Malaysian developed technology needs a leg up

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Mimos, the national ICT R&D center plays a key role in promoting the creation of innovative and value-add technology into the market. But it feels a clear policy to support the adoption of this technology is needed.

The timing could not have been better. As part of Business Circle’s look into the various facets of innovation, an interview had been scheduled yesterday (Oct 18) with Thillai Raj, chief technology officer of Mimos, the national ICT R&D center. The intention was to find out how Mimos was playing its role to infuse innovation into the country through its work.

Raj, as he prefers to be known, had just attended the launch of Southeast Asia’s first GPU R&D and Compute Solution Center in Malaysia, a result of Mimos collaboration with NVIDIA, a US-listed company that is from Taiwan and HP. Designed as a one-stop center to promote, share and teach GPU technologies, Raj points out that the joint effort aims to enhance the development of Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) solutions that will meet local and global needs.

The setting up of this lab is part of Mimos’ objective to grow key economic sectors, provide innovation solutions to enhance productivity, support local industries and improve their capacity through technology. All in the hope of positioning Malaysia in the global markets as an advanced, regional centre of excellence.

It is not an easy journey though, Raj acknowledges. Competing in the private sector means coming up against world class competitors while trying to get a leg up on winning public sector deals has proven frustrating and laborious — leaving Mimos feeling like it is battling away on its own.

“For instance, we initiated contact with Nvidia about 18 months back in the US but they were reluctant to have this R&D center based in Malaysia.” Principally because Malaysia does not yet have a reputation as a software innovator. To help Nvidia overcome its reluctance in committing to the project, Mimos built a software layer on Nvidia’s hardware and then got an entrepreneur to take the solution, customise it for  market needs and win a competitive tender to apply the solution innovatively in a bank as a risk assessment tool.

“This got the attention of Nvidia, as they did not think their solution could be applied to a banking environment,” says Raj. He notes that this was a two-part success. Making the sale was one but convincing an entrepreneur to take up the product in the first place and to apply it creatively to a banking environment was the other succees.

“You see the results of this with Nvidia choosing Malaysia to set up their lab here, fully funded by them in terms of the equipment they have brought in and more importantly, the knowledge and expertise that they have brought in.” To build on this expertise with the intention of getting Malaysian students equipped with GPU skills, Mimos is working with universities to add this into their curriculum with the hope that this will lead to new ideas and innovation.

“This is important as it is about creating knowledge which then leads to high income jobs. We are off to a great start in this sense as we are working with the world leader in GPU technologies,” says Raj. Nvidia owns 70% market share in the GPU space.

Widely acknowledged as the next technology wave for high performance computing, GPU technologies are enabling big data processing, advanced data-mining and adaptive automated execution at faster speeds than the more commonly used computer processing units (CPUs).

While the Nvidia relationship is one part of the work Mimos is doing, which ultimately leads to higher value Malaysian talent producing high value products, the other challenge it has is to apply its technologies to the market. Here, Raj wishes for more support from the Malaysian government. “I think government needs to take leadership, take the risk even, of having a policy to encourage the adoption of Malaysian made software and hardware, especially when it can be demonstrated that it is comparable or almost on par with what is available in the market.”

Raj points out that having this supportive policy for Malaysian-made technology is what Japan, Taiwan and South Korea did decades ago to support their technology companies. The results are there for the world to see.

Without this leg up, he fears Malaysian technology companies will be stuck in their system integrator roles, which provides little scope for high value work and skills. And, without this supporting policy, the efforts of Mimos to develop technology platforms where the intellectual property is Malaysian owned, and therefore command higher margins, will be fruitless.

Thillai Raj, chief technology officer of Mimos, “At the moment, the situation is where Malaysian-made technology has to succeed overseas first before it is taken seriously at home.”

“We are trying really hard to develop our own platforms on which industry can then build software solutions on but there needs to be a national policy that says, ‘we will be the first ones to try anything that comes out of this’,” says Raj. In essence this is about supporting a made-in-Malaysia policy.

At the moment, the situation is where Malaysian-made technology has to succeed overseas first before it is taken seriously at home. “At Mimos, as the national R&D center, we benchmark our products against the best to make sure they are competitive when taken to market. We frequently won’t build all the features a market leader has but the features we develop are comparable if not better. But this is not enough if no one wants to take the risk of using them first. It should be the government, especially as it is driving the goal of Malaysia becoming a high income nation by 2020,” stresses Raj.

He notes that things are moving with government more engaged with Mimos in wanting to adopt the technology that comes out of its research but the process is predictably slow. “We are doing a lot of talking, a lot of influencing with them, but this takes up a lot of energy too.”

Raj makes the point that for Malaysia to develop into a knowledge economy from its manufacturing strength is actually a very tough gap to overcome. “It will require us to leapfrog and for that jump to happen, we need a headwind – supporting government policy.”

Will government rise to the challenge? What do you think can be done to support Malaysian-made technology? Although Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and actually even the US government have done this in decades past, should we do so today?

Photo credit: Flickr user LeonArts.a

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