Singapore’s intellectual property (IP) agency recently launched a S$1 billion innovation fund. Why in the world is a patents office launching an innovation fund?

It has a lot to do with Singapore’s need to constantly push its economy to stay ahead of other nations. The Committee on the Future Economy lays out a vision that “innovation will drive the economy”, says Daren Tang, Chief Executive of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS).

However, the right to ideas and inventions need to be protected to ensure that this growth is possible. “If we don’t have our enterprises understand how to use IP to drive their own innovation, they will not be maximising the value of their ideas,” Tang says.

GovInsider sat down with Tang to find out why he has set up an innovation fund and how the agency itself is reinventing.

$1 billion innovation fund

The S$1 billion innovation fund will invest between S$30-150 million on each of 10 to 15 companies. They can be from anywhere in the world, but must have a proven IP strategy, potential to grow across Asia and strong managerial talent. The fund, announced last week, was setup in partnership with private equity Makara Capital.

Singapore hopes that this funding will attract innovative companies from across the world to its shores. “It’s about using Singapore and Singapore’s connectivity to the world to attract innovations from anywhere in the world,” Tang says. These companies will benefit from strong local laws protecting their patents and use Singapore as a springboard to the world.

The country is also looking to get its local companies to expand globally, and IP can help them in two ways. The first is what IP is well-known for: preventing other companies from stealing your ideas, designs and inventions.

The second is for companies to use IP as a collateral to get loans from banks or funding from investors. “Patents, trademarks and designs create assurances to investors that your business strategy will not be eaten and taken away from you overnight,” Tang explains. Without IP rights, companies will find it more difficult to convince financiers to invest in them.

Public sector research

Next, Singapore believes that more public sector research must be translated into commercial products. The government invests 2% of GDP into research, but not enough of the results are being used by companies. “While we built a good system with inputs with R&D, our ability to convert them into economic outputs can be improved,” Tang says.

IPOS is working with the National Research Foundation, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and other agencies, to update the “national IP protocol”, he says. What this means is that “IP developed from all this government money will be more clearly pushed towards enterprises”, he explains.

Reinventing itself

With all this focus on innovation, IPOS saw the need to reinvent itself. Beyond being a regulator and IP registry, it now wants to brand itself as an innovation agency. “As the economy evolves, government agencies will have to evolve, and reimagine our purposes to meet the needs of the economy,” Tang remarks.

There are three key challenges that it must address: a lack of skills, attitudes, and a strong ecosystem.

There simply aren’t enough experts who can help companies take advantage of IP, Tang says. “These are jobs that are hard to grow because they are multi-disciplinary. It requires specialised skills, and they require understanding not just of law and technology but also from a commercial point-of-view.”

IPOS intends to increase the pay for jobs in this space by 30%. It hopes to double the number of IP experts from 500 to 1,000 over the next five years. Its education and training arm, the IP Academy, will train 4,000 people each year in IP and innovation-related courses.

Second, the attitude and approach towards IP needs to change. Singapore has done well on enforcing and respecting IP rights – blocking the sale of counterfeit goods, for instance. But IPOS wants to impart to local companies that IP is also a “business strategy and asset” for attracting investment and global growth.

It has set up an arm called the IP Value Lab to work directly with companies on developing their IP strategy. Over the next three years it plans to support 1,500 companies, with more intensive one-one-one support for 150 companies.

Third, it must create an ecosystem where businesses can fully realise the benefits of IP. Singapore already has all the right “ingredients” and what remains is to “join all the dots”. “We need to bring the private equity people, financiers, professionals, lawyers, attorneys and people with IT expertise into the mix,” explains Tang.

An idea hub

In many ways, this plan reflects Singapore’s own birth story. It plans to become a global hub for ideas and innovation, just as it emerged in the global economy as a trading hub. “We have a very concrete way of saying that Singapore can be a place for the flow of innovation and ideas,” Tang says.

It seems fitting that Tang is leading the charge on this. He comes from a trade background himself, and has led the IP negotiations for Singapore in three major trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As Singapore constantly reinvents itself on the global stage, so must Tang and his team.