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Vol 20, No. 05, May 2016   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Young Innovators under 35
2016 Asia’s TR35 Innovators (EmTech Asia 2016)

Under the auspices of EmTech Asia 2016 (the annual global emerging technologies conference hosted by MIT Technology Review), top 10 TR35 innovators from Asia were born.

They are: Grace Leslie (Singapore), Javier Gomez Fernandez (Singapore), Jia Hao Cheong (Singapore), Joseph Fitzsimons (Singapore), Madhu Bhaskaran (Australia), Majid Ebrahimi Warkini (Australia), Pulkit Jaiswal (Singapore), Raye Chen-Hua Yeow (Singapore), Siau Chen Chian (Singapore), and Yue Wan (Singapore). All of the recipients are under the age of 35 as of 1 October 2016. They are recognised for their exceptional contribution in transforming the nature of technology in industries ranging from biomedicine, communications, energy, materials, etc.

Every year since 2014, 10 young people are selected as Asia’s TR35 innovators, from a list of talented candidates who are scientists, researchers, technologists, inventors, or entrepreneurs. They must be citizens of (or work in) one of the following countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, Taiwan, Australia or New Zealand.

Amazed by their works and dreams, APBN conducted interviews with four of these young innovators during the EmTech Asia conference from 26 to 27 January 2016.

Dr. Majid Ebrahimi Warkiani

Dr. Majid Ebrahimi Warkiani is an Assistant Professor in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at University of New South Wales (UNSW). He completed his PhD program at Nanyang Technological University and subsequently undertook postdoctoral training at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) center. Dr Warkiani’s current research activities focus on two key areas of (i) Microfluidics involving the design and development of new platforms for rare cells sorting and the development of novel 3D devices for investigation of angiogenesis and tumour formation, (ii) Bio-MEMS involving the fabrication and characterisation of novel isopore membranes as well as PCR biochips.

About his work

Microfluidic systems for translational biomedical research

Microfluidics, a technology characterised by the engineered manipulation of fluids at the micro-scale, has shown considerable promise in point-of-care diagnostics and clinical research. Cell sorting is critical for many applications ranging from stem cell research to cancer therapy. In this seminar, I will describe our recent efforts in development of advanced microfluidics systems for separation of rare cells (e.g., circulating tumour cells (CTCs)) from blood for early cancer diagnosis. Additionally, I will present some of our efforts for large-scale manufacturing of mammalian cells (e.g., stem cells) inside perfusion bioreactores for drug development and therapeutic applications.

1. Could you tell us more about your research interest in biomedical engineering and lab-on-a-chip systems? What does “lab-on-a-chip” systems mean?

I did my PhD and postdoctoral training in Singapore. Since 2009, I am doing research on microfluidics. We are using techniques developed in the semiconductor industry to build a miniaturised system called “lab-on-a-chip”. Lab-on-a-chip refers to technologies which allow operations such as mixing and separation that normally require a laboratory on a much miniaturized scale within a portable or handheld device. We are building certain type of biochips that we can use for different applications, from cancer treatment to cancer monitoring, and diagnostic purposes. You do not need to have really sophisticated facilities to do certain type of experiments. For example, the biochip can be as small as a business card, and you can put it into a machine that can perform functions such as blood plasma separation and subsequently detection of many markers in blood, which can be indication of some diseases. There are many benefits to operating on this scale. Analysis of samples (e.g., blood, urine, saliva) can take place very fast, in-situ, with extremely high yield.

