Philip L. Yeo, MBA 1976
Chairman, Agency for Science, Technology & Research
Former Chairman, Singapore Economic Development Board
As the overseer of Singapore's economic direction for many years, Philip Yeo moved the city-state's attention from televisions to disk drives to petrochemicals. But the focus of his attention these days is a multibillion-dollar effort to make Singapore one of the world leaders in biomedical sciences. While doing all he can to promote homegrown talent, he is also making a Herculean effort to attract the world's best minds.
From Philip Yeo's ninth-floor office in one of the seven gleaming new buildings of Singapore's Biopolis-a $500 million, eighteen-acre complex dedicated to cutting-edge research and development in the biomedical sciences by the world's leading companies-he has a clear view of GlaxoSmithKline's corporate research lab and the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases.
But in a much larger sense, Yeo is looking out on Singapore's future-a future he has played a primary role in creating since 1986, first as the longtime chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), which plans and implements Singapore's extraordinarily effective industrial policy, and then, beginning in 2001, as head of the National Science and Technology Board-now known as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
Comprising one main island and thirty smaller ones, Singapore has a land mass of only 250 square miles, which makes it slightly smaller than New York City. Yet with Yeo's hand on the rudder of its economy, it tacked from the manufacturing of labor-intensive finished goods like washing machines and televisions in the 1980s to the making of capital- and skill-intensive electronics components such as semiconductors and disk drives in the 1990s. But for a city-state without natural resources, the new millennium belongs to a knowledge-based economy, and the Biopolis, which opened in 2003, is at the center of that.
"In late 1989, I recommended that we build up strong capabilities to support private R&D," explains Yeo. "A short time later, I set up the EDB's Singapore Bio Innovation Fund to invest longterm in overseas start-ups to learn as much as possible about the nascent biotech industry. And on June 26, 2000, the day the United States and Great Britain announced the completion of the first draft of the Human Genome Project, we launched the Biomedical Sciences Initiative here."
As Singapore set out on this journey, Yeo made sure that plenty of funding was available to nurture and sustain the new ventures.
From 2000 to 2005, $2 billion was set aside for investing in biotech companies and supporting private-sector research; another $2 billion was earmarked for R&D that the government wanted scientists and engineers to pursue to help local enterprises improve their technology and become more competitive internationally.
But there is more to it than big bucks. A multifaceted strategy guarantees that companies that come to Singapore will find a world-class infrastructure and a pro-business environment that features intellectual property rights protection and generous tax incentives.
In Yeo's view, however, talent is the most important part of the process. In 2001 he established National Scholarships to support the work of Singaporean students pursuing doctorates in science and engineering at home and abroad. The goal: to graduate 1,000 Ph.D.'s by 2015, all of them committed to continuing their careers in Singapore. He has also signed joint training and research agreements with the University of Illinois and Carnegie Mellon, the University of Dundee and Imperial College in Great Britain, and Sweden's Karolinska Institute. And he is attracting superstar scientists from around the world such as Dr. Edison Liu, formerly of the U.S. National Cancer Institute and now head of the Genome Institute of Singapore.
With so much to do, Yeo sets a very fast pace. Eighteen-hour days are the norm. Outside the office, he's often poring over books and journals on subjects such as immunology, genetics, and microbiology. "I'm an industrial engineer by training," he says, "so I'm climbing a steep learning curve."
Tackling big projects is nothing new for Yeo. As a high-school student, concerned that the chemistry lab's hours were too limited, he spearheaded a yearlong effort with his classmates to fund and build a private lab in his aunt's attic. As chairman of the National Computer Board from 1981 to 1987, he introduced computers to every government ministry and agency, advocated the teaching of information technology at all levels of the school system, and promoted the growth of the IT industry in Singapore.
One of his most memorable successes came in the 1990s, when he masterminded a unique way to provide Singapore's oil refineries and chemical companies with the land they desperately needed to keep growing. By joining seven of Singapore's southern islands with landfill to form what is now known as Jurong Island, he more than quadrupled the available acreage and so laid the groundwork for sustaining one of the strongest sectors of the economy. Launched in 1995 and officially opened in 2000, Jurong Island produced over $40 billion in products last year.
Under Singapore law, Yeo is also free to work in the private sector, where he has shown his talent for entrepreneurship at a number of companies, including Accuron Technologies Ltd., a maker of aircraft engine components and systems. "I enjoy being the father of new ventures," he explains. "Once they can walk, I pass them on to successors who have the patience to raise them."
Yeo now has his sights set on a project that will complement the Biopolis. To be called Fusionopolis, the initial complex will house IT and new media companies in 2007. Phase II, focusing on research in semiconductors, data storage, and nanoscience, will open about a year later. For someone who exudes energy in everything he says and does, these are the best of times for him and for the city-state he has served so well for so long.