Singapore’s leading inventor Nelson Cheng: ‘I go around looking for trouble’

Singapore’s leading inventor: ‘I go around looking for trouble’

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S’pore’s leading inventor Nelson Cheng reveals how he comes up with ideas. -TNP
Jennifer Dhanaraj

Wed, Mar 20, 2013
The New Paper

SINGAPORE – Meet Singapore’s leading inventor.

And when he says “eureka” – it is potentially worth a couple of million dollars.

Mr Nelson Cheng, 56, is the president and founder of local chemical company Magna International.

According to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos), while the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) – the nation’s lead agency for scientific research – has consistently been the local leader in applying for patents, the individual who has obtained the most patents is Mr Cheng.

He has eight patents locally – which, according to him, already have a commercial value of “hundreds of millions”.

When we meet him in his office on Enterprise Road, the wall of its conference room is adorned with gold and silver certificate plaques of successful patent grants from all over the world.

In all, he has filed 16 patents worldwide. These include ones in Taiwan and the European Union for the same inventions that he has patented here. This is to “protect his inventions” in overseas markets.

“Every time I am awarded a patent, I still feel immense joy. It never gets old,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

His innovations range from biodiesel lubricants to corrosion inhibitors that can be used in the commercial, industrial and even military sectors.

Mr Cheng filed his first patent with Ipos in 2007 – and it was a long, drawn out process.

“For almost two weeks, I was staring at a blank piece of paper, with a pen in my hand, every night,” he says, laughing.

He recalls being huddled up in a corner of his study for hours at a time.

“Once I typed the title of my invention, I was just stuck, I didn’t know what else to write.”

Mr Cheng’s wife would bring him snacks and sweets in a bid to encourage him – but that didn’t work.

And eventually, he wrote a sentence. From then on, with his wife’s words of support, he wrote one to two sentences every day till he finished writing the patent.

This process took about six months.

But practice makes perfect, he says.

Now, filling up the paperwork for the patents takes only about 10 days.

Mr Cheng says his inventions are crucial to the success of his medium-sized company.

He wasn’t interested in inventing when he was a child, he says. Just like his two children, 17 and 24, who have no interest now in coming up with patentable ideas.

He started late too – at 50 – and filing patents was a means to propel his company forward.

“Bigger multinational companies often ‘bullied’ ours as they would share our technologies and then refuse to sign a non-disclosure agreement with us hence profiting from the ideas,” says Mr Cheng ruefully.

Now, his company, founded in 1990, can protect its ideas.

With a hint of triumph in his voice, he says: “We are like David and the bigger companies are Goliath.

Basically our patents are like David’s stones on a slingshot.”

So how does he come up with his ideas?

Mr Cheng says: “I go around looking for trouble.

“Other people avoid problems, but I like them.”

During sales meetings, bottom line profits are often at the bottom of the agenda, he says.

Indeed, staff and distributors are encouraged to “complain” about inefficiencies.

“I will then start looking for solutions to these problems,” says Mr Cheng.

These solutions will have an existing market willing to accept new, functioning ideas, he adds.

That is how he came up withLupromax, one of his bestsellers.

He said most metal surfaces are uneven and are filled with microscopic grooves. When rubbed against each other, two such surfaces create more friction than two smooth surfaces. This friction decreases the optimum operating levels in industrial machines and even cars, he added.

So he came up with an answer – a lubricant that makes metal surfaces smoother by filling up the grooves. He patented the composition and method of manufacturing this heat-activated chemical.

And it has since become one of the top-selling lubricants in Indonesia, claims Mr Cheng.

Sometimes, it is the most unlikely things that pose a problem to him.

“I was looking at the way a toilet flushes the other day and now I’m looking for a solution that saves water,” he says.

But answers don’t come to him as easily as he would like.

“I can concentrate and think of a solution for days, even weeks, but nothing may come to me.”

Music is his best assistant.

He says: “I’m the most relaxed when I take out my guitar and start singing. All of a sudden, as though it’s divine intervention, an answer comes to me and the wheels of my mind start turning.”

Given Singapore’s small market, it is essential to constantly think of new ideas says Mr Cheng.

He adds: “When you come up with a new idea, you’re selling your product to the world. Right now, I’m selling some of my products to the most advanced markets like Germany, Japan and North America.

“When you are innovative, the world is your oyster.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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