Unplugged with: Prof. Hady Lauw
Thursday Nov 18,2021
Unplugged with Associate Professor Hady Lauw
Decoding What It Takes to Commercialise Your Research
“Seeing our research efforts translate to useful things is a gratifying experience,” said Associate Professor Hady Lauw, Associate Professor of Computer Science at SMU School of Computing and Information Systems, also co-founder of ThriftCity, an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled platform that will benefit arbitrage-based businesses through the assessment of price differences in the global e-commerce marketplace.
Initially conceptualised as a research prototype two years ago, ThriftCity was born out of Prof Hady’s National Research Foundation (NRF)-funded research project titled, “Dimensionality Reduction for Recommender Systems: Unified Latent Co-representation of Multi-Modal Preference Signals”. With the use of the AI framework for data mining and machine learning technology derived from his research, ThriftCity can source and compare similar products across the Internet by using the necessary technologies, such as computer vision for visual comparison and natural language processing for textual analysis of the product descriptions.
ThriftCity also provided Prof Hady an opportunity to go "end-to-end", stepping out of the lab to validate the platform’s real uses with the diverse business needs, which may inform how he would approach his research in the future.
“In research, we often work on problems that are abstracted from the concrete use cases to focus on the fundamental technical issues. While the impact may be broad, it is also indirect and could at times lead to a feeling of detachment from the real-world problems we are solving,” added Prof Hady.
As part of this feature story, we asked Prof Hady some pertinent questions to gain an insight into his transformation from an academic to a business co-founder.
Tell us what skill(s) you have acquired in the process of turning ThriftCity into a viable business.
As a co-founder, trying to pitch and convince potential clients is a skill I had to work on. Investors and clients are not interested in how a piece of technology works per se, but rather how it could solve actual pain points they are having. This requires us to learn to see things from their perspective and to articulate the value proposition of the technologies that could impact their bottom line.
Another thing I have learnt is the importance of networking. In the start-up scene, everyone is passionate about their own businesses, and therefore they are willing to help one another. Getting to know more people in the scene is something we need to keep working on.
What is your biggest concern in commercialising ThriftCity?
Our biggest concern is to find clients who could appreciate the value and potential of our technology. We must actively "hunt" for such clients, as we are still an unknown entity with a product that is still developing. Right now, our primary targets are businesses and corporations, so there is an active and ongoing effort to expand our network to get to know more potential clients.
Based on your experience and learning journey through ThriftCity, how do you compare being a technical specialist and when you “put on an entrepreneur hat”?
There are some similarities. In both "hats", I seek out new areas where there is an unmet need.
The difference is that in technical areas, the challenges are objective and abstract in nature, hence allowing me to envision many possible applications. In an entrepreneurial venture, I will need to zoom in on a specific application in a concrete manner to benefit the clients.
Besides funding, how else did IIE assist you and your research project?
IIE is helpful in nurturing a more business mindset. Not only does it conduct programmes such as the Lean LaunchPad, where researchers and faculty get to learn how to validate a business proposition, IIE (Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship) staff are always available to consult, ready to share their experiences and provide introduction to industry experts/mentors at various stages of our efforts. As they have seen different businesses, their insights are valuable.
Any advice for fellow faculty members who may be interested to commercialise their research projects?
Expect challenges along the way when you put together a team, refine your business case and even as you recruit customers for proof-of-concept projects. Planning in advance during the research phase of the project to nurture a team would certainly be useful. Having the right team in place will be the main game changer in any entrepreneurial effort. So scout, recruit, and nurture the team continuously.
Also, you do not have to wait for the research project to end before exploring the possibility of commercialisation, especially with the help of IIE. Attend various start-up events regularly. It will be a great experience. Tap on the funding and support from IIE since it is in place to help us in translating our research into a real-world commercial solution.
Interested to work with team ThriftCity or similar projects in SMU? We are looking for individuals in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related field, who are passionate about how technological advances can make an impact in our lives. This role will provide you the opportunity to work alongside faculty members on their commercialisation projects. If you think this role suits you, contact sallysim [at] smu.edu.sg for further details on the job description.
If you have your own invention to take to the market, apply for the MOE De-Centralised Gap Funding (MDGF)* for the capital you need to get started! Application is open all through the year. You can find more information on MDGF here. Alternatively, contact Jay at jayc [at] smu.edu.sg or Christine at christineteo [at] smu.edu.sg for further enquiries.
*MDGF is only applicable to SMU Faculty/Researchers.