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Business leaders welcome R&D investment, but seek more clarity

TODAY reports: "I’m not sure how the funding for research will be administered, and in what areas can small and medium enterprises tap into it," says one local company's executive of the RIE2020 five-year plan announced on Friday. 

SINGAPORE: With research and development (R&D) often put on the back-burner by smaller enterprises struggling with day-to-day-operations and lacking in resources, businesses on Friday (Jan 8) welcomed the news that the Government would be pumping a record S$19 billion into science and technology research funding over the next five years.

However, some of the businesses interviewed by TODAY called for more clarity on how the funds under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 roadmap — which will be partly allocated to the four domains of advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences, services and digital economy, and urban solutions and sustainability — would trickle down to the smaller enterprises.

“Allocating more budget for R&D would propel Singapore forward, once we emerge from this economic slowdown. It’s a huge vote of confidence in all the industries,” said Mr Kwan Lifeng, enterprise development manager at CKE Manufacturing, which produces oil and gas components.

“But I’m not sure how the funding for research will be administered, and in what areas can small and medium enterprises (SMEs) tap into it.”

Over at membrane manufacturer NanoSun, much of the R&D is driven by commercial projects, with its team of fewer than 20 people tied down by these commitments.

But with more Government funding on the horizon, managing director Wong Ann Chai hopes to acquire the manpower with the right skillsets to “spend more time testing” in laboratories.

Meanwhile, sustainable energy firm Sunseap hopes to channel extra funds towards acquiring sensors and programmers to write algorithms for its upcoming projects. In the pipeline is a smart watch that can double as a remote control for lights and air-conditioners, said engineering manager Kelvin Ang.

He acknowledged that R&D is a “tedious” process, which could take years to complete.

“Some companies want to see quick returns, and are reluctant to invest in research. But if a company spends 100 per cent of its time making money, it won’t grow,” Mr Ang said.

HELP SMALLER FIRMS MOVE UP VALUE CHAIN

But while there are companies keen to embrace new technologies, they end up hindered by the lack of funds to buy the necessary equipment, said CKE Manufacturing’s Mr Kwan.

“For certain advanced manufacturing technologies, the equipment is too pricey. To undertake the commitment simply because we have the know-how, it’s still a huge leap for us, given that our current market size is very small,” he said.

Most SMEs would chose “self-preservation” and wait for the prices of these equipment to come down, before adopting the technologies.

Surbana Jurong’s Group chief executive Wong Heang Fine noted that innovation would give the company a competitive edge “as engineering and urban challenges become more complex in our international markets”. His company intends to tap the RIE2020 funds for its upcoming headquarters in Jurong, which could be a test-bed for solutions.

Former Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh, who is also a businessman, noted that most private companies, especially the smaller ones, struggle with cost and manpower. They are concerned with short-term survival and fail to focus on longer-term issues such as R&D investment.

“We need to help local companies move up the value chain, so that they can increase the use of technology in their business and participate in the knowledge-based economy, and slowly give up their traditional supporting industry roles,” said Mr Singh.

“There’s not enough focus currently from the Government, and we expect the companies to do it on their own. They don’t have that 
capability yet.”

He added that incentives could be given to support companies in hiring engineers and scientists, or attract talent from government agencies and universities.

The key initiatives under the RIE2020 plan include increasing support for post-seed financing to address funding gaps and support scale-up efforts, catalysing the flow of R&D talent into the industry, and having the Government lead the demand for R&D commercialisation. 

Read the original TODAY report here