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A win-win tie-up for polys and businesses

25 April, 2008

TEN years ago, a software application was developed at Ngee Ann Polytechnic specifically to help its teaching staff keep track of student assignments and tests.

A young businessman with his own start-up, using the software as a platform, worked with the polytechnic to create a suite of educational tools for teachers to create quizzes, grade assignments and track homework.

That young man, Mr Yee Jenn Jong, is today the chief executive of AsknLearn which, together with help from the National University of Singapore, is now an online learning systems provider with an annual turnover of $7 million.

He said of Ngee Ann's innovation: 'It was a godsend. The technology gave a young company like ours the edge we needed in the dot.com era.'

Another innovation from a polytechnic here is flashing away in advertising billboards in Australia and Mexico.

Touting everything from cars to soft drinks, these billboards are just as eye-catching as neon, without being as electricity-hungry.

The product, the result of a tie-up between electrical engineers at the Singapore Polytechnic and local company Nejilock, has brought in over $100,000 in revenue for the company in its first year.

Success stories like these have raised the profiles of the polytechnics, and the wherewithal to do more is starting to roll in.

The high-level Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) last month announced that polys will also get a cut of this year's $1billion purse dangled before researchers to entice them to take the plunge into the business world.

This is the first allotment for polys since the RIEC's inception in 2006. Universities and research institutes were the main beneficiaries of the two previous payouts.

A spokesman for the National Research Foundation (NRF), which acts as the council's secretariat, said: 'Polys play an important role in technology transfer to bring university research closer to the market.'

Chaired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the RIEC has committed about 90 per cent of its $5 billion war chest over five years; among the initiatives announced, $125 million will be spent to boost technology transfer.

Polys will receive grants to pick up on the research done by universities and research institutes, and translate these into off-the-shelf products.

Further details will be announced in two months, said the NRF.

But, more than just the dollars and cents, it is a coup for the polys to be in the RIEC's sights, said Mr Lim Peng Hun, the chief technology officer for Singapore Polytechnic.

'It's really a recognition of the quality of work polys have done over the years. By working closely with industry, polys have shown that they can contribute to boosting research,' he said.

The polys have to date been shouldering most of the cost of pursuing research, with help from industry and bodies such as the Economic Development Board and Spring Singapore.

While it is difficult to peg a price to the amount of revenue these research projects have generated, estimates put this figure in the millions, at least.

In the past two years, centres of research have mushroomed in almost every school, together offering expertise in fields as diverse as food technology and electrical engineering.

The work these institutes have done stretches back years, with an increasing number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) turning to polys for a scientific leg-up.

'Companies rarely have the resources to do their own research. That's where we come in,' said Mr Lim.

Singapore Polytechnic, for example, has seen a nearly 60 per cent jump in the number of SMEs approaching its centres for research and test-bedding since 2006.

Mr Lim noted that many of these projects may be pro bono, but the polys gain in non-monetary ways:

'Ultimately, our researchers gain knowledge through experience. They become better teachers, and that benefits our students as well.'

Ngee Ann Polytechnic's year-old Marine and Offshore Technology Centre has undertaken more than 100 projects, including tieups with major shipyards to design and improve their operations.

'The centre also offers students a platform to pick up skills, and gain exposure through hands-on training during attachments,' said a spokesman for the poly.

For students, the possibility of seeing a final-year project hit store shelves pushes them to excel.

Mr Abdul Fattah, a 20-year-old electrical engineering major at Singapore Polytechnic, said the idea of getting a product out on the market was an 'exciting prospect'.

He is working on a robotic toy that could hit store shelves by next year. Children can assemble and customise working robots of their own in a way similar to playing with building blocks.

He said: 'There aren't any locally made toys of this type here. That I can be part of changing that is a great feeling.'

Source: http://www.asiaone.com/News/Education/Story/A1Story20080425-61862.html
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Apr 25, 2008.

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