Tuesday, 30 June 2015


Francis Yeoh is, in his words, ‘a true blue Singaporean, born and raised here, served NS, likes durian, kway chap, yong tau foo and chili crab’. He did, however, spend seven years in England and one in Boston ‘collecting a few pieces of paper’. His guilty pleasure is having beef jerky with beer at the end of a hot day. He thinks that the most interesting recent development in technology is the drone because there are just so many application possibilities. Francis chairs the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Committee at SoC.

Francis and his wife Karol at Machu Picchu, Peru

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?
My work in the last 30 years or so has always revolved around research, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, whether as a research scientist, research institute director, start-up CEO, venture investor, government policy maker, or university professor.  
I have lived through Singapore’s incredible transformation from third world to first and saw how the country cleverly transitioned from a labour intensive economy in the 60s to the sophisticated knowledge-based metropolis that it is today, thanks to the hard work, foresight and resilience of our founding leaders and pioneer generation. Moving ahead in an increasingly complex and inter-connected world, I believe Singapore has to develop a thriving entrepreneurial wing to the economy, to complement the FDI (foreign direct investment) led strategy that had served us well in the 70s and 80s but is no longer adequate for the future. A robust economy should have both large corporations for stability and resilience as well as numerous fast-growing startups, for agility, dynamism and renewal. This is why in my past work in government, whether in the National Science and Technology Board (now A*STAR) or the National Research Foundation, I had pushed for the development of an eco-system that will support the entrepreneurial community of startups, venture capital, angel investors and supporting services. The universities have an important role to play in supplying innovative technologies and the entrepreneurs that are the central players in such an eco-system.  
SoC, as a top-ranked computer science school can and should certainly play a key role. SoC could produce graduates who are not just technically competent but also possess drive and resourcefulness, and a desire to experience the intensity and pace of the startup world rather than take up a safe job with a large corporation or government agency.  
What a few SoC colleagues and I hope to do here is to educate and equip SoC students with the entrepreneurial skills needed to work in a tech start-up and to encourage and guide them in the first steps of their entrepreneurial journey and help connect them to the local startup eco-system.  

Describe your SoC experience. 
What I find enriching is the opportunity to interact with bright, driven young people, both in my class (IS3251: Principles of Technology Entrepreneurship) and in the SoC incubator for start-up companies. Contrary to popular perceptions that millennials are slackers, easily distracted multi-taskers, self-serving day-dreamers, etc., I have come across many who are sensible, determined, idealistic and yet very down to earth. It is a delight to be able to encourage and guide intelligent self-driven young people to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.    
I would advise students to build strong technical skills – great software skills are very valuable and in high demand, especially in the start-up community. It is far easier to pick up business skills than technical skills later in life.  
I would also advise students to join a tech start-up early in their working life, rather than go the tried and tested (and boring) route of working for an MNC or government. There isn’t a better time than now to be part of the exciting entrepreneurial community in Singapore – the environment is very conducive, funding is quite abundant, and, there’s a thriving multi-national community of entrepreneurs operating in Singapore. For the young graduate, there are rich intense and valuable learning experiences and opportunities galore! Even if the start-up eventually fails (as many will), the value remains. Many entrepreneurs describe their start-up experiences as transformational in developing independence, perseverance and character.     

What is the one thing you would change about SoC?
As professorial fellow, I spend about half time at SoC so I would not know the School enough to suggest changes. One thing I do notice, however, is the way faculty offices are configured – long corridors with offices on either side, mostly closed. I imagine a professor could spend days, even weeks, within his closed office without interacting with anyone unless he consciously seeks to do so. For creative ideas to be seeded and nurtured, and for innovation to flourish, human interaction is key. Much has been written about the value of water cooler conversations and other serendipitous encounters that give birth to great ideas in research labs. Having offices sited in square clusters, with (open) doors facing inwards would immediately raise the interaction level manifold and increase the likelihood of developing breakthrough ideas. Of course, there are constraints imposed by the existing building architecture but I believe more emphasis could be given to build greater interaction among the faculty into the daily routine.     

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I am pretty bad in recognizing faces, at least some faces. There were embarrassing occasions when I failed to acknowledge someone I saw in the street whom I’d met several times before, in the same week.  My image processing algorithm just couldn’t handle certain data sets! While usually efficient and well organized (I think!), I do have periods of unbelievable absent-minded lapses. One day returning from an overseas trip, I tried in vain to open my suitcase when I reached home. It took a while for me to realize that the key didn’t fit and yes, it wasn’t my bag – the luggage was not even same the brand and model! Thankfully, after driving back to the airport, I was able to retrieve the correct luggage and hand over the piece I took home by mistake to an anxious lady at the baggage claim. Everyone had a good laugh and my wife had a great story to entertain her friends with.  

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
I enjoy working with and mentoring start-ups. When not doing that, I read a lot (non-fiction mainly), tinker with the piano and travel. My wife and I have a long bucket list of travel destinations. We want to see as many places as we can while our legs are still strong and we can endure 30-hour flights, extremes of weather and days of trekking.  

Quick-Fire! The one trait an entrepreneur must have?
Undying optimism.

The most common problem you see start-ups facing?
Not focusing narrowly enough, trying to build something to please too many different customer groups and ending up pleasing nobody.

Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Warren Buffet (but I can’t afford the going rate for lunch!)
Peter Drucker – great, insightful, down-to-earth teacher
Philip Yancey – modern day Christian philosopher with deep honest views about the world

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email tien@nus.edu.sg

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