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Covid-19 a catalyst for formulating ideas and finding solutions to business problems

The Edge Singapore
The Edge Singapore • 9 min read
Covid-19 a catalyst for formulating ideas and finding solutions to business problems
To find new, workable solutions quickly, crowdsourcing through open innovation is now an option many companies turn to
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Innovation is traditionally done in-house by internal R&D teams. However, as the business environment changes rapidly, companies are also happy to look elsewhere to help solve problems via “open innovation” projects.

Open innovation is a demand-led approach where companies call for ways to solve problems or create new opportunities that they will pay for. Typically, SMEs or start-ups respond to these open calls and create a win-win solution for all. While demand drivers benefit from a bigger talent pool that can develop solutions more quickly, solution providers enjoy the opportunity to validate a market need, thereby building a track record for further growth.

To be sure, open innovation has been around in developed economies for a couple of decades. Back in 2004, P&G, one of the largest fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers in the world, introduced a new line of Pringles potato crisps which became an immediate hit. Each crisp had pictures, trivia questions, facts and jokes printed on them. In fact, that idea came quickly and cheaply from P&G’s own Connect + Develop open innovation programme.

Edwin Chow, assistant CEO, innovation and enterprise at Enterprise Singapore (ESG), believes that open innovation is taking off here too. “We see an increasing awareness and willingness to try open innovation here, with Covid-19 providing an added boost. When the pandemic hit, many businesses suddenly faced supply chain disruptions, loss in revenue, change in consumption behaviours, and restrictions in manpower resources,” he says.

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“The flip side of this is that Covid-19 made them realise the immense benefits of digital and tech adoption in managing both immediate and longterm challenges. To find new, workable solutions quickly, crowdsourcing through open innovation has become an option that many companies turned to,” adds Chow.

Open Innovation Network

Singapore, according to Chow, is an ideal location for global corporations to develop new solutions, test them out, build a credible track record, and get them exported eventually. The country is also home to talent from all around the region. “They global firms also value partnerships with the Singapore government given our strong infrastructure and networks that support innovation. Given our role in championing enterprise development, ESG can also facilitate collaboration with our Singapore SMEs and start-ups, or bring industry players together. The scale and outreach of our initiatives is something that individual companies may not be able to replicate on their own,” says Chow. One of these initiatives is the Open Innovation Network which aggregates all open innovation challenges here into one platform. It is also linked to the Open Innovation Platform run by the Infocomm and Media Development Authority which is more focused on the tech sector.

In 2017, ESG also introduced the Gov-PACT programme offering government agencies as lead-demand drivers for new solutions required to support policy innovations. Then there is the Global Innovation Alliance which has networks in 13 cities. Last but not least, ESG is organising Slingshot start-up competition which includes corporate challenges and partner competitions.

With the conducive environment, many large companies have become active participants. In a first-of-its-kind partnership, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell partnered ESG to launch the inaugural Energy Open Innovation Challenge 2020 to call for ideas to deal with industry-wide challenges in asset management, robotics, sustainability and workflow.

Under the Sustainability Open Innovation Challenge, China home appliances and consumer electronics group Haier is working with a Singapore start-up to improve the energy efficiency of its fridges. Other big companies involved include Danone, Dole and Sumitomo.

Just the beginning

Despite this flurry of activities, Chow believes this is just the beginning for open innovation. In the past year, the number of demand drivers on the Open Innovation Network has increased from 60 in November 2019 to over 250 today. “This reflects the increased interest in open innovation partnerships despite Covid-19,” he says.

From ESG’s perspective, Covid-19 will have a lingering effect on Singapore. “Companies have already come to terms with the need to change the way their businesses operate in this new economy. While the earlier days could be characterised by a wait and see attitude, we have seen companies face these challenges head on. This is something that will be seen across all sectors, as each has innovation and open innovation opportunities,” says Chow.

For example, the Singapore Association of Convention, Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS) is working with start-ups Viatick and Trakomatic to develop an integrated control system for exhibitions and events. Similarly, the Container Depot & Logistics Association of Singapore (CDAS) is looking for ways to automate inspection of shipping containers at container depots to increase efficiency.

Given shorter product and tech cycles, more companies are realising the value of open innovation. However, it still has to be complemented with their own in-house efforts. “Companies will still innovate internally using in-house R&D resources or work bilaterally with other companies or research institutes,” says Chow.