2. Could you briefly explain other interesting research you are working on and their applications?

We are doing a couple of things using microfluidics technology. We have one project for the water industry, in which we are developing a new generation of microfilters for water filtration and detection of waterborne pathogens. We have another project with the petroleum industry, in which we are making something called “coal-on-a-chip” or “soil-on-a-chip” to mimic the condition of coal seam gas (CSG) reservoirs and study fluid transport and underlying physics. We are also developing new generation of lab-on-a-chip system to study the regulation of the cells’ cytoskeleton in injury of the nervous system and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. One of the biggest projects that I have been involved in for the past 4 years is the design and development of a new generation of microfluidics systems for cancer diagnosis and prognosis. As I presented during the EmTech Asia 2016 conference, I am currently collaborating with a few teams in Singapore and Australia to build the first tumour dialyser for cancer patients. In the future, this system can be used in clinics and hospitals for cleaning the blood of metastatic patients in order to reduce the tumor burden and reduce the mortality of this disease. The good thing about this system is it can be used for most of the cancers that have a solid nature, such as breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, etc. At this stage, they cannot be used for liquid cancers such as leukaemia. We believe this can augment the body’s immune system and slow the metastasis progression, thereby increasing overall survival. The disruptive nature of this approach has potential to surmount the shortcomings of other approaches and play a key role in personalised medicine.

3. Please share with us any challenges you overcame in developing advanced microfluidics systems for rare cell sorting?

Well, of course we have a lot of challenges. When we did the early prototyping and development, we need to test this thing using living human cells. When you want to get a human sample (tissue, blood, etc.), you need to communicate with clinicians and hospitals, get consent letter from patients, whether they are willing to donate blood to you to be used in this earlier stage. These are all the challenges, and it takes time. For example, you have the technology available in the lab, but until you really test and validate it using clinical samples, it takes 1-2 years. And later on, when you have done all these stages, there are a lot of regulatory approvals. For example, you need to show a lot of statistics and data to FDA. That is why when you have good technology, it takes 5-6 years to come to the market. At university level, we also have many challenges in obtaining necessary permission for human and animal studies. My major concern is that there are many patients out there who need these technologies but the obstacles delay the translation of these systems into clinics.

A lot of junior people like me, who have creative ideas, are facing challenges in raising funds. Sometimes it seems that funding can be allocated to people who are well-connected and as a result, many good ideas die! Perhaps there needs to be a system where fresh ideas can be assessed and for funding to be allocated more objectively in order to spur more innovation or generate new ideas.

4. Do you foresee your inventions benefitting the society?

The mortality for cancer is still very high. Many people in the world are dying due to cancer. In Australia, 1 out of 4 people would get cancer during his/her life. It directly affects millions of lives and many families all around the world. We and many other researchers are trying hard to build new systems to reduce the mortality of this disease. The best solution could be early diagnosis which is currently not available! We also aim to help those metastatic patients who just have 6 months to 1 year to live. Our holy grail is to make their disease chronic - we want to help them to live longer.

5. What would you like to see the possible developments of your work in the near future? Do you collaborate with any research institutes in Singapore?

The work we are doing is not cheap. We need to do a lot of experimentations and animal studies especially in big animals. Imagine that each run of big animal may cost 10 thousand dollars, we need a lot of funding, resources and government support to demonstrate that these experiments are worth it. In the lab scale, we are confident that it is working; but to prove this to authorities we need to do many more validations. And yes, I am collaborating with National University of Singapore and SMART centre in this project.

6. What is your advice to current students and young people who are interested in innovation, research and development with regards to pursuing what they want to do?

Don’t be scared. Dive into things that you like to do, although it looks difficult and challenging. Because when you pursue the things you like to do, and you will always be passionate about it. When your passion is to help other people and you are doing the right things, success will come automatically. My dad always says that, “Don’t think about money, do the job for the sake of a good job, and that would automatically drag money for you.” It doesn’t matter if you are pursuing science, art, or philosophy. Do what you love to do and give it your very best. As Steve Jobs said “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.”

You can learn more about Dr. Majid's work from https://www.warkianilab.com/.

