KRDL: Interview with Professor Wong Lim Soon

Following the breadcrumbs that resulted from my intial inquiry into KRDL, I had the fortune of meeting with Professor Wong Lim Soon, Head of the School of Computer Science at the National University of Singapore. He had agreed to spend an hour with me to share with me what he remembers about KRDL. Ever the soft-spoken scholar, Professor Wong leaned forward slightly in his chair and adjusted his glasses as he awaited my questions.

1.   Professor Wong, my online research revealed little about KRDL and its past. Could you tell us a bit about KRDL as you saw it?

Certainly. Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL) was formed from the merger on 1 Apr ’98 between former national IT institutes – the Information Technology Institute (ITI) and the Institute of System Science (ISS).

While this new entity was all about doing research in a different way, we were also very much guinea pigs. KRDL’s management had to pioneer many of its own operating rules, such as the spin-out process, and how to reward people fairly for their inventions. We had between 400 to 500 scientists and engineers at its peak, and until its existence officially came to an end in Jan ’01, KRDL saw a total of 20 spin-off companies pass through its doors.

Of course, with its spin-out successes, KRDL was losing people faster than we could retrain and replace them – entire teams were known to leave with the spun-out startup. The staff population dropped to a low of 300-plus towards Jan ’01. This was an example of the unintended side effects of the ‘1st-generation’ rules.

2.   What happened to KRDL after Jan ’01?

KRDL went into sort of a limbo for a year after that. I was a researcher at the Biomedical Lab at KRDL then, and saw KRDL merge with the NTU Centre for Signal Processing (CSP) to form the Laboratories for Information Technology (LIT) in Jan ’02. In that process, the rules that we operated under went the complete opposite in an attempt to correct things that broke under KRDL – perhaps too much so.

For instance, KRDL management were allowed to personally hold shares in companies that were spun-out as a form of incentive to encourage successful spin-outs. This is one policy that was subsequently revised under A*STAR and Exploit Technologies, which had by then absorbed all the research institutes in Singapore under it, including LIT. Lessons were quickly learnt, and mistakes swiftly undone. On Nov ’02, LIT was merged with another research institute under A*STAR, the Institute for Communications Research (ICR) to form the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R). By then, the rules and policies were revised to an acceptable middle ground.

3.   What sort of ‘acceptable middle ground’ changes were they? Tell us more.

For one, A*STAR now got shares in the spin-out startups. In exchange, the inventor was incentivized through performance bonuses (cash).

4.   Wasn’t that less ideal for inventors? Some of these inventions did turn out into pretty good companies didn’t they?

Well, yes and no. One example of this is Molecular Connections, which has 250 engineers in India today. I was one of the 2 researchers whose technologies were commercialized, and received a generous cash performance bonus in lieu of shares. I am happy to see Molecular Connections continue to do well till today, and have the opportunity to continue serving as their scientific adviser.

Muvee and Buzzcity were the 2 other notable spin-outs that continue to do well today. In both cases, the researchers chose to quit A*STAR to join the startup. I am happy to see the both of them do well.

5.   Tell me what you thought was the good, bad and ugly of KRDL.

I liked the diversity in research approach by people – spanning fundamental (which took a long time) through to applied research (the sort of tech that was very easily replaced). There were all sorts of research labs within KRDL, good/bad management with good/bad technology.

Most importantly, KRDL signaled a change (for the first time in Singapore) in the way research is done. The environment within KRDL was also very nice – even with commercial targets, it permitted long-term research to be done, some of which has borne fruits for Singapore. For instance, the brain-imaging work done during KRDL contributed significantly to A*STAR’s Biomedical Imaging department’s current-day prestige.

I was fortunate in the sense that I did not have any bad experiences while at KRDL. Our manager had freedom in deciding how to run our Biomedical Lab. I couldn’t say the same for other labs though – not all managers were equally capable.

6.   Towards the twilight months of KRDL, the world was experiencing the dot-com bust. How did that affect your work?

Not at all! We were largely insulated from it. The work that we did at the A*STAR Singapore Bioimaging Consortium were much longer term – we were lucky in that sense.

7.   Describe the spin-out process.

The director of each research lab was responsible for introducing researchers to the right people. There was also one business manager per lab to drive this effort, although the actual working model might vary, depending on the individual style of the director/manager and the progress of the research. In general though, investors and entrepreneurs were invited to visit KRDL and see the technologies, to decide areas in which to invest and form companies. External inputs were also sought with regards to R&D directions, in order to produce commercializable innovations.

8.   Tell us one difference between KRDL then, and A*STAR today.

At KRDL, buyers of any nationality could license the technologies and spin it out at the right price. At A*STAR, Singaporeans are given priority in accessing the technologies, ahead of everyone else. However, it can be difficult to determine if sufficient time has been granted to Singaporeans to step forward to commercialize the technologies, inadvertently slowing down the process of spinning out companies.

9.   I saw Professor Juzar Motiwalla’s name on a door as I walked down the aisle to your office. He was CEO of KRDL wasn’t he? Do you guys meet up and catch up for old times’ sake?

Yes! A KRDL alumni exists, and we occasionally hold informal gatherings. On average, 30 to 50 KRDL alums show up at each gathering.

Thank you for your time and effort in sharing your experiences with us.

(extracted from Professor Wong’s website)
Lim Soon WONG is a professor in the School of Computing and the School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore. Before that, he was the Deputy Executive Director for Research at A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research. He is currently working mostly on knowledge discovery technologies and is especially interested in their application to biomedicine. Prior to that, he has done significant research in database query language theory and finite model theory, as well as significant development work in broad-scale data integration systems. Limsoon has written about 100 research papers, a few of which are among the best cited of their respective fields. In recognition for his contributions to these fields, he has received several awards, the most recent being the 2003 FEER Asian Innovation Gold Award for his work on treatment optimization of childhood leukemias. He serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (ICP), Bioinformatics (OUP), and Drug Discovery Today (Elsevier). He is a scientific advisor to Semantic Discovery Systems (UK), Molecular Connections (India), CellSafe International (Malaysia), and KooPrime (Singapore). He received his BSc(Eng) in 1988 from Imperial College London and his PhD in 1994 from University of Pennsylvania.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.