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Journey from PhD to Fintech Start-Up

Analytics Seminar 17th April 2019 by Dr. TAN Geok Leng

Journey from PhD to Fintech Start-Up

Dr. TAN Geok Leng
CEO, AIDA Technologies

Dr Tan Geok Leong came down to SMU on 17 April 2019 encapsulating his experiences moving from research, attaining his PhD, working in the private and public sectors and finally creating his own successful start-up technology company, AIDA Technologies in Singapore. Throughout the many arcs in Dr Tan’s long career, he has achieved many significant goals and AIDA now has customers in 6 different countries and is working with top insurance providers and banks to implement their machine learning systems.

Before all that, however, Dr Tan started off in Motorola before starting on his PhD journey. Looking back on it, the first piece of advice he gives to prospective students is to find the right reasons for attempting the PhD in the first place. The most common reasons for doing so, including the view that the degree is just superior to a master’s degree, or because of other extraneous reasons such as financial incentives from scholarships, advice from parents or supervisors, are not sufficient and should not be reasons people undertake a PhD degree. It is fundamentally an investment of four years of your life in pushing the frontiers of science forward, that’s bound to lose its value quickly because of how quickly the technological frontier moves, and one that actually narrows one’s career choices because of the depth of specialisation. Hence, Dr Tan emphasises that one should only do it for the deep passion in the subject, or for the goal of pursuing academic research in a university in the future. Additionally, one must find a professor at the cutting edge of the relevant field to work with for the programme to be truly valuable and beneficial. For Dr Tan, he completed his PhD in the field of digital communications at the University of Cambridge, UK- which on a high level, was about packing more information into a single unit of analogue signal sent over the air. This eventually provided him with a strong foundation underpinning the length of the rest of his career.

Having attained his PhD, Dr Tan moved on to work in the industry, first for a techno-business consulting company which looks at how technology can be used to change businesses to create sources of competitive advantage. Subsequently, he moved to a contract R&D company which was looking to enter into Singapore then. One of the major events, and learning points during the period, was when Dr Tan’s company was hit with a patent infringement suit from Motorola, which was relatively impactful at the time. The suit was eventually settled out of court with an agreement to trade licensing rights to the two companies’ respective technologies, which proved to be a major learning point for Dr Tan: to some extent, it’s almost impossible today to do anything without somehow infringing on a patent that exists out there, because of the sheer volume of research being done. Trying to avoid it would not be viable because of how time consuming it would be. Rather, the solution is to ensure you maintain your own portfolio of patents, or measures against companies who bring lawsuits against yourself so that you might reach an agreement with them.

Dr Tan’s company eventually grew to achieve a sales volume of 27 million dollars from nothing, in four years. Unfortunately, the company folded in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis. One of the crucial reasons were the extremely high capital requirements and exposure to risk for companies working on hardware, and telecoms products especially. The lesson here is that having the knowledge or technologies is not sufficient to making a good business- it’s important to also think about the requirements for success and how to achieve them.

Having spent 15 years in the industry at that point, Dr Tan went into the public sector, working in the technology group of IDA (Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore ). Here, Dr Tan had several key achievements, the first of which was creating tools to regulate the broadband speeds advertised by broadband service providers then, which were only hitting a shocking 5-10% of advertised speeds to consumers. A second key achievement was in creating the first sandbox environment in Singapore, and possibly in the world back then, for testing the performance of ultra-wideband wireless technologies. The idea of testing sandboxes eventually spread and propagated and is now an extremely idea used in the development of new technologies. Next, Dr Tan went to work at A*STAR, where he led efforts to increase collaboration with major industry players, resulting in a total of 13 joint labs set up with the likes of Singtel, DBS and Baidu. These joint labs involve a financial investment from companies and an investment of talent and effort on the part of A*STAR to drive real returns to research in industry applications. Dr Tan eventually moved on to a corporate function were instead of running just an institute, he was running a council, which operates on a higher level and makes decisions of higher strategic importance to the organisation as a whole.

Seeking a more active role operating closer to the ground, however, that was when Dr Tan decided to make the move to setting up his own start-up company, AIDA Technologies. Focusing on using machine learning techniques for analytics and prediction, the company received its first lucky break at the Singapore Fintech Festival where the company first won an award for its technologies, providing much needed visibility and exposure to the rest of the industry, something all start-ups need in order to compete against the established big technology players. One of AIDA’s most exciting products is a tool built to manage trading floor risk, by predictively catching market manipulators through data on their structured trading and off-channel communications. This is superior to existing rule-based systems that rogue traders easily outsmart because of their inherent lack of flexibility. One of the key learning points here is that Dr Tan credits much of AIDA’s success thus far with the quality of the team he has built in the company, something that is absolutely key to taking technological products to market. It takes much more than just technical know-how, but business acumen, organisation among many other functions that allows a start-up to succeed.

In comparing start-ups with governments, Dr Tan commented on the huge differences between the two, primarily in its psyches. Industry players are able to focus solely on profits or market share, but the government agencies have many more stakeholders to manage. To align all stakeholders’ interests is extremely challenging at times, hence stakeholder requirement is something people working in the public sector constantly have to do. However, Dr Tan underscored the salient fact that one can create tremendous impact on either side, especially on the potential of policy and governance to drive large transformations in a country, with China and Singapore itself as a prime example, lifting millions out of poverty in a few short decades.

Last updated on 03 May 2019 .