Enterprise taste test: from Singapore to Brazil and Mexico Exclusive interview with Head of Innovation Advisory Aik Lam Khor

Aik Lam Khor, IPI Singapore

Aik Lam Khor, Head of Innovation Advisory at IPI Singapore, an innovation-focused subsidiary of the country’s enterprise development government agency, Enterprise Singapore, reflects on his career and some key highlights and learnings from his time in Brazil and Mexico in this exclusive interview. 

Aik Lam, could you give us a brief overview of your career trajectory and highlight some of the most transformative experiences?

I was trained as a civil engineer. My first job was in the private sector with a Japanese main construction company, before joining a public sector organisation, the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). Among the various functions taken, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to double-hat in the then-Intellectual Property (IP) Strategic Business Unit (SBU), which complemented the organisation’s effort to attract foreign direct investment into Singapore. This stint built up my interest in IP business model and was a key factor in my move to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), the national authority that registers and is responsible for the administration of IP rights in Singapore. I joined as a pioneer in IPOS’ newly created enterprise development team to help companies use intangible assets and IP to grow. During that time, I engaged local companies, especially Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), to better appreciate the power of IP in businesses, at a time when the concept of IP itself was still fairly nascent.

Fast forward, I eventually joined Enterprise Singapore, or ESG (then known as IE Singapore), an agency that champions enterprise development, including helping the companies internationalise. In the most recent role, I was the Regional Group Director facilitating various trade and internationalisation interests that Singapore companies had in Latin America and the Caribbean region, where I was based out of to lead the teams in Sao Paulo and Mexico City. After the completion of the three-year posting, I returned to Singapore and have since been seconded to IPI, a subsidiary of ESG, that acts as an innovation catalyst for companies. This is a very interesting assignment for me as I was involved in the formation of IPI ten years ago!

Since its founding, IPI has been facilitating technology partnerships between companies. This is premised on the concept of Open Innovation: to encourage companies to work together to co-create solutions instead of having a “not invented here” mindset [the tendency for people and organisations to avoid ideas, products or services that they did not create themselves]. To date, IPI has facilitated over 25 technology collaboration, both local and cross-border, per year over the past decade.

Today, I head the new Innovation Advisory Division in IPI to engage companies across several industries – including Food, Medical Technology, Personal Care and Aerospace – to provide bespoke guidance in relation to technology & innovation solutions as well as business development, in partnership with industry veterans.

In a nutshell, my career over the past two decades has been centred on enterprise development, strategy and planning, with a strong interest in business modelling and technology solutioning.

From your perspective, could you share some insights into the current innovation and tech transfer ecosystem in Singapore? Many observers have commented that despite a strong innovation and R&D environment with many incentives and good infrastructure, we do not see many successful homegrown companies.

Singapore has been placing a lot of emphasis on applied research over the past decades. The various institutions in general take a demand-driven perspective, in consultation with industries to anticipate demand and trends of the future, so that they can orientate the R&D effort towards real needs. While the effort behind the scenes may not be obvious to the general public, there are many interactions and collaborations happening at any one time between these institutions and the industries. This public-private collaboration is an important bedrock for great ideas to be translated into breakthrough applications.

In my view, the lack of homegrown success stories has more to do with the age and size of the country. Let me explain. Singapore is a very young nation with a trading heritage. The city state was previously a humble fishing village that became the trading and transhipment hub we see today. Therefore, growth and prosperity for many were birthed out of a trader’s mindset and skillset. In contrast, countries such as Germany have strong manufacturing history. Theirs is a maker’s mindset and skillset. While Singapore has a robust manufacturing sector, our trade is three times of our GDP. This ratio is one of the highest in the world. So it will take time for a generation with a ‘creator’ mentality to be groomed and for serial entrepreneurs to accumulate relevant experience under their belt.

In terms of size, we have under six million people, of which 30% are non-residents. This means that Singapore not only has a limited market size that can sustain unicorns on its own, but it also has a small base of experienced entrepreneurs to start with, even though Singapore has a supportive culture and high availability of capital.

We are on the right track though. Just this month (Aug 2021), Singapore was ranked fourth in the world in terms of how fast its start-ups turned into unicorns, according to a global ranking by British price comparison website Money.co.uk. Last month, Singapore also clinched the top spot in KPMG’s global ranking of leading technology innovation hubs outside of Silicon Valley/San Francisco.

I am sure recent positive news on start-ups, such as PatSnap achieving unicorn status in March this year, will continue to inspire other promising companies and entrepreneurs to keep their eyes on the ball and stay resilient.  Hopefully, we will see more venturing into the global market and joining the pool of successful companies in the near future.

Coming to your experience in Latin America, you were in Brazil as well as Mexico. Did you encounter any culture shock when you first landed, and what are some of your memories of that region?

I was very excited to go Latin America. There were the initial cultural challenges to get used to, such as not being able to converse in English or Mandarin for day-to-day interactions, but generally it was a pleasant surprise for me and my wife, who relocated to join me. In general, Latinos are extremely friendly and very welcoming. As a case in point, when I travel to other countries, it is very common to see Latinos in the plane chatting very animatedly. You will realise soon that more often than not, they are actually strangers who have just met one another! Latinos are just so warm and generally outgoing. This is quite different from Asian cultures that tend to be more reserved. While walking in the streets in Brazil or Mexico, or simply entering the elevators, it is very normal for strangers to greet you. You will seldom see this happen in Singapore.

