Steering hi-tech SMEs up the global value chain: NanoMalaysia CEO

NanoMalaysia nanotechnology
METT receiver - Malaysia’s first wireless radio frequency charger system

As the government agency responsible for the global commercialisation of Malaysia’s nanotechnology players, NanoMalaysia’s voyage is facing global pandemic-related headwinds.

NanoMalaysia’s CEO
Dr Rezal Khairi Ahmad

To kick off the interview with Disruptive.Asia, NanoMalaysia’s CEO Dr Rezal Khairi Ahmad outlined the agency’s scope within the country’s digital economy transformation efforts.

Established in 2011, NanoMalaysia primarily looks at the digital economy’s hardware aspects, specifically on nano-enhanced sensors and communication devices forming an internet of nano things systems for applications across multiple sectors particularly farming, water management and clean energy.

The AI (artificial intelligence) and software side is provided by other digital economy players, he said. Our triple-helix platform – accommodating both the National Graphene Action Plan and iNanovation – congregates the industry, academia and agency on co-ideation and joint development projects. “Moving forward, we will expand into quadruple-helix to include society or end-user representatives.”

Triple- and quadruple helix models describe a platform of partnerships involving government, industry and knowledge institutions. The term quadruple helix was used almost a decade ago by Malaysia’s then prime minister when discussing the use of this strategic model in the country’s digital nation aspirations.

Guided by current market insights and foresight, NanoMalaysia is quickly pivoting nanotechnology solutions tailored to emerging markets’ needs.

“Globally, many economies are seizing the opportunities presented by the Covid-19 inflection point to create new or disruptive ecosystems with the aim of creating high-value businesses, investments, entrepreneurship and job creation opportunities through activation of new value and supply chains.,” he continued. “Clean energy with clear nanotechnology opportunities such as solar, hydrogen and storage systems are two examples that possess multi-sectoral impact.”

While frontier technologies – such as drone tech, AI, IoT (internet of things) and so forth – promise much to organisations of all sizes, local SMEs (small and medium enterprises)  face a capital gap for investment despite their genuine interest in and potential economic benefits of employing the cutting-edge technologies, he explained.

“The majority of SMEs operate on a cash flow basis,” he said. “Therefore, any disruption to pre-existing businesses and production processes would jeopardise their delicately balanced financial position.”

“Conversely, through innovative business partnerships with frontier technology service providers, SMEs might just be able to jump onto the 4IR bandwagon cost-effectively by avoiding heavy CAPEX [capital expenditure] investments.”

Recent 4IR milestones

Coincidentally, 2020 was previously earmarked to be a showcase year of success stories for NanoMalaysia.

These include a recent partnership between a local –  SME Enhance Track – and Malaysia power company Tenaga’s Nasional University, UNITEN. This collaboration has pushed out Malaysia’s first long-range radio frequency-based wireless charger system. “This is probably one of the firsts in the world. This technology carries a potential market value of USD81 billion by 2026,” added Dr Rezal.

Another milestone is a joint-venture with Pulsar UAV, to develop the world’s first onboard hydrogen generation fuel cell system, which is now being scaled-up for an electric car project called HyPER.

Under NanoMalaysia’s nanotechnology commercialisation program, partnerships with Malaysian companies have produced flexible RFID circuits based on graphene conductive inks; environmental sensors; a multiple-purpose advanced energy storage system for automotive and portable applications; an internet of nano things powered smart urban farming kit; a connected e-scooter for delivery services’ as well as hydrogen-powered drones and an autonomous system kit for vehicular applications.

“The above-listed 4IR- [4th Industrial Revolution-] related innovations are prime examples of key outputs from our triple-helix platform involving agency, industry and academia,” said Dr Rezal.

Malaysia’s Minister of Science,
Technology & Innovation
YB Khairy Jamaluddin at METT launch

When officiating the recent launch of the Malaysia Energy Transmission Technology, known as METT, the minister of Science, Technology & Innovation (MOSTI) YB Khairy Jamaluddin noted it as ‘Malaysia’s very first wireless radio frequency charger system, possibly also the first in the region if not the world.’

“This frontier technology was co-ideated and developed by Enhance Track together with NanoMalaysia,” added Dr Rezal.

The minister took the opportunity to point to various government’s digitalisation initiatives, including a national technology and innovation sandbox (NTIS) to encourage and the ease conditions in the testing process to push local technological developments.

Pandemic impact

Initial Covid-19 lockdowns directly impacted the physical aspect of NanoMalaysia’s projects, confirmed Dr Rezal. “Our industry and research partners were unable to mobilise their respectively assigned activities and resources for projects’ progression.”

To maintain momentum, NanoMalaysia looked ahead and identified new projects for investments throughout 2020. “Crucially, [we have been] getting ourselves well prepared by creating a healthy deal pipeline post-lockdown. Strategically and operationally, connecting with our stakeholders and partners were done on digital platforms.”

“Under Malaysia’s RMCO [Recovery Movement Control Order lockdown], NanoMalaysia was able to pick up where we left off, and catch up on our 2020 key targets of at least 15 projects, as well as plan for the next 5 years factoring in post-lockdown and current pandemic effects,” he said.

Dr Rezal also pointed out that: “People can make or break any endeavour. It is critical for entrepreneurs to possess or at least have the drive to develop a positive attitude towards business growth through innovations. This is the primary hurdle to jump over at the ideation stage, and it screens out incompatible potential partners.”

“Those onboard undergo a collaborative product development process requiring robust and transparent communication between all parties,” he added. “At this stage, terms of reference need to be respected and executed accordingly. Failure to do so results in inevitable delays in project completion and commercialisation. In short, constructive relationship is key.”

He stipulates the need for companies to build protection through assets such as having proactive PR management, by charting new market manoeuvres, full background disclosure including foreground IPRs (intellectual property rights), and knowledge-sharing between all partners.

“There is also a need for market validation, or sandboxing with designated up-takers and potential investors for eventual mass production and market penetration.”

Moving forward as a digital nation

Sharing his thoughts on the overall digital economy ecosystem efforts, Dr Rezal opines that “the near-term focus should be on widening digital coverage across the country and data speed improvement.”

Throughout lockdown phase 1, the national digital infrastructures faced an unprecedented stress test due to higher data traffic as high as a 32.3% increase and correspondingly, a drop in data speed as low as 8.8Mbps as reported by the national regulator Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) as a result of organisations heavily relying on digital platforms by staying connected with stakeholders, partners and clients.

As a response, the government allocated RM 400 {almost US99) million for infrastructure and network upgrades under a stimulus package (Prihatin Rakyat Economic Stimulus Package or Pakej Rangsangan Ekonomi Prihatin Rakyat (PRIHATIN)).

“However, other creative and cost-effective immediate ways should be mobilised to close the digital divide in various parts of the country,” he suggests. “For example, hydrogen-powered drone-based mobile broadband signal repeaters stationed at the nearest telco towers for rural access. Internet access may be relatively a premium to these businesses, let alone full digitalisation.”

“The digital nation vision should be inclusive and embrace cottage industries and micro enterprises,” Dr Rezal continued. “Crucially, as a nation, we need to establish a balanced approach on our digital aspirations.” “Thus far, we have been witnessing rapid market deployment and uptake of apps-based services and very little movements on locally developed deep-tech hardware-centric products and spin-off services,” he concluded. “In our current trajectory to be a high-tech nation, a greater emphasis should be given to homegrown deep tech enterprises to ensure sustainable technology security as we wade through a global economy full of uncertainties.”

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