Many of the world’s big tech multinationals (MNCs) are in Penang, the northern state of Malaysia. However, over the years it has lost some of its glitter as more emerging markets in Southeast Asia have risen, with many MNCs moving their activities to countries like Vietnam.
Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, who was the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, in charge of the Economic Planning Unit (now known as Ministry of Economic Affairs – MEA), used to meet captains from the electrical and electronics (E&E) sector in Penang. Although, these companies have progressed well, they needed a platform – which could act as a catalyst to develop more high-value products and focus on research and development (R&D).
A proposal was presented and submitted to the Economic Council. Upon approval, a working committee was formed to create Collaborative Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (CREST). This partially-governmental body will help bring together industry, academia and the government.
In June 2012, CREST was established. The captains of the industry sought initial funding from the Government and was allocated RM100 million for a period of 10 years. The industry assured that for every ringgit spent by the Government with CREST, there will be a seven-fold return.
Even with a minimal resource allocation, it has achieved much under the helm of CREST CEO Jaffri Ibrahim. Jaffri has overcome resistance in the early days of CREST, when collaboration between the industry and academia did not come naturally. Today, CREST has entrenched itself within the electrical and electronics (E&E) sector.
There were many challenges in bringing the industry and academia together as they do not always agree or even speak the same language. Jaffri and his team were faced with the challenge of changing the mindset of some local universities and companies to focus on applied research which would be beneficial to all.
Crest listens to the industry needs and their future direction before designing suitable programmes to assist them achieve their goal
Since inception, CREST was established as a triple helix membership-based organisation comprising the industry, government and academia. It is a company limited by guarantee which does not have any shareholders.
“Our board represents government, industry and academia. Majority of our board comes from industry — in fact, six out of the 11 members. Four are from government agencies such as MIDA and one is from academia,” Jaffri says.
According to Jaffri, MNCs are committed to train locals because they want to create a strong ecosystem to survive in Malaysia.
“The MNCs have entities in various countries and they compete among themselves to be the best. Let’s say they are competing for a 5G project, they would need to collaborate with a local university which is doing the research on this technology and has expertise in it. They will survive better with a local environment that supports their operations.” Jaffri explains.
In 2012, the captains of industries identified three key areas which needed CREST to assist to develop. They were IC design, embedded system and LED. From the RM100 million fund, RM10 million will be used each year for collaborative research. Twice yearly, CREST opens its doors to interested parties for grant applications, of which 50 percent of the required amount is funded by CREST and the remaining by the industry.
As of today, industries have been funding 65 percent of R&D projects while the rest comes from Government funding. We have a total of 138 R&D projects approved under our CREST R&D grant portfolio, with 55 projects having been completed and 13 has successfully generated revenue from the market. Each project takes 2-3 years to complete. Upon completion, the participating researchers will graduate with either a Masters’ degree or PhD.
Elaborating further, Jaffri said that prior to approval, a project will have to go through a blind review which is done by two representatives from the industry and one from the academia. Among the criteria is that the project must involve a local company or an academia. For example, when a company approaches us with a proposal to collaborate with a local university or company, CREST will evaluate the project and approve a 50 percent funding of the total cost.
“The company typically knows how to commercialise or put the outcome of the research project to use immediately. Motorola for example, undertook a project to reduce wind noise in a twoway radio and once successful they immediately applied the technology in all their walkie-talkies across the globe. This is how the R&D projects generate revenue,” he remarks.
“We have different measurements of our success rates depending on the stake holders. For the Government, it wants to see new talents and entrepreneurs who will work together with the industry and academia to be created. Our success is evident in the 13 companies that are generating revenue. They are now building their own businesses.
“One of the companies came up with a technique to detect cracks in the wafer. They developed the technique into a machine and is now selling to companies and generating millions of revenue,” he says proudly.
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