Build it and they will come


Innovation hubs:While Ireland got caught up in a property bubble, Singapore was busy investing in high value-added jobs and bringing in high-profile RD projects. But plans are afoot to recreate that template here, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

A SHORT TAXI ride from Singapore’s downtown brings you to a series of industrial parks and research and development centres that the city-state’s government claims have been pivotal to helping turn Singapore into the world’s fastest growing economy.

Designed by some of the world’s top architects like Zaha Hadid and Ken Yeang, the futuristic hubs look like something out of a science fiction movie. This is the face of innovation in Singapore.

The areas have futuristic names too – here in Buena Vista you see Biopolis, an RD hub structure for biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Among the tenants are pharmaceutical giants such as Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline.

Singapore’s GDP grew 15 per cent last year, while the last three months of the year saw the biggest increase in output since independence in 1965.

The pharmaceutical and biotech sectors are not expected to keep growing at the dizzying levels they have been growing – at one point output was up 189 per cent year on year in the pharma sector.

However, this is largely due to the highly cyclical nature of the industry and a cooling of this kind of business does not signal any overall decline in the sector, which accounted for nearly 18 per cent of value-add to Singapore’s economy in 2009.

“The opportunity for the health economy is large, and the base we’re building here is attractive as Asia becomes more important to many of these companies,” Beh Kian Teik, biomedical sciences director of the Economic Development Board (EDB), told Singapore’s Business Times.

If there is consolidation within the sector, it is likely to work to Singapore’s advantage, and Beh said there was potential for the 40 biomedical companies with more than 50 plants in Singapore to grow operations further.

The World Bank gave Singapore a real slap on the back recently when it said the city-state was the world’s easiest place to do business, ahead of 182 other countries. It came in joint first place with Denmark and New Zealand in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Singapore has shown itself to be fleet of foot when it comes to investing in building up world-class capabilities across the entire value chain: from drug discovery and clinical research, to manufacturing and healthcare delivery.

Critics say that the various “-opolises” have too many state agencies in them, that they do not represent reality. But the government is doing something right – biomedical sciences now make up 6 per cent of Singapore’s GDP, and manufacturing output in the sector is worth more than 23 billion Singapore dollars (€13.3 billion).

The first phase of Biopolis was designed by Hadid, a cluster of seven sky-bridge connected buildings that are eight to 13 storeys high.

Biopolis opened in 2003 and is central to Singapore’s vision of becoming one of the global hubs for biomedical sciences, covering pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical technology and healthcare services.

Biopolis is strategically situated adjacent to the National University of Singapore, the Institute of Technical Education, Singapore Polytechnic, the National University Hospital, the Singapore Science Park and the Ministry of Education.

It is also beside Fusionopolis, which is luring engineering companies from all over the world. Among the big universities who have come to Singapore to take advantage of Fusionopolis’ world-class facilities are Duke University, London’s Imperial College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In November, the world’s largest technical professional association, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) , said it was expanding its Singapore operations and moving to Fusionopolis.

Then you have the digital media hub Mediapolis. Inside Mediapolis you have genuine science fiction at work – this is where George Lucas’ Lucasfilm makes The Clone Wars, one of the offshoots from the Star Wars franchise, and the company has just announced that it will build a new studio in Fusionopolis. Muppets creator the Jim Henson Company is also here, working with local media companies to produce content sold all over the world.

Announcing in December that Singaporean broadcaster MediaCorp would move its HQ to Mediapolis, Lui Tuck Yew, Singapore’s minister for information, communication and the arts, said the Asia-Pacific region was on the march in the media world.

“With the rising economies in this region and the opportunities presented by a rapidly increasing base of content consumers, the importance of Asia as a market and its influence on global media productions continues to grow,” he said.

These centres have helped transform Singapore into a successful “smart” destination, bringing in high value-added jobs and added high-profile RD investments.

All of this is something that Ireland could learn from, said Dr Rory O’Shea, a lecturer at UCD School of Business.

“The Singaporeans have centralised a lot of their public research bodies around areas of opportunity, providing RD to get out commercial products,” he said.

“In Ireland we need a Fusionopolis or a Biopolis. We are too fragmented while they have a plug and play environment where companies locate in a cluster. We need to move onto the next level, while Singapore has done this years ago,” he said.

“In Ireland we’re not on the radar for the kind of RD projects that Singapore is landing. We have no physical centre, we have a network of academics and scientists and engineers but ours is a fragmented system with no sense of critical mass, so it’s not that interesting for foreign direct investment,” said O’Shea.

Back in 2000, Ireland and Singapore were in a similar situation, with low corporate taxes and a focus on high-tech, said Dr O’Shea.

“We got carried away with the property thing. But they decided to move up the value chain,” he said.

He believes there is a major disconnect between government research expenditure and economic growth in Ireland, both in terms of attracting real foreign direct RD investment and creating successful global high-technology-based enterprises, and has launched Project Ecopolis Ireland, which he believes offers Ireland the opportunity to become an internationally renowned green technology hub, synonymous with cleantech solutions and technologies researched, designed and developed in Ireland. Project Ecopolis would become a template for innovation that would serve other sectors such as medical technology and pharmaceuticals.

However, in the global market, Singapore’s futuristic hubs clearly have already got a head start.