the second level is at the regional level, to bring partners to focus on challenges that countries in Asia all face.
Asia is home to more than 4.7 billion people, or around 60 percent of the total global population.
Asian economies are diverse, at different stages of development but growing in vibrancy.
A better understanding of Asia’s challenges and needs will enable us to make impactful innovation.
For instance, while the need to address climate change is global, Asia has its own specific challenges.
The Asian Development Bank estimates that the collective effect of climate change, if left unchecked, could shrink developing Asia’s GDP by 24% by 2100.
Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of the 5th Sustainability Open Innovation Challenge.
Enterprise Singapore’s Sustainability Open Innovation Challenge will work with Temasek Foundation’s The Liveability Challenge to jointly source for solutions in areas like carbon capture, storage, and utilisation and renewable energy.
Aiming for greater impact, this 5th edition of the Challenge will have a regional scope.
Global corporates with an interest in Southeast Asia will provide challenge statements and work with participants to develop and test-bed solutions.
For instance, Michelin is exploring carbon credits for small-holder farmers in Southeast Asia, the FKS Group is looking at sustainable packaging for B2B flour trading, and Keppel is looking for solutions to reduce the energy usage of buildings.
Ideation through such Innovation Challenges is an important first step, but to make an impact, we also need to scale the solutions.
Enterprise Singapore, Temasek Foundation and Temasek Trust ecosystem entities will come together in a partnership to provide a platform for participants in the 5th Sustainability Open Innovation Challenge to scale their solutions.
Under the partnership, the Centre for Impact Investing and Practices and the Philanthropy Asia Alliance will launch an inaugural 12-month Amplifier Mentorship Programme to help high-impact startups develop a path to sustainability.
A pool of catalytic philanthropic capital will also be made available to qualifying mentees to support their growth and scale their impact.
I have spoken about our efforts at the national and regional level. The third level that we seek to develop our ecosystem is at the global level, to build global connectivity.
This is part of our efforts in positioning Singapore as a Global-Asia node, which I mentioned earlier.
With the higher investment and longer gestation needed for deep tech, the promise of global reach and scale will not only enable deep tech innovations to attract capital and talent, but also to achieve global impact.
We must seek to develop global connectivity, to achieve global impact.
While Singapore has a small domestic market, we are deeply connected to the region and the world.
At independence, we welcomed investments from First World economies – the US, Europe, and Japan, to kickstart our development. As Asia developed, we promoted enterprises in Singapore to invest in the region, and welcomed MNCs to use Singapore as a base for their regional investments.
Over the decades, we developed deep connectivity with our neighbours and markets in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
In the same way, as technology and innovation power the next wave of growth, Singapore seeks to be a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise, to connect to innovation nodes across Asia and the world.
We have launched 5 co-innovation calls this year with countries such as Australia, China, India and Japan to encourage Singapore enterprises to co-develop new tech offerings that address market gaps with foreign enterprises.
In 2017, we also launched the Global Innovation Alliance to strengthen linkages and partnerships with leading innovation hubs around the world, increasing access and opportunities for Singapore enterprises and students.
Since then, we have launched 18 nodes in cities spanning the US, Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Korea, India and the Middle East.
Today, I am pleased to announce 3 more nodes in Mumbai, Sydney and Melbourne, taking the total to 21.
These cities are among the top startup ecosystems in India and Australia.
The Mumbai node adds to the existing one in Bangalore, while Sydney and Melbourne are our first two GIA nodes in Oceania.
Enterprise Singapore will work with in-market partners to fast-track tech startups’ familiarity with the innovation ecosystems overseas, connect to investors and business partners in areas like Fintech, supply chain technologies, healthcare and Medtech, sustainability tech and AI.
Such networks will help further drive innovation and cross-border tech partnerships.
Before I conclude, let me summarize my key points:
First, deep tech is very promising but hard. Realising the full potential of deep tech innovation will take a mature, vibrant and well-connected ecosystem.
Even as we boost basic research work in our universities and research institutes, we must also enhance innovation and enterprise to build this rich ecosystem to facilitate deep tech.
Second, deep tech ecosystems must not be built in silos, insulated from one another.
Deep tech is, by nature, problem-oriented. To ensure its optimal use in tackling global challenges, we must build ecosystems that are connected regionally and globally.
Through convening SWITCH, Singapore hopes to strengthen our partnerships with like-minded ecosystems around the world.
So I hope that our overseas friends attending over the next 3 days come forward and share your ideas on how we can collaborate even better with one another.
I encourage you to make the most of your time in Singapore to learn more about our growing ecosystem and the opportunities it has to offer.
In particular, this year’s SWITCH brings in a new, outdoor extension at one-north, at the heart of Singapore’s innovation infrastructure, presenting an experiential showcase of tech innovations.
The well-received TED Conference series carries the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading”. I hope that SWITCH can serve as a catalytic platform to promote “Challenges Worth Solving”.
Together, we can continue to advance the frontiers of research and innovation. to create more lasting impact.
I wish everyone a memorable and productive SWITCH 2023. Thank you.
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