Getting a head start in new technology

Getting a head start in new technology

EVEN as the world starts to embrace the sharing economy and more apps, Ms Chan Li Han is bucking the trend by setting up a hardware company.

The chief executive officer and co-founder of DynaOptics concedes it is quite “unusual, maybe even a little crazy”.

“We are essentially a ‘fabless’ technology, since we use existing manufacturing machines, processes and materials. So it’s not as capital-intensive as one would initially imagine,” she says.

MsChan, 36, is a graduate of Stanford University with more than 10 years of experience in technology commercialisation, business development and strategy consulting.

In 2012, she set up DynaOptics, a consumer electronics company working on a new patented technology in the field of camera optics.

It has a team of 15 from diverse backgrounds and countries, with some hailing from companies such as Nokia, LG, FoxConn and Logitech. Investors in the company include Angel Groups and angel funds based in California’s Silicon Valley, the Stanford-StartX Fund (SSF) and the Innovative Venture Fund (NEC and Sumitomo-Mitsui Banking Corporation, both based in Japan).

New technology
Currently, the cameras on most smartphones have basically “flat” cameras that are flush against the thin handsets, and cannot achieve true optical zoom.

DynaOptics’ invention enables smartphones to achieve optical zoom without the addition of protruding lens modules. How it does this is by making use of novel progressive lenses similar to the ones found in bi-focal eyeglasses. It allows the smaller lens to slide left, right, up and down on a 2D plane, instead of the conventional zoom that moves in and out of focus.

“Think about physics class, where lenses were concave or convex. We disrupt this traditional form,” says Ms Chan.

“We specialise in the use of non-rotationally symmetrical lenses. By developing a technology platform to design, fabricate and align these ‘free-form’ lenses, we are able to create optical systems that before, were not possible.”

DynaOptics’ invention was awarded the first prize in the 2014 Techventure Business Pitch Competition, and was runner-up at the 2015 Asian Entrepreneurship Awards in Japan.

The technology is in the pre-production engineering phase and currently being developed in Singapore. Ms Chan expects the product to be available in the market next year.

Timely assistance
Often, small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups face resource constraints that prevent them from fully investing in technology innovation on their own.

“One way to overcome this is to work with partners and enablers locally and overseas, to seek innovation and opportunities to drive their business growth,” says Mr Edwin Chow, group director, industry development and innovation and start-ups, Spring Singapore.

“Spring, together with our partners, has looked at providing financial support in their technology innovation adoption efforts and creating the necessary infrastructures to help our local enterprises.”

Recognising the risks involved in the research and development of entirely new, innovative and potentially market-changing technology intellectual property, Spring’s Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme (TECS) helps innovative start-ups in their efforts towards commercialising proprietary technology at the Proof of Concept (POC) or Proof of Value (POV) stages of development.

DynaOptics, for example, is a beneficiary.

With the TECS grants, the company was able to validate customer demand for its mobile phone product, as part of the final phase of the TECS POV project.

The TECS is a competitive grant in which proposals are evaluated based on both technical and commercial merits by a team of reviewers, and the best are awarded.

Qualifying projects can receive up to $500,000 to defray their project cost. At the end of last year, the TECS had supported a total of 209 projects.

International pursuits
DynaOptics has a portfolio of international patent applications in the areas of lens design, optical configuration, manufacturing, software and optical systems. The company currently has an issued US patent, and several other pending applications in the United States, China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Europe.
The company’s goal is to “see freeform lenses used in every phone, and every camera in the world”, says Ms Chan.

“We’ll put Singapore and the National University of Singapore on the map for spinning out a truly cutting-edge technology product, in mass production, in the world,” she adds.

Kick-start your innovative ideas
You can tap Spring Singapore’s assistance schemes to embark on your technology innovation project.

For small and medium-sized enterprises, the Capability Development Grant (CDG) helps to defray up to 70 per cent of your technology innovation project costs to develop new products, services or processes.

For start-ups, the Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme (TECS) funds your efforts towards commercialising proprietary technology at the Proof of Concept or Proof of Value stages of development. Qualifying projects can receive up to $500,000 to defray their project cost.

By Hazel Tan

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction