Event Report: The Conference on the Emerging Technologies That Matter: EmTech Singapore 2014

by Yong Wei Chong Gabriel

The audience at EmTech Singapore 2014.

The audience at EmTech Singapore 2014.

Since 1999, the MIT Technology Review has celebrated the world’s best young innovators through its annual Innovators Under 35 (TR35) awards. In 2007, the TR35 honorees were presented at the Tech Review’s first conference on emerging technologies – simply known as “EmTech” – and the joint events have been held annually ever since.

This year, however, marked the first time the conference expanded beyond the Boston campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The inaugural EmTech Singapore, a collaborative effort between the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and MIT Enterprise Forum Singapore, was held between 20th-21st of January at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

The conference was split into a few sections on both days, covering diverse subjects such as big data, robotics and artificial intelligence, innovations in medicine, multidimensional printing, and the future of transportation, among others.

Speaking on virtual education, which has been surging on the prominence of Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOC) in recent years, Lashminarayanan Samadvedham [(Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore (NUS)] noted that existing platforms of virtual education must evolve to become more contextually rich and interactive in order to battle the multiple pathologies that currently plague both traditional and online learning.

Meanwhile, Jean Yong, a biochemist at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), explained the various applications of biomimicry that are currently utilised to enhance sustainable development in Singapore e.g., the natural removal of arsenic in soil with ferns. He also proposed a “periodic table” plant filters – plants that are capable of removing toxins and other harmful elements from the urban environment effectively.

Timothy Lu, an Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Electrical Engineering at MIT noted for his pioneering work in cellular computation, gave a presentation on how the analog dynamics in cells could be manipulated to perform simple tasks of computation and decision-making, along with genes that could be transformed into circuits, and strings of DNA converted as digital storage media.

Speaking on the theme of mobile entrepreneurship, Halle Tecco, CEO of healthcare startup Rock Health, who held hopes that the development of better healthcare apps would herald a new era of medicine that is preventive rather than reactive, patient-oriented rather than hospital-centric, and facilitated by teams of healthcare professionals rather than directed by individual physicians. Karen Stocks, Chief Strategy Officer of Twitter Australia, on the other hand, spoke of the role of social media apps as a form of “social soundtrack”, providing an immediate picture of the emerging global trends.

4D_printing

Skylar Tibbits of MIT’s Self-Assembly on how 4D printing works.

While 3D printing may have been one of the buzzwords in the tech world in 2013, Skylar Tibbits, Director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, presented on his research on the even more intriguing 4D printing. Incorporating the factor of time (the “fourth dimension” of 3D printing), Tibbit’s printed structures are capable of self-assembling into different configurations upon stimuli such as temperature and light exposure, as well as the reverse process.

Self-driving cars, another tech buzzword of recent times, was also the focus of a dedicated section, as Daniel Morton, a business analyst from SMART, described zero fatalities as the ultimate goal of autonomous vehicles despite public misconceptions.

On the topic of future cities, Ryan Chin of the City Science Initiative at MIT Media Lab commented that the major challenge of the modern city was mobility, with automobile-dependence being the prime factor for a host of social patterns, economic trends, and environmental problems. He envisioned the creation of microcities in the future (self-sufficient compartments of large cities) that would enable urban dwellers to “obtain 80% of what they need within 80% of their walking distance” [sic].

Innovators Under 35 (TR35) nominees at the EmTech Singapore 2014 event.

Innovators Under 35 (TR35) nominees at the EmTech Singapore 2014 event.

In line with EmTech MIT’s tradition of honoring the world’s best young innovators under 35, EmTech Singapore featured 10 regional finalists for the TR35 awards based in Southeast Asia and Australia. They will compete for the global TR35 finals due to be held in Fall 2014. Past global winners included technocrats such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as well as Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The EmTech Singapore regional finalists are as follows:

  • Yuttanant Boonyongmaneerat, Assistant Professor, Metallurgy and Materials Science Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
  • Juliana Chan, Assistant Professor, School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, NTU (Singapore)
  • Ai Ching Goh, Co-founder, Piktocharta (Malaysia)
  • Matthew Hill, Senior Research Scientist, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO; Australia)
  • Michael Hochberg, Visiting Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, NUS (United States)
  • Mudasser Iqbal, Co-founder of Visenti Pte. Ltd. (Singapore)
  • Desmond Loke, Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT-SUTD (Singapore)
  • Nripan Matthews, Assistant Professor, School of Materials Engineering, NTU (Singapore)
  • Suranga Chandima Nanayakkara, Director & Principal Investigator of Augmented Senses Research Group, SUTD (Singapore)
  • Yang Zhi, Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, NUS (Singapore)

Here, we speak to Goh Ai Ching, Malaysia’s only regional TR35 finalist at EmTech Singapore

Q&A with EmTech Singapore Innovators Under 35 (TR35) Malaysian finalist Goh Ai Ching (co-founder, Piktochart)

Q&A with EmTech Singapore Innovators Under 35 (TR35) Malaysian finalist Goh Ai Ching (co-founder, Piktochart)

Q1. Can you tell us about yourself, and how did you get involved in the field of entrepreneurship in general?
Sure, I studied Experimental Psychology in Bristol, UK (neurobehavioural sciences). Then I left to do Marketing at Procter & Gamble (P&G). I was very intrigued by human psychology in purchase, acquisition, and visual behaviors. After that, I left P&G to start my own company. Initially, it was not backed by any academic interest but now, we are increasingly in touch with the research side of things because we want to ensure that the visuals are both memorable and easy to comprehend. I am also not trained by profession to start a business but it has all been a learning experience.

Q2. There are various visualisation tools available on the internet (e.g., Visual.ly, Easel. ly, and Infogr.am). What are Piktochart’s competitive advantages over its peer companies?
Yes, there are indeed quite a few available on the internet. We are not focusing on data visualisation as research has found that just bar charts are low in memorability. We are looking at a combination of how to “design” for information in order to enhance both memorability and comprehension. If you take a look at the output and the sort of designs that have come out from Piktochart versus its peers, they are remarkably different. We are also constantly challenging how much can be done in terms of making images search engine friendly (via Piktochart’s infographics) so even on the technology side, there is a lot of innovation.

Q3. Besides Piktochart, are you involved in any other startups, or hold an interest in other areas of technopreneurship?
I am not involved in anything else at the moment. I mentor a few people from time to time and seek out great mentors for Piktochart. We are seeking to grow Piktochart beyond an infographic tool and want to see the Malaysian ecosystem flourish into one that is able to compete.

Q4. What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs and innovators in Malaysia?
Be humble, always be learning, never sacrifice the quality or the bond of your team. Learn to embrace failures.

Footnote

a Piktochart (www.piktochart.com) is a web-based software used to create infographics.