Chasing the 'Made in Singapore' dream

PHOTO: Chasing the 'Made in Singapore' dream

SINGAPORE - If the world of invention and doodads were a classroom, Singapore would have started the school term as the oft-bullied brainiac making quietly brilliant toys that other larger children prised from its hands.

The history of tinkering in Singapore is littered with the remnants of what might have been. There is the ThumbDrive, created by Henn Tan of Trek 2000 International. What should have made Mr Tan richer than Croesus had the galling misfortune to start out revolutionary but end up generic, the 'T' and 'D' in thumb drive downgraded to the lowercase in users' minds.

Then there is the MP3 player by Sim Wong Hoo's Creative Technology, enshrined in gadget lore as a product that was made earlier and better than Apple's, but lost the battle for the consumer anyway.

Now, a new wave of tinkerers are determined to avoid the missteps of their predecessors. As they launch what they fervently hope is the Next Big Thing, they know that an excellent product without the protection of glib marketing and ruthless strategy is just heartbreak waiting to happen.

Trek's Mr Tan, of ThumbDrive fame, has got no better person to learn from than himself. His firm's next big thing is the FluCard, a wireless memory card that is supposed to savage the SD memory card the way the ThumbDrive did the floppy disk Trek has spent the last few years fighting multi-million-dollar lawsuits against firms trampling on its ThumbDrive intellectual property (IP) rights and, now, the sharks are circling the FluCard.

"The clones have already come in from China and Taiwan. They know that there is money to be made. My legal team is watching this closely," Mr Tan told BT.

This time around, Mr Tan is not relying solely on IP law. Instead, Trek is borrowing the muscle of the camera manufacturing big boys - Toshiba and Panasonic - in the form of a consortium. "This consortium is to set up a set of industry standards for the FluCard. I do not want to position the FluCard as a proprietary technology of Trek. I want to turn it into an industry de facto standard," he said.

Other Singapore companies launching their fledgling products into the world are building piracy insurance into the heart of the products. Tinké, for example, is a gadget that takes your vitals from your thumb through its light sensor. While earlier inventions revolved around hardware, Tinké's soul is the algorithms that tell you if your readings are healthy or not.

"We have counterparts who were concerned that once the Chinese get their hands on the hardware, they can replicate everything," said Juliana Chua, a principal at Zensorium, the Biopolis-based company that developed the product. "Anybody can rip the device apart, copy the whole circuit board and just put something together that will work. So the essence of it is in the software, in all the algorithms that are not easily decodable."

While Zensorium is backed by Japanese MNC Nitto Denko, genuine start-ups lack the coffers to battle copycats.

Sofshell is one such start-up. The firm will launch the Hip-Pal, a hip protector for the elderly, next year. It will fight for room in a market populated by similar concepts, except that it is positioned as superior. CEO Elgin Yap knows he has to convince the market Hip-Pal will still be better when the inevitable imitation begins.

"If people want to copy you, whether you have a patent, it's always a challenge to chase them; we don't have those resources. The way forward is to deliver consistency and have people acknowledge your brand as personifying protection solutions," he said.

It is not entirely clear what Creative's Sim Wong Hoo makes of copying, given his complex history with the iPod. But in a surreal closing of the circle, Creative is venturing into Apple territory with the HanZpad, a tablet computer for the Chinese market. During the launch this year, Mr Sim told the media that he is paying more attention to design now - fair progress since 2004 when his firm responded to iPods signed by U2 band members by selling MP3 players bearing his autograph and came off the worse for it.

Some firms see that good marketing is not tawdry. Lim Tian Wee, the man behind Gryphon Tea Co, understands the link between the senses and the wallet. Gryphon teas are blended in Singapore and are shipped in silken pouches, packed in boxes bearing Gryphon's distinctive borders. "Most consumers are visual animals. Everything that we did with the packaging was deliberate," Mr Lim told BT.

In what embodies a disdain for a bit of razzle-dazzle, local produce has been soundly trounced by European offerings of cheeses and truffle oil. "Overseas, Singapore foods are always sold in the Asian food supermarkets instead of in the gourmet section," Mr Lim lamented.

In pondering why there are virtually no global brands of Singapore origin, it is useful to consider how the notion of something dreamt up in Singapore can work against it. A European firm that designed some products here refused to comment for this article, fearing that the Singapore link would dilute its "heritage". Whether or not this reflects on the nation's creativity, it is not as if some quarters of Singapore do not show flashes of daring.

In 2005, the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) worked on a urine-powered battery, which the UK press called "gloriously silly". The project was discontinued after the lead scientist left. Now, the IBN has found commercial respectability in the MicroKit, a device that detects flu viruses quickly. The technology has been licensed to a local firm.

And yet, prospects for start-ups remain sodden. Research has found that only 50 out of 301 venture capital firms here will contemplate local investment.

It is not for want of state or community support. Daniel Yu, who sculpts toy figurines, has a treasure trove of support, from an apprenticeship with Noise Singapore, to being mentored at art collective Phunk Studio. Another collective, Mighty Jaxx, will help Mr Yu produce one of his works next year. This, in a country that lacks the size or fervour necessary for niche products. The same is true for Zimplistic, the company behind the Rotimatic, a machine that pops out fresh, hot rotis.

These are heartening developments but they pertain to pre-market development, not the harsh world of idea-stealing and the irrational consumer.

As a new clutch of local entrepreneurs are poised to release their dreams into the market, adamant that they have learnt the lessons of their predecessors, it will be revealed - very swiftly - if they in fact have.