Sunday, September 14, 2008

Creating a research hub economy in Singapore: 2 models to consider, Part 2

I left off in my last post on stating that Singapore’s research thrust is too broad, but also too narrow at the same time.

I will return to this. Let’s talk about the second model that is interesting to think about with regard to building a research hub.

This model is the model of a modern healthcare system.

Walk into any modern hospital and you will find an array of healthcare professionals treating patients. Today, healthcare isn’t just provided by doctors with assistance from nurses. Instead, we find a whole host of what may be called allied healthcare professionals. These include but are not limited to pharmacists, nutritionists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, psychologists and early childhood experts. If we extend our gaze beyond the hospital, we may even include alternative medicine practitioners: traditional Chinese medicine physicians, Ayurvedic practitioners, massage therapists and chiropractors.

Clearly, demand exists from patients for these professional services, all of which aim to rehabilitate, promote or maintain health.

What is the significance of this healthcare delivery model to the building of a research hub?

To answer this question, let me relate a story from my professional life. I once worked on a project to develop an integrated transdermal drug delivery system that was conceptually, a hybrid between a transdermal patch and a lab-on-a-chip. This project was not successful.

Quite aside from the problems related to designing the individual integral components of such a system (which were already very challenging on their own), nobody in the project team had any expertise in control systems, which is traditionally an electrical engineering concern (and none of us were electrical engineers, much less control systems experts). I use the term control systems to refer to the electronic circuitry that is needed to control the actuators and sensors that constitute the drug delivery system.

Oh, we tried outsourcing the job, but that just opened up another can of worms altogether. Finding a suitable contractor was a royal pain. Add to that, it was really hard explaining to the people we screened what we really wanted the system to do. It was like talking to someone from Mars.

In addition, we knew no one who had any expertise in streamlining and shrinking the system down, and then packaging the system into a compact casing or housing. Naturally, this step is a fairly mundane manufacturing concern, but it is critical if the system is to actually become a usable product. And outsourcing this step to a commercial factory that did have the expertise was not possible; the minimum production run was literally in the thousands.

As I had already mentioned, the project was not successful. Not successful because we lacked access to the array of technical professionals that could help bring about the transition from research prototype to usable product. Just as a doctor can diagnose a problem and identify its causes, sometimes a different professional such as a speech therapist is needed to intervene to bring about the right therapeutic outcome.

This then, is the reason why I say that Singapore’s research thrust is too narrow. Sure, you can have 5000 brainy PhDs who all graduated from Stanford, Harvard or MIT, but without an associated ecosystem of ‘allied research professionals’, it’s going to be tough to translate research from the benchtop to the marketplace. There’s also the ego issue of all our numerous scholars, and I’m not just being snippy about this; I’m a one-time scholar myself. Here’s a word to the wise researcher. Don’t look down on the lowly technician or handyman in the machine shop in the basement. Or the guy who has done nothing but injection molding for plastics for decades. Or the electrical engineer with only a Bachelors but years of experience in working in an unhip, unsexy area of research like say, data centers. Their expertise, so far removed from your lofty ivory tower musings, could be what makes or breaks your research.

A*Star has clearly identified translational research as a bottleneck in building a research hub in Singapore, but I’m skeptical that they’ve fully grasped the magnitude of the problem. I know I haven’t, but my brief brush with the difficulties of translating research has endowed me with a healthy respect for its intractability. Somehow, I don’t think that setting up a bunch of consortia, hiring a few “translational research experts”, or giving out awards is going to hack it.

On the other hand, Singapore is focusing on areas of research where expertise and infrastructure already exist, such as in solar cell technology, which has linkages to our existing semiconductor industry. This is probably the smart thing to do. Notice also that while solar cell technology is a narrow field of study (which is a good thing in my opinion), it is also backed up in Singapore by a broad semiconductor industry base of expertise, which is also a good thing. Both narrow and broad, together at the same time, this time in a good way.

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