Science and Technology Development Singapore

3 startups on the pros and cons of licensing IP from Singapore institutions

To many entrepreneurs, the words “commercializing IP” (intellectual property) may seem foreign. However, there are many benefits to doing it, as I discussed previously in another article.

But what does it really look like to go through this process? I spoke with three startups who have commercialized IP from institutions and asked them for their insights.

Personal experience commercializing IP

Working together

Ming Jie Tan is one of the co-founders of DeNova Sciences, a venture using artificial in-vitro skin to replace animal testing in the cosmetics industry.

They started their venture by using the artificial in-vitro skin model, an IP technology licensed from Nanyang Technological University.

Since he was co-developing this IP during his graduate years, licensing back the technology was an ideal start.

According to Tan:

“We have worked with NTU to produce DeNova’s dry skin model, which was among the first few models we created. […] This is filed as a know-how with NTU and we licensed it exclusively. We are now expanding beyond the original IP to build more IP that belongs to [us].”

No need to reinvent the wheel

Ben Fones is the co-founder of Subnero, a company providing solutions for underwater wireless networked communications. This entails using an underwater modem and a highly customizable network stack that adapts to a variety of environments and applications.

The company has licensed “institutional research technologies” related to in-water communications and robotics from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

According to Fones:

“Licensing [the IP from NUS] has allowed us to jumpstart our industrialization efforts rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel. Such a long gestation would otherwise be untenable for a startup company.”

Accelerated development

Christopher Yeo, along with two other former Singapore Press Holdings executives, co-founded Aspecial Media, a big data and analytics firm that analyzes online user behavior in real time.

They use technology licensed from A*STAR that extracts semantics and meaning from web content.

According to Yeo, commercializing their IP had its benefits.

“Engineering deep tech software solutions is quite a complex task, often requiring the integration of many technologies. Sourcing and licensing IP from research institutions allow us to accelerate the development process so that we can create innovative solutions and foreground IPs.”

Positive support from institutions

All three startups share positive experiences working with their respective institutions.

According to Tan, because large corporations saw them as a spin-off from NTU, they were viewed as a lower-risk entity. According to him, the institution offered support via mentorship advice, legal consultation, connections to investors and government offices, and low-cost facility rentals.

“These are valuable for a young startup like us,” Yeo said. “This is especially crucial during the first two years when we were still relatively young and naive in the business world.”

Fones’s experience with NUS was similarly positive.

“NUS has been supportive of this initiative […]. We continue to interact with the licensing office regularly in terms of updates and other opportunities.”

Yeo’s partnership with A*STAR has carried over to multiple projects.

“I have worked with A*STAR on a number of projects over the years. [They have] been very willing to match the needs of a company with its teams of researchers to facilitate the smooth translation of its IP into a commercial product.”

Challenges on IP commercialization

IP is not exactly easy. According to Yeo, the biggest challenge in incorporating the institute’s IP is the long and complex process of translating it from the labs into products that are ready for the market.

Fones agreed, saying that commercialization and productization are two difficult processes.

“We have taken this up on two fronts: building a credible sales pipeline and investing in further development primarily around usability and broader industry acceptance. And both of these [processes] take time.”

Speed to market and funding are critical in the commercialization of IP in new fields. Tan shared that similar companies offering similar artificial skin technologies are usually heavily funded and are supported by the government or commercial companies.

To overcome the speed to commercialization and the limited funding, Tan has to collaborate with various institutions.

Advice for startups

Tan advises startups to always check the terms and conditions for IP licensing and to evaluate its potential and translation value to your industry. “[The IPs] must be able to enhance or complement your company core service/products,” he said. “Another thing I learned [is to] use their institute template for licensing and edit from there. This will [hasten] the process.”

However, Fones said that entrepreneurs must first figure out their own convictions before venturing into IP commercialization, as it is a complex process. “Founders need to gel first together and not to start on the premise of having a perfect business sense.”

Yeo, on the other hand, said, “Be very clear on your product needs and take the time to understand and learn about the available IP that best suits those needs. Often, there is no exact fit and a substantial amount of engineering work is still required to translate raw IP into shiny products.”

This article is the fourth of the “Science and Technology Development Singapore” series, where the author delves into the development of science and technology in the country.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.