Business-wise, was there any adjustment to make, especially considering Singapore is such a regulated country that places a lot of emphasis on efficiency?

In general, my team was engaging the larger conglomerates within Latin America, both local and multinational, so in that sense, their corporate culture was not so different from that of Singapore. Concepts like KPIs and ROIs exist in large corporations pretty much everywhere. That said, Singaporeans and Asians in general tend to be more conservative and careful when it comes to business deals. But in Latin America, it may be helpful to show enthusiasm because people value passion and ambition. That is not to say that this is a critical issue that affects negotiation or deal closure. Nevertheless, being aware of this difference is important so that you can appreciate where the counterpart is coming from.

In the business context, Latino and Asian cultures are similar in that rapport-building is very important. We may express it in different ways but ultimately, building relationship is key in both regions. You should still represent the agency or company you work for professionally, but it also helps to concurrently cultivate a personal relationship with your point-of-contact, which can go a long way to open doors and facilitate conversation.

One barrier to efficient business exchanges between Asia and Latin America is the time difference. It can take a full week of back-and-forth (via email) just to find a common time for a teleconference! Coupled with distance and language barriers, it can be challenging to get decision-makers on both sides to conduct early-morning or late-night business calls.

In recent years, Asian investors and companies seem to have taken more interest in the Latin American region. How do you think that will impact Singaporean companies doing or wanting to do business over there?

This is not a zero-sum game but a positive trend. The more investors and companies from different Asian countries interested in exploring Latin America, the more Latinos will be familiar with Asian ways of doing business and consequently more likely to reciprocate by looking at the market potential in Asia. The reverse is true too: if more Latino companies engage Asia, Asian countries will become more familiar with the culture and the market potential of Latin America.

Now, the bulk of the Asian companies in Latin America are from China, Japan and South Korea. I hope to see more Southeast Asian companies tapping on the potential of Latin America. This is starting to happen. Sea Group, the largest unicorn in Southeast Asia, has already established a presence in Latin America.

For Asian companies looking at Latin America and vice versa, what sort of verticals would be of interest to both sides?

Historically, trade and infrastructure are the two industry verticals of interest to both regions. From offshore platforms to coffee trading, companies in these verticals from one region have set up presence in the other.

More recently, there seems to be good traction in terms of technology-centric companies finding opportunities. This makes sense since technology and new business models transcend physical borders and language, and generally involves low or no capital expenditure. E-commerce sites like MercadoLibre, for instance, which is headquartered in Argentina, can be accessed by people from anywhere in the world.

However, the reality is that the two regions are still very distant, culturally and geographically. Familiarity matters in business, and for many Singaporean companies, they still look first at Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific because they are more familiar with these places. If you take 100 Singaporeans, probably fewer than ten have ever been to Latin America, and perhaps only one or two have actually lived or worked in the region. That unfamiliarity is a barrier to doing business. The same is also true from the other side – Latinos are culturally and historically closer to the US and Europe than to Asia. But in time and with new technology, I think more opportunities will be unveiled and there will be more bridges built between the two regions.

To start wrapping up, on a more personal note, what would you say to Latin American companies looking at Asia for business opportunities? How would you pitch Singapore to them?

The truth is that Singapore is so well-regarded internationally that I do not think I would need to do a lot of selling! In general, the people I have interacted with all had a positive impression of Singapore, whether it is because of Singapore’s many accolades, such as scoring high on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) PISA ranking and having an airport that is consistently ranked the world’s best, or because of the images of Singapore’s impressive skyline and clean streets, as seen on Formula One night races or on the movie Crazy Rich Asians!

Singapore is also an excellent hub from which to access the Asia Pacific region. While Singapore’s domestic market is not big enough for most Latin American companies, it is well-positioned geographically and culturally for global companies to easily access the Asian hinterland. Asia will continue to be a strong growth engine in the foreseeable future, so it is logical for growth-oriented multinationals to find a good base to engage this region. The stable political and business environment in Singapore, as well as its good quality of life, makes it easy for me to encourage friends from Latin America to seriously consider Singapore for their regional base.

I want to add that there are opportunities for Singaporean companies in Latin America as well. Like Southeast Asia, Latin America is a heterogeneous region of over 600 million people with somewhat different cultures and languages. Those who can navigate and solve the challenges of Southeast Asia, such as cross-border logistics or mobile payment, should therefore also consider exploring Latin American markets.

Finally, it is coming up to two years since you left Brazil. What do you miss most about Latin America?

Definitely the food. I love street food in most countries, and the street food culture in Latin America is amazing. The wines from Chile and Argentina are also incredible. I particularly enjoyed the Malbecs.

Living and working abroad, my wife and I were immersed in the local culture and mindset. Our time there changed our perspectives on life. We saw how contented and joyful people could be despite the challenges and circumstances surrounding them. This is something we might not have experienced had we not lived in Latin America. The importance of living in the present and appreciating what has been given to us – the nature, the culture, the people around us – was an epiphany for both of us.

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