Dr. Wan Yue

Dr. Yue Wan received her B.Sc in Cell Biology and Biochemistry from the University of California, San Diego. She obtained her Ph.D in Cancer Biology Stanford University, California, USA, under the mentorship of Howard Y. Chang. During her PhD, she developed the first high-throughput method for probing RNA structures genome-wide. Yue is a recipient of the NSS-PhD scholarship from Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore. She is also a Society in Science- Branco Weiss Fellow. Yue is a recipient of the Young Scientist Award, from the Singapore National Academy of Science. She is currently a Junior Principle Investigator in the Genome Institute of Singapore, and is interested in studying functional RNA structures and understanding their roles in regulating cellular biology.

About her work

Mapping the Shapes of RNAs at High Speed

Understanding structure is key to knowing how macromolecules work. Much work has been done in the past decades to solve the shapes of proteins, in order to understand how they function in the cells. Recently, RNA has emerged as another class of important cellular machines, whose function is strongly dictated by its shape. She has developed a new technology that allows us to map the shapes of RNA molecules at high speed. Information from this technology provide first glimpses into the organisational rules of RNA shapes and pave the way to understanding how RNA shapes regulate biology..

Dr. Yue Wan is interested in developing new technologies to study one of the fundamental molecules in the cell - RNA. Using these tools, she hopes to identify functional RNAs in pathogens which can then be targeted, and contribute to the development of new anti-microbial and anti-viral therapies.

1. You’re one of the first scientists to develop a high throughput approach in studying micobes’ RNA. How do you relate your technology to the urgent need of tackling the rise in antimicrobial resistance (AMR)?

Most of the current drug targets are protein-based and performs functions such as cell wall synthesis and DNA replication. Traditionally, people have targeted rRNA to block translation, however, very little efforts have been done in looking at other types of RNA as potential drug targets. One of the reasons is that we don’t know how they fold, and hence it is difficult to rationally design drugs to target them. We are hoping that by understanding the structure of RNA molecules, we can design new molecules that inhibit RNA molecules by identifying the key residues that can fit into RNA shapes. That will open up a whole new world in therapeutics, because we can target new molecules in new pathways and greatly increase our arsenal to against anti-microbial resistance.

2. Could you briefly explain other interesting research you are working on, as well as their applications?

To understand how an RNA functions, we need to know how it interacts with itself and with other molecules in the cell. We have recently developed a new technology that allows us to know the identity of RNA interaction partners. This allows us to investigate RNA interaction networks, and delineate the dynamics of RNA interaction patterns across different cell types and organisms. We are also studying how RNA viruses such as influenza and dengue utilise their genome to replicate inside their host. By studying the RNA structures of their genomes, we can potentially target these infectious diseases to improve human health.

3. How do you foresee your inventions benefitting the society?

There are 2 areas that I foresee my inventions benefitting the society. Firstly, our research dives into the molecular basis of RNA function and hence provides a fundamental understanding of how RNAs perform their function inside the cells. Secondly, we hope to contribute to antimicrobial and antiviral therapeutics by targeting important RNA species in infectious disease.

4. Please share with us any obstacles and hardships you overcame in realising your works? What (or who) drives you in pursuing your dream?

Nobody believed that the project could work at the beginning because it seemed so difficult. I realise that through ups and downs that we are frequently stronger than we think, and the potential of every individual is limitless. Through the support of people such as family and mentors, we can achieve much more than we dare to dream. I also realised that research is a long process whereby you need a lot of perseverance to overcome all the failures along the way.

5. What would you like to see the possible developments of your work in the near future?

I hope to continue to shed light into new functions of RNA. RNA has continuously surprised us in the functions that it can perform and I believe that many new RNA forms or mechanisms of action are still waiting to be discovered. I also hope that we can realise RNA’s potential as effective therapeutic targets and contribute to our fight against antimicrobial resistance.

6. What is your advice to current students and young people who are interested in innovation, R&D?

Do the best that you can, and try the best that you can. I have always had the luck of having good mentors. I would advise young scientists to seek out good mentors that they trust and seek advice often.

