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: Reaping the rewards of innovating through Covid-19


HOMEGROWN beauty firm Skin Inc's founder and chief executive Sabrina Tan was on a flight more than 8 years ago when she had a brainwave: what if she could create a device that would allow her to do a facial on the plane?

This led to the birth of a handheld device that used LED light therapy for the face, and it squared well with the brand's philosophy of personalising skincare solutions through its flagship product, a customisable serum.

About 2 years ago, she wanted to bring the tech aspect of beauty a step further, and that's when the company started incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into a new iteration of the device.

Launched in late March, the new device is much sleeker - Tan said they were inspired by Apple - and it is augmented by a mobile app where customers can fill up a questionnaire and receive diagnostic skin reports and computer vision-based coaching through a selfie. The app then assesses the individual's skin health before providing recommendations on how the serum should be calibrated.

"I wanted to fuse technology into the beauty space to make it more effortless, to make it more efficient, but more importantly, customised to the individual because our skin, up to 80 per cent, changes due to our lifestyle and environment," she told The Business Times (BT).

The idea came to Tan and her team right at the cusp of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time of supply chain disruptions and great uncertainty. But she held steadfast to the project, believing that it would address the needs of a post-pandemic future.

William Gaultier, chief commercial officer at +SABI AI Corp, the data and AI company behind the app, told BT that retail has to become more "experiential", particularly in the wake of Covid-19 "because you're not really allowed to touch people's faces anymore".

While beauty advisers used to do demos in the store, customers now have to "self help", Tan added.

"So when the customer walks in now, they download the app first and then we will guide them through it. It's really self help more than 'I do it for you'. But they actually feel more empowered, it's not like it's less of a service. In fact, they're like, 'oh wow, you're guiding me', it's like teaching them how to fish," she said.

Describing the project as "very expensive" and amounting to "a 7-figure amount", Tan said what helped was having funding support under Enterprise Singapore's (Enterprise SG) Enterprise Development Grant, which now provides financial support of up to 80 per cent for Singapore companies with projects that help them upgrade their business, innovate or venture overseas.

One of the things the funding paid for was a brand agency that helped to fine-tune the product and to work out a subscription-based business model.

"It's the same concept as Netflix or Spotify. You subscribe, you no longer buy something; you subscribe to a lifestyle. I think that is a very important business model and commercial model that we have embraced," said Tan, whose products are now sold in 178 cities.

Covid-19: challenge or catalyst?

Enterprise SG assistant chief executive for innovation and enterprise Edwin Chow said that while Covid-19 has been a challenge for many companies over the last 2 years, it has also been a catalyst.

Industries that were badly hit by the pandemic have had to focus on immediate survival, but Covid-19 has also helped to catalyse the development and adoption of innovations, he said.

This has led to the industry innovating at a different rate, with the more "traditional" industries such as construction, transport and logistics, food manufacturing and retail facing acute challenges during the pandemic.

Richard Mackender, innovation leader at Deloitte South-east Asia, said there are many factors why certain industries innovate more quickly, with the main push being retaining competitiveness.

"Industries at the forefront of innovation are typically disrupted much faster, causing companies to have to innovate quicker in order to survive," he said. This is best exemplified in the infocommunications and technology industry, he said, where the rate of creative destruction is way faster than even that of retail or financial services.

Still, Enterprise SG's Chow noted that many others have gone beyond the norm and taken steps to innovate.

One such company is sanitary solutions provider Rigel Technology, which participated in Enterprise SG's Scale-up SG, a programme that helps to groom high-potential local firms into "future global champions".

Four years ago, Rigel started working on a smart toilet system dubbed "Internet of Toilet", a play on Internet of Things (IoT), which is what powers the system.

It is a smart platform that integrates all the products the company has developed over the past 30 years, putting them on a dashboard that Rigel CEO Christopher Ng has likened to a "control tower".

It monitors any equipment malfunction, such as a leaking tap, as well as whether amenities such as toilet paper and soap need to be refilled or if the dustbin should be emptied. An alert is then sent to a supervisor, technician or cleaner so that further action can be taken.

"The system can also help to monitor the hygiene conditions of the toilet. For example, if somebody vomits, or if the toilet is smelly or humid or warm, there are various sensors to detect it and send an alert," Ng told BT.

It also records manpower deployment, such as the time taken for a technician to repair the particular equipment and the frequency of the breakdown.

The system has been deployed at The Esplanade, Changi Airport and the National University of Singapore, among others.

The company spent about S$5 million on the project, going through many rounds of testing, fine-tuning and iterations and engaging its customers, facility managers and cleaners through an empathy study, said Ng, adding: "We looked into their needs and their requirements and also future trends, such as sustainability."

