In brief

The Horizontal Technology Programme Offices will help future-proof not just A*STAR but Singapore as a whole, says Deputy Chief Executive (Research) Andy Hor.

© A*STAR Research

Building strong systems on deep pillars

10 Mar 2021

Horizontal Technology Programme Offices will bring A*STAR’s deep capabilities to bear on real-world issues facing Singapore and the wider world, says Deputy Chief Executive (Research), Andy Hor.

When the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) was first launched nearly thirty years ago as the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB), it was vastly different from the organization that it is today.

In the early days, Singapore had set its sights on developing into an advanced, technology-driven economy, having recently emerged from its first recession since independence. In 1991, the NSTB had a modest budget of S$2 billion over five years and oversight of just two research institutes: the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) and the Institute of Microelectronics (IME).

Today, the government spends more than 12 times that amount—the 2025 Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) five-year budget totalled S$25 billion. A*STAR has similarly grown from strength to strength and now spans 35 research entities between two research councils. While this organizational structure has served A*STAR very well, allowing it to build up a strong institutional identity and tap into synergies within each discipline, “something sharper” is needed to address the needs of the future, said Andy Hor, A*STAR’s Deputy Chief Executive (Research).

What is needed for the next phase of A*STAR’s growth, he continued, is integration and collaboration, to ensure that its deep capabilities are channelled in the right direction. As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown, problems of international significance do not respect disciplinary boundaries, and the best solutions require a coordinated and holistic response. Charged with this mandate, the Horizontal Technology Programme Offices (HTPOs) are designed to build connections across A*STAR and bring their scientific expertise to bear on some of the toughest challenges facing Singapore, including sustainable technologies, food security and health innovations.

A*STAR Research recently caught up with Hor to learn about his vision for the HTPOs and how they will help future-proof not just A*STAR but Singapore as a whole.

Q: Why were the Horizontal Technology Programme Offices (HTPOs) set up and why have you made them a priority?

Over the years, A*STAR has developed pillars of competency across different disciplines that have enabled us to work very well with our industry and academic stakeholders. From high performance computing, immunology to materials, we have established our reputation in each of these areas.

But what about across disciplines? What happens when we mix materials and genetics, or computing with food, for example? We realized that we needed a horizontal platform that can pull the different capabilities together and work on interdisciplinary projects that converge on national priorities.

If you look at societal needs today, it all boils down to a few things like food, energy, health, environment, well-being and so forth. With coordinating bodies like the HTPOs, we will be able to catalyze partnerships and make a much stronger impact as A*STAR, rather than as individual researchers or even research institutes. That is why HTPOs are such a high priority.

What are the HTPOs designed to address?

  • Awareness: Create awareness of capabilities, partnerships and national challenges
  • Alignment: Align towards national priorities, de-conflict duplications and optimise resources
  • Action: Galvanize connections and create opportunities for projects, programs and grants

Q: How have your past experiences shaped your understanding of how HTPOs should operate?

When I was Executive Director of A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), I realized that while materials science is an important platform technology, it is not good enough on its own. I saw clearly that for materials scientists and materials research to make a big impact, they had to cut across to other areas such as devices and processes, which our Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) and national platform Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub do very well in.

Subsequently, I served as Vice President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) of the University of Hong Kong. It was my first time running the research of a comprehensive university that not only had a science and an engineering faculty but also medical and dental schools, large social science and arts faculties, education, architecture, law and a business school. I no longer saw science as just science; I saw the value of science within a system, and how engineering can contribute across that system. From that viewpoint, you begin to see the value of interactions and intersections, and the possibilities of solving complex problems when different areas of expertise are brought together.

Q: How were the themes of the HTPOs chosen?

The research themes were chosen based on three major considerations. The primary consideration is whether it builds on our core competencies; in other words, the theme should be in an area that we have significant expertise in.

Secondly, it must be based on both national needs and the needs of society at large. A typical example is the Infectious Disease HTPO which clearly articulates the current need in the context of COVID-19, the other one being robotics as the industry advances.