SwabBots and EsoGLOVE answer open mobilisation call

The healthcare sector is seen as a rather conservative one, but there are signs that even the big players in this field are happy to embark on open innovation too as ageing population, higher incidences of chronic diseases and rising cost all weigh in.

“The benefits go both ways. Healthcare providers whose main duty is to provide care to patients, gain from having an industry partner that can take care of the development and commercialisation aspects of creating a new solution to improve patient care,” says Audrey Lok, director, health and biomedical, at Enterprise Singapore (ESG), referring to new technologies such as AI, next-generation sequencing, and cell and gene therapy.

In 2019 and 2020, the three public healthcare clusters organised over 10 industry engagement platforms, and facilitated and signed over 65 collaboration agreements. And the existing relationships between healthcare providers, VCs and start-ups have helped develop and validate solutions quickly during the pandemic to solve critical clinical challenges. For example, Singhealth and National University Hospital (NUH) worked with local startup Respiree to develop a wearable sensor powered by AI analytics. It predicts deterioration in the health of Covid-19 patients and helps them remotely in isolation rooms.

Lok explains that the impetus for the Healthcare Open Innovation Challenge 2020 was the recognition that there is room to address new gaps that surfaced with this current healthcare crisis. It involves the National Healthcare Group (NHG), National University Health System (NUHS), SingHealth, HMI Group and St Luke’s Eldercare, facilitated by ESG.

The partners aim to identify new ways to improve patient experience by creating a seamless online-offline experience, look at new solutions to optimise healthcare resources, reduce crowding in hospitals and identify new ways to support patients on their healthcare journey.

“These challenges are not unique to any hospital. But pulling together corporates with similar challenges can help to ensure that solutions developed bring about greater impact. At the same time, it reduces the cost of adoption through economies of scale,” says Lok. “The right partnerships, resources and commercialisation support is important in ensuring that good ideas have the best chance of success,” she adds.

The big public healthcare clusters are all involved one way or another. For example, NHG, which launched two open innovation challenges in the last three years, is starting to see results, with new solutions such as the RADIlogic AI tool successfully developed to quickly detect abnormal chest X-rays. This solution was also rolled out in the NCID screening centre this May.

SingHealth, meanwhile, organised a series of thematic SingHealth-SME Connect events. These events provide a platform for clinicians to share their problem statements and engage industry for solutioning. For instance, their virtual event held in June successfully engaged 17 AR/VR companies to explore potential collaboration with problem statement owners.

In another example of open innovation, Roceso Technologies, a spin-off from the National University of Singapore, partnered with NUHS to develop the EsoGLOVE, a lightweight and smart rehabilitation device tailored for hand rehabilitation and recovery from neurological disorders such as stroke. Unlike conventional robotic devices for hand rehabilitation, which consist of rigid electromechanical components, EsoGLOVE is made entirely of soft components, which makes it compact, portable and more comfortable. EsoGLOVE has since been sold to Taiwan, Japan, US, Germany and Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, the National Cancer Centre Singapore, Singapore General Hospital, and Duke-NUS Medical School partnered with medical robotics firm Biobot Surgical, to develop SwabBot, a self-administered robot that automates the taking of Covid-19 swab tests. SwabBot helps to reduce healthcare workers’ risk of exposure to the virus and reduces the need for trained manpower.

There is also growing partnerships with accelerators and venture funds. For example in the last three years, NHG and Trendlines Medical Singapore have partnered to spin off nine companies. And recently, they are renewing their partnership to co-develop innovative healthcare solutions in dermatology, infectious disease, population health, chronic diseases, ageing and rehabilitation.

Elsewhere, an innovation centre under the NUHS and Asia Research & Innovation Alliance recently signed an MOU to set a $50-million VC fund and commercialisation programme. More interestingly, smart money is following, as seen by the pick-up in investments. For example, Doctor Anywhere raised US$27 million ($36.1 million) in their Series B round earlier this year with this round co-led by IHH Healthcare. The Alliance Healthcare Group acquired digital healthcare platform startup Jaga-Me in December 2019, while Mednefits raised $8 million in their Series A round from Berjaya Group in November.

There is no shortage of start-ups and funding. Over the years, the number of Singapore biomedical companies have grown from 100 in 2014 to more than 330 in 2019. “For Singapore to be a vibrant and successful health and biomedical hub, it is important for healthcare providers, accelerators, VCs, start-ups in the ecosystem to be able to collaborate to address healthcare opportunities in Singapore and overseas. We are glad to see early fruits of such partnerships,” says Lok

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