Dr. Javier G. Fernandez

Javier G. Fernandez (Cantabria, Spain) is Assistant Professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design. In 2010, at MIT, he developed the “Micro-Masonry”, considered a “breakthrough in tissue engineering”. Before moving to Singapore he worked at Harvard University, where he developed Shrilk. Shrilk is referred, for example, to as “the future of manufacturing” and “the material that could change the world”. He is considered the world’s most outstanding young researcher in materials science by the Bayer Foundation. He has also been awarded with the Zwick Science Award for his studies on Mechanical Testing, and best 2008 PhD thesis at the University of Barcelona.

About his work

Shrilk and Bioinspired Materials: The Future of Sustainable Manufacturing

“Shrilk” is a bioinspired material based on the chemistry and molecular design of the insect cuticle. Shrilk is transparent, biodegradable, and has an ultimate strength in the same range as aluminum alloys, but at half their density. It is made of silk proteins and waste material from the fishing industry (i.e. chitin). Shrilk is the first example of an outstanding material based on the association of natural components with their molecular design in natural structures, and it started a groundbreaking new approach to develop sustainable and bioinspired materials. It is considered, with graphene and metamaterials, one of the material that could change the world.

1. Chitosan objects are degradable, recyclable and fully compostable. Objects made of chitosan are fully composted in regular soil in about 2 weeks. How did you start having the idea of creating 3D objects using chitosan?

It was started when I was trying to find materials that can interact biologically for many applications for my PhD thesis. I was working with natural materials and at the same time trying to keep the manufacturing cost low. Then we turned towards exploring better technology for materials that we cannot manufacture in large scale. That is how everything was started.

2. With the environmental concerns, is it possible to produce “Shrilk” sustainable materials in the industrial scale?

Yes, that is what we are doing. Plastics have done amazing job, for example, making items (planes, cars...) much lighter. Nowadays, plastics are overused by our society. We plan to replace the materials in gauging or packaging, which only use plastics temporarily or just for a short duration. We are not planning to remove plastic - our society is not ready for that change yet. In this way, we are trying to reduce the usage of plastic material that is non-recyclable and last for thousands of years even after disposal.

As the world produces 3 times more chitin than the ones we produce in plastics, we want to supply all the chitin to substitute plastics. From the material aspect, there are certain areas that we can do better.

3. What are the drawbacks that affect people in choosing to produce non-renewable, non-degradable materials such as plastics, instead of utilising engineered biomaterials?

Plastics have been there for almost a hundred year and have been evolving rapidly. It can be generated very quickly. These days, we cannot compare the fabrication of natural materials with plastics. That’s why we are in disadvantage. We always need to know what we develop, to be competent with plastics in terms of cost, and in terms of manufacturing ability.

(Based on what you just said, one of the things that preventing you from moving in your competitor sector - plastics, is the barrier to entry?)

Yes, right now in our society, even if you don’t feel that, we are surrounded by plastics and this material became something that cannot be removed by the society. Nowadays our economy, production and consumption rate depend on how we produce plastics and plastic objects. There are some legal issues that we need to put in place. We cannot stand aside and not do anything. It is vital to educate the people to make a change before bringing in new materials.

(Thus, basically a 3-step process that you are looking at - raising awareness, educating the population and then encouraging the adoption?)

Yes. Education is part of our job, and besides, we need to develop technology - offering something to replace plastics in some usages. We are not just making the sustainable materials, but also materials that can better interact with the nature. We can use our materials for many types of application. Plastics changed the whole concept of manufacturing hundreds years ago; and we are trying to do the same by introducing new concept now. For instance, we are considering the capability of natural materials to grow and reintegrate. It is a complete change for the society.

4. You are focusing to develop next generation of sustainable materials at your Fermart lab. Besides “Shrilk”, do you also looking for other bioinspired materials which are potentially environmentally sustainable?