The Covid-19 pandemic, which had at first seemed like a setback, turned out to be fortuitous for Rigel which used the downtime to double down on the project, expanding its R&D team by 50 per cent along the way, said Carrie Tan, Rigel's group director for corporate development and human resources. The greater emphasis on hygiene and manpower shortage during the pandemic opened up new opportunities for the project.

Being part of the Scale-up SG programme allowed Rigel to engage consultancy services from McKinsey, which Tan said was "pretty costly".

"We had a chance to really go through very thoroughly in terms of our strategy development for our new business building, and Enterprise SG is also very active in reviewing with us on our progress, so that part, we are pretty appreciative of," she added.

Supporting innovation

Enterprise SG's Chow noted that the agency has various measures to support industries and enterprises at different stages of innovation.

For smaller companies that lack technical expertise and facilities, Chow said the agency has established the infrastructure to support them in their tech innovation efforts.

For example, Enterprise SG has worked with selected polytechnics and institutes of higher learning to set up Centres of Innovation (COI), with expertise in different industries such as aquaculture, energy, electronics, supply chain management and food.

There are 8 such COIs providing access to specialty equipment, laboratory facilities, technology consultancy and training for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups.

SMEs can also work with polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) through Technology, Innovation and Enterprise (TIE) centres that extend research and innovation support to them.

Open Innovation Challenges (OIC) is another avenue to consider, Chow said. This is a demand-led approach where corporates and government share their pain points or new opportunities and are willing to pay for the solution.

"Such a platform gives SMEs and startups the chance to come up with products that meet an actual need, and are validated by the industry. Through this, the SMEs and startups can build up their track records, which they can subsequently use to scale locally and overseas," he said.

Last year, Enterprise SG partnered public agencies, multi-nationals and local enterprises to launch 13 OICs, with 100 challenge statements and over 1,300 proposals received.

While innovation is typically driven by necessity and existential risks, Ling Su Min, partner and head of clients for markets and innovation at KPMG in Singapore, said most companies today operate with a different mindset.

"Many of them have purpose with profit at the forefront of their thinking," said Ling.

"These organisations understand that in order to create lasting business success, they will have to focus on turning radical ideas into functional applications to solve the most imminent problems of society today, such as climate change."

But the innovation journey should not simply stop with the launch of a successful product.

One of the biggest deterrents of innovation is the "tyranny of success", said Greg Unsworth, digital business leader at PwC Singapore.

"It is much more difficult to convince an organisation to change and disrupt itself when it is profitable and sees itself as a market leader," he said.

"There are many examples throughout history of industry-leading organisations being up-ended by newer, more agile market entrants who are able to at first gradually capture the imagination of their existing customers and business partners with new offerings and ways to engage."

Enterprise SG's Chow said an effective strategy to mitigate the challenges of innovation is collaboration.

"Partnering like-minded companies allows them to tap ideas, networks, as well as complement each other's capabilities. This can do wonders to speed up the development of new products and solutions with less resources," he added.

Innovation myths

A common misconception is that innovation is for mavericks, or that it involves a "Eureka" moment, said innovation leaders.

"One common theme across successful innovative companies is that they are laser-focused on their customers, are experiment driven, and not afraid to fail. Even when they do fail, they leverage their learnings across the organisation," said Vikram Khanna, EY-Parthenon Asean digital leader.

Agreeing, Deloitte's Mackender said failure is common when one is trying to introduce a new product, process or service.

"It is so common in fact, that people in the startup community consider failures as milestones to be celebrated. It is with this type of mindset that founders can persevere through the iterative slog and finally land on a suitable product-market fit," he said.

Still, companies need a long-term strategy at the leadership level for it to be successful at innovating, Mackender said, citing findings from a Deloitte survey.

Those with comprehensive Industry 4.0 strategies were far more successful at innovating, growing faster as well as attracting and retaining talent.

Further research also showed that leaders focusing on innovation could see as much as a 22 per cent increase in revenue and up to 19 per cent increase in earnings before interest and taxes.

Innovation also need not be an expensive endeavour, said watchers.

Khanna said those that innovate well can do so in an inexpensive manner through extensive validation of ideas by running A/B or split testing and concierge experiments, which cost nothing.

But KPMG's Ling said companies should not solely focus on profit when they prioritise innovation, as they could miss out on the bigger picture of how innovations can contribute to other non-financial aspects of their businesses, such as deeper insights, more meaningful interactions and improved branding and reputation.

Rigel's Tan said some of the benefits of innovation are quantifiable, while others are not.

She said: "What we are very pleased with is also how, with the solution, we could delight the customer experience. Singapore has always been known to be a very green, very well-kept and hygienic country, so upholding that kind of image and reputation is important."

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.