The third consideration, which we feel truly represents the genetic makeup of A*STAR, is whether we will have a multiplier effect by extracting value from different research areas. If we can have an impact that is greater than the sum of its parts, then it is something that we should consider very seriously.

7 Horizontal Technology Programme Offices

  1. AgriTech & Aquaculture
  2. Artificial Intelligence, Analytics & Informatics
  3. Infectious Disease
  4. Social Science and Technology
  5. Health & MedTech
  6. Robotics
  7. Urban and Green Technology

Q: How will the HTPOs work with existing structures within A*STAR?

HTPOs should never replace the research institutes, which is where active research is performed. Instead, the role of the HTPO is to promote opportunities, assemble teams and curate projects and programs to traverse across research institutes. A*STAR is physically spread across at least three different sites: Biopolis, Fusionopolis and CleanTech Park, not to mention two different Councils—the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) and the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC)—and an integrated Enterprise setup, covering a wide spectrum of research areas.

HTPOs should embody the “One A*STAR” approach to show what we can do. Therefore, my first and foremost expectation of the HTPOs is that they capture opportunities, tackle the right problems and add value through coordination across A*STAR and with Singapore’s wider innovation ecosystem.

With good coordination, HTPOs could then surface A*STAR technologies, plug into the national priorities and demonstrate our leadership in areas that we have core competence and competitive edge. For example, the AgriTech & Aquaculture HTPO should work directly with the Singapore Food Agency, the universities and industry to take on projects that are best tackled at the ecosystem-level.

Such connectivity will foster collaboration, and help achieve the needed convergence for greater impact.

Q: What challenges do you foresee during the implementation of the HTPOs?

One of the challenges will be getting people to have a perspective of seeing opportunities instead of problems. If you are trained in a certain discipline, you may tend to see problems through a certain lens, focused on problems such as a chemical problem or physical problem for example. As we try to solve a challenge that the industry faces, say managing labor-intensive tasks, or community problems like traffic congestion, or disease management, these problems at the macro level would bring an array of opportunities in R&D, be it in AI, sensors, cobots or carbon science.

The other challenge is an obvious one—to work on new multidisciplinary projects by assembling new teams, with team members who come with different sets of expertise, have different priorities, and even speak different languages on the same thing.

Q: What are some of the tangible outcomes that you hope the HTPOs will accomplish?

I see the potential of HTPOs delivering outcomes quantitatively and qualitatively. In quantitative terms, we will look at the number of new proposals they will create and projects successfully concluded, from new funding to partnership to outputs like patents and licenses, and from problem statements to opportunities that are eventually distilled into individual work-plans. Qualitatively, one has to ask about the genuine impact they make on our industries, businesses or meeting national needs, social demands, jobs and so forth. Each HTPO is mission-oriented. For example, in what way would it help Singapore achieve the goal to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs by 2030?

I also hope that the HTPOs will give our scholars and early-career researchers opportunities for professional development. I wish to see them progress to take on roles as senior scientists, group leaders and principal investigators, eventually becoming executive directors and even taking over my position. For them to do that, not only must they have the necessary research knowledge and skill, they must have an eye for real problems and the ability to get people in the system to work together as a team. The HTPOs must give them such valuable experience. Wouldn’t it be nice if our HTPOs together with our research institutes can develop our young people into experts and leaders in strategic R&D areas such as decarbonisation, electrification, infectious diseases and AI? They can then use their knowledge and skillsets to help grow new industries in energy and environment, or work with the public sector to address deep social challenges.

I would conclude that HTPOs are mechanistic platforms for A*STAR to create impact from research. This can only be done if we break down institutional barriers and knowledge boundaries and study problems that no single discipline can solve alone. I hope that our HTPOs can give people a sense of purpose in their research and inject new dimensions in their career.

Want to stay up to date with breakthroughs from A*STAR? Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn!

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group