Yes, that is our job. Fortunately, we have a lot of supports, as we are bringing a new concept to material science. We try to develop innovative technology that is in line with the principle of nature. We are involved in research developing biomaterials for practical use (say latent materials that contain living cells).

5. Could you briefly explain other interesting research you are working on and their applications?

We are proud of our technology “Micro-Masonry”, which is a technology creating very small cubes of cells (1-10nm). We can customise size of the cells according to our preference. We took the cells that were originally part of the liver and assembled them. Everything in nature is about organisation - that is very important. It is not just about ingredients - the amazing thing in the material field is to put ingredients in the right place. When you match the right molecules with the right organisation, the magic will happen, then you might “suddenly” produce material that is super strong.

Biology had been very theoretical subject decades ago, we used to just do biology research, trying to understand how things work. Now we are actually engineering, organising, separating or changing the cells.

Based on what we are doing for material science, I believe now is the time that biology knowledge starts to diffuse into the rest of the engineering field. Our work, material science is like the centre path for technology. We have amazing tools to engineer cells, and even change their genetic information.

6. Please share with us any challenges or hardships you overcame in realising your work?

Challenges are what we (researchers) do. As a researcher, we find our challenge and try to solve it. Our job is to understand the problem, and apply it to somewhere else. Sometimes you might get frustrated by the problems such as funding, bad comments for your paper, rejections, etc. You might feel like giving up when you are starting as a researcher at the beginning. Then at some points, you realised all these are parts of your learning process. And it is amazing when the problems you are looking at for years solved and all pieces matched - this will compensate all problems you faced before.

7. What would you like to see the possible developments of your work in the near future?

Our focus now is to develop the technology to produce at large scale in terms of both size and number. The material is at low cost in its version for manufacture. While for medical applications, the cost is high, but well in the range of medical materials.

When we started working on applications with companies, we realised the needs to develop technology to work with our materials, instead of modifying our materials to existing technology. Therefore, we are now focusing on developing the technology specifically for our material, as our principle cannot match with the principle of plastic manufacturing.

In short, we are reinventing the manufacturing processes. A delocalized manufacture based on additive manufacturing enables the production of customised items in small numbers (to satisfy the need of the region) and on demand. The idea is to use the resources available in that region to produce with the available materials and for that we need to be able to understand and reproduce the molecular structures in artificial systems.

All photos are provided by Dr. Javier G. Fernandez. You can visit his website (https://www.jgfermart.com) to learn more about his work.

Dr. Jia Hao Cheong

Dr. Jia Hao Cheong received the B.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical and electronic engineering from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Since 2009 he has been with Institute of Microelectronics (IME), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore as a Scientist. He has worked on the development of wireless biomedical, as well as ultrasound imaging systems. He was awarded the Best Student Paper in IEEE International Conference on Electron Devices and Solid-state Circuits (EDSSC) 2008. He is also the co-recipient of the Gold Prize in Chip Design Competition of International Symposium of Integrated Circuits (ISIC) 2011.

About his work

Wireless and batteryless in-graft blood pressure monitoring system

Prosthetic grafts are commonly implanted during bypass surgery for lower limb ischemia or as a conduit for haemodialysis but they tend to fail over time. Cheong and his co-workers have developed a wireless and batteryless microscale electronic sensor that could be incorporated inside the graft to monitor in-graft blood pressure. The device is powered by a handheld external reader, using inductive coupling, a technology similar to that of wireless charging phones. The implant provides real-time wireless pressure monitoring, enabling early detection of failing grafts, and allowing for early medical intervention. The novel development will replace the need for regular and costly procedures to detect graft failures.

1. You have developed an inductively powered, implantable, wireless and batteryless blood flow sensor microsystem for vascular grafts. Can you tell us the process of this innovation/development?

