From gamer to entrepreneur
Gatekeeper Laboratories' Joseph Ng is all fired up about a new cooling technology for computers. -BT
By Victor Katheyas
JOSEPH Ng, founder and managing director of Gatekeeper Laboratories, always thought he would follow in his father's footsteps and become an engineer. 'Engineering was a passion and an interest,' he recalls.
One reason for this passion was that his father - National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Engineering professor Ng Kim Choon - would often talk to him about the latest developments and research breakthroughs.
Another reason was that Mr Ng had always been an avid computer gamer - so avid that he was routinely 'overclocking' his computer to improve its performance.
Over-clocking is running a computer at a faster speed than specified by the manufacturer. In essence, it involves 'pushing a computer to its limits' and is 'something like hot-rodding a car', says Mr Ng. It's common practice among serious gamers who want to get the best experience out of their machines.
Despite his deep interest in engineering, Mr Ng changed his mind during the second year of his engineering course at NUS. Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, he realised he wanted to be a businessman - not an engineer.
At the time, his father was involved in heat transfer optimisation research that eventually resulted in the creation of a 'two-faced cooling technology' prototype. 'I saw great potential in this,' says Mr Ng.
Dead end for heat pipes
Over-clocking his computer generated lots of heat. And this heat had to be managed effectively to prevent damage to the computer's central processing unit (CPU). The prevailing technology - involving heat pipes - was at a 'dead end', says Mr Ng. And the two-faced cooling technology prototype could cool CPUs more efficiently.
He was sure the gaming community would take to the prototype enthusiastically. 'The potential was too great for me to ignore,' he says. 'I decided to step in and give it a try since I was young.' So, while in the third year of engineering studies, Mr Ng pitched the idea to NUS Enterprise, which supports start-ups by students and staff by providing mentorship, seed funding and a business incubator programme.
His proposal was accepted. And in 2009 he founded Gatekeeper Laboratories and set up shop in the NUS Enterprise Faculty of Engineering Incubator.
The next step was to obtain funding. So Mr Ng decided on a pitch to Spring Singapore to show the prototype was 'the next big thing in the cooling market after heat-pipe technology'. This required a lot of preparation.
'Spring wanted to be certain we could commercialise this technology,' he says. 'So I showed them it had proven potential - the labs in NUS had shown it to be more efficient than what was currently in the market.'
His pitch was successful. Spring gave Gatekeeper Laboratories a grant. And eventually, further funding was obtained from angel investors.
At the same time, Mr Ng had to go about the arduous task of assembling his team. He first turned to Mark Aaron Chan, who had worked with his father to create the two-faced cooling technology prototype as a PhD student.
Despite have already obtained a well-paying - and arguably more secure - job with a research centre, Dr Chan came on board.
'I gave him some stock in the company and he too understood the potential of the technology,' says Mr Ng.
His next hire was a fellow mechanical engineering student from NUS - 'one of the smartest guys' in the cohort.
Mr Ng also benefited from the advice and business savvy of Kristav Childress, a consultant adviser with NUS Enterprise. 'He (Mr Childress) has been helping us pitch our proposals to potential investors,' Mr Ng says. 'He is always there during networking sessions to help us better communicate our strategy to potential investors. He has also helped link us with important people in the industry. He's amazing - one of the best mentors at NUS.'
While Gatekeeper Laboratories is yet to turn a profit, Mr Ng is confident he has the right business strategy in place to take the company places.
'My strategy is to attack the market with very low barriers to entry. And that's after-market desktop cooling, where gamers are ready to pay for new technology. It is easy to prove our technology there,' he says.
This market consists of gamers who frequently spend on hardware to improve their computer's performance. And barriers to entry are low because there is no real need to advertise through traditional media. Gamers usually learn of the latest hardware innovations through online forums.
Once the technology has obtained market validation, Mr Ng plans to expand into other areas that rely heavily on heat-pipe cooling technology. For example, two-faced cooling technology could be used to cool servers in data centres. And it may have applications in the solar energy and light-emitting diode (LED) lighting sectors.
Mr Ng says Gatekeeper Laboratories already holds several patents and is applying for more, which is especially important given the nature of the company's business.
Mass production of prototype
Going forward, the main challenge is how to mass-produce the two-faced cooling technology prototype. While the prototype outperforms the prevailing heat-pipe technology by a fair margin, the true test of its success will be whether it can be produced cost-effectively for end-consumers.
As such, Mr Ng has been shuttling back and forth between Singapore and other parts of Asia, such as China, Taiwan and Malaysia, in search of potential manufacturing partners. He says he has to tread carefully when deciding who to partner, because some companies in the region do not respect intellectual property rights as strictly as they should.
In the long term, Mr Ng hopes one of two things will happen: either his company will be bought by an MNC, or it will diversify into other sectors now dominated by heat-pipe technology and eventually become a major player. Until then, he says, he will put in all the hard work that is necessary.
This article was first published in The Business Times.
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