SMEs are breaking new ground with the help of Centres of Innovation
Imagine playing outdoor sports in Singapore without working up a sweat – even in the tropical heat – thanks to heat-absorbing sportswear. Or a face mask that releases nutrients tailor-made for your skin. These are just two of the innovative ideas that have evolved from Centres of Innovation (COI), supported by SPRING Singapore.
“Innovation is driven by observation and opportunity,” says Materials COI Manager Dr Leong Yew Wei. “The most successful innovators identify needs before consumers even realise they exist.” Take the ‘selfie stick’, for example – an extendable handheld gadget that gives you extra reach when taking self-portraits on your smartphone. With the fad now taking off around the globe, leading tech companies such as Sony are also designing products with selfies in mind, including a new smartphone with a rotating camera on top of the handset.
We live in a world of constant change, and consumers expect companies to keep up with the technological advancements. But upgrading equipment and processes comes with significant costs, and many SMEs simply don’t have the cashflow or resources to support major enhancements.
This is where COIs can help. In partnership with selected research institutes and polytechnics, seven COIs have been established to help SMEs upgrade their technological capabilities. These centres provide laboratory facilities, technology consultancy and training courses for local enterprises to develop and test their technolgy projects. To date, the COIs have assisted with more than 1,800 projects, benefitting more than 2,700 local enterprises.
Gaining An Edge Through Product Innovation
The COIs were established to provide knowledge and expertise to help SMEs develop new products to stay ahead of the competition. The seven centres cover the electronics, supply chain management, materials, environment and water, food, marine and offshore, and precision engineering industries.
In January this year, SPRING launched the Materials COI at A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering to help SMEs develop materials for new products. The Materials COI also organises outreach events to showcase product innovations so that SMEs can incorporate them into new products. An example of such an innovation is MKOOL – a cooling pad infused with phase change materials that can be inserted into clothing to cool users, including athletes, firefighters, construction workers and military personnel. Companies can also use this technology for their own creative purposes, like developing coolers for food or equipment, adding it to products like cups to keep drinks cool or even using the technology to grow plants that thrive in cooler temperatures.
“Many SMEs have creative ideas but don’t have the technical expertise and capabilities to develop and commercialise their concepts. At the Materials COI, we have the ability to customise a product like MKOOL for different functions, giving SMEs the edge they need to compete in today’s fast-paced technology environment,” Dr Leong explains.
The Materials COI is already working with approximately 200 SMEs, including HVS Engineering, which provides cleaning solutions for fluid-cooled tubes and heat exchanger systems. Within a month of seeking assistance from the centre, HVS Engineering came up with a solution to improve the heat and chemical resistance of their products for expansion into the oil and gas industry.
With Singapore offering a good selection of culinary delights, ranging from hawker food to award-winning fine-dining restaurants, it seems appropriate that the Food Innovation and Resource Centre (FIRC) was the first COI launched. In partnership with Singapore Polytechnic, the centre has provided technical expertise for new product and process development to more than 400 food enterprises since 2007, including assistance with packaging, shelf-life evaluation and market testing.
The FIRC is particularly proud of its collaboration with True Heritage Brew to convert the iconic Singapore Sling cocktail into a ready-to-drink product. The drink made its debut at the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix in 2008.
“Our services are designed to help food enterprises develop innovative food products that meet their customers’ changing demands. This can give SMEs a competitive advantage in the market,” says Mrs Loong Mann Na, FIRC Director. “With our team of full-time professionals – from food technologists, nutritionists and chefs to engineers – we provide our clients with a comprehensive list of services. These include product conceptualisation and the market testing of prototypes.”