This is brought under A*STAR’s biomedical engineering program. We worked with clinicians. At the beginning, we worked with Dr Benjamin Chua from NUH. We talked to him and he told us there is a need to detect failure of a graft because 50% of the grafts can fail within 1 year after their implantation. Right now the current method of detecting graft failure is quite troublesome. It needs big machine and also high cost, around 400-1000 dollar for each scan. After learning this problem, we are thinking how to solve it. The project started 3-4 years ago. Our institute, Institute of Microelectronics (IME) specialises in designing miniaturised device, sensors and circuits. Therefore, we have the capability of putting small-sized sensors onto the graft. We had this idea of putting pressure sensor onto the graft to sense the pressure inside the graft, then we can know whether it is blocked or failed after some time.

2. As your work involves implantable and invasive materials, what are the safety measures and other criteria that you considered?

There are two things that we want to take care of, biocompatibility and low power. Firstly, to ensure biocompatibility, we need to encapsulate our device using biocompatible materials. For our first prototype, we used silicon to encapsulate our device. Another thing is because it is wirelessly-powered, so if the power is too high, it can burn the tissue. Hence we need to design circuit that is very low-powered. We only need to transmit low power to power up our device. Currently, the power level that we can achieve is 10,000 times lower than the power needed to charge mobile phone. Besides, the frequency we chose is actually under certain regulation, under ISM band. There is a limit to the power that can be transferred.

3. Could you briefly explain the current stage of your research findings and applications?

We have done our first prototype and we have worked with our clinicians to have a preclinical trial. Right now we need to refine our device. We also need to look for future grants to support any further development. Also on the other hand, because it is implantable, it will take a long time to get approval, so we also exploring using similar technology to apply what we have learned from this development process on other applications. We are exploring on wearable devices as well instead of implantable device.

4. Are you working on other interesting projects as well?

We also work on neuro-signal recording and stimulation project, with different technology. We also worked on ultrasound area to develop the ultrasound transmitter and receiver for imaging.

5. Do you foresee your inventions benefitting the society?

This device is targeting for renal dialysis patients, which is quite a common disease in Singapore. Our device can help to save cost, make it easier to help patients to monitor the failure of grafts. (Is there is a monitoring plan for follow up action?) Yes, early intervention is possible. There are some procedures that they can go through without replacing the graft, can unblock the graft before it is completely blocked out. So it helps to save the patients from the process of having to lift out the graft.

6. Please share with us any obstacles and hardships you overcame in realising your work?

One challenge to be overcome is to achieve low power. Because our device is very small and you need to transmit power wirelessly based on the external device, it can be quite difficult to achieve high efficacy. So we need to come up with innovative ideas and techniques to improve the efficiency of the power-link. Another challenge is how to integrate such a small device onto the graft. It is still a challenge to us. The procedure of making the graft requires high temperature for curing, so we are still exploring in this area. Now we have very first prototype that we can integrate our device on the graft, but we still need to improve it. As we are encapsulating our device with silicon onto the graft, so it can be a bit thicker than the normal graft. We are also thinking of new method that can help reducing the thickness.

7. What would you like to see the possible developments of your work in the near future?

We are not just looking at this solution, but we also exploring wearable technology and we want to apply the things we learned from this project to other areas as well. We are still on medical device, but also maybe moving to those that are faster to go into the market rather than in trial. We are still working closely with clinicians to understand it.

Now we are putting our device on top of the silicon-encapsulated graft, so it is a bit thicker. We need to explore methods to have a better integration to reduce the thickness, and we will have to work with the graft manufacturers about that.

Editor's Note:

The next batch of TR35 Innovators Under 35 Asia will be announced at MIT Technology Review's EmTech Asia on 14-15 February 2017. Nominations open in May 2016 at www.emtechasia.com.


1. H. Cheong et al., "A wirelessly powered and interrogated blood flow monitoring microsystem fully integrated with a prosthetic vascular graft for early failure detection," in IEEE Asian Solid-State Circuits Conference. 2012, pp. 177-180.

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