Brian Lim was destined to be a bottom feeder in Singapore. His secondary school was in the bottom ten for the Normal stream – a classification for students who are less adept at scoring in examinations. And the paper chase was all that mattered: the system treated him as someone residing in the lowest rung of society. “Whenever I talked about silly ideas, I was told to sit down. I didn’t pass my ‘O’ Levels, and got kicked out of polytechnic after my first year,” he says. Like any child, Lim had wild dreams: he wanted to be an astronaut. The education system didn’t take him seriously. In secondary school, he told his physics teacher that he wanted to learn about quantum mechanics. The teacher said that the subject didn’t exist in the curriculum. In polytechnic, Lim talked to his professors about how to build a space ship, but they dismissed him. He had to sneak off to a conference in the National University of Singapore to learn about it. Lim did badly in school because it bored him. “I was always asking hard questions that nobody could answer. Around 16 years old, I wasted a whole cartridge worth of printer ink to print every document I could get from NASA. These were great for reading but they didn’t give me what I needed: the math and science that nobody could teach me.” Most people give up on their childhood dreams as they grow up, and Lim did for a long time. But now, he’s a lot closer than most of us to achieving it.
Reclaiming his childhood Lim put his dream aside because he found it impossible to achieve in Singapore. “And like most Singaporeans who didn’t do well, I came to Australia to study,” he says,since Australian universities are easier to get into compared to Singapore’s top institutions. “The only difference is, I didn’t go back.” He was a geek. He did his degree and Master’s in computernetworking, wrote half a dozen papers on medical sensor networks and worked in the remote health monitoring space. The problem was that it was “absolutely boring.” He founded six startups, ranging from brain scanning, tele-education, to software-defined networking, but all failed. Two years ago, he bumped into one of the lecturers at the International Space University, an organization that teaches the basics of space to students around the world. The best part: it didn’t need anyone to have a PhD in physics. Lim forked out his own money to sit for five weeks of classes, and he was excited to get involved in the space industry at last. But Australia was a desert for space entrepreneurs. While Sydney has a growing startup scene, most of them were internet-related. “I was upset about a week or two. But I realized there’s an opportunity that nobody else sees. So either I’m a madman or a genius for spotting it. So I said, let’s give it a try.” He joined Singularity University, a Silicon Valley organization that wants to use technology to solve global challenges that will impact a billion people in ten years. It’s an educational institution and startup accelerator rolled into one. Without revealing specifics, Lim says he’s working on a project at the institution that would use space in ways that don’t exist or haven’t been conceived yet. Today, Lim runs a startup in Australia called Launchbox, a company that wants to build and launch a satellite into space. It also promotes space engineering to students with a micro satellite kit that lets them build their own satellite. Launchbox would then send the kit into the stratosphere and students can watch it land after it releases a parachute. Lim also founded Delta-V, an accelerator which works with the Australian government to provide mentorship and investor access to space startups. Launchbox isn’t his first project in the field. His first space startup, which sought to make space travel accessible for average consumers, failed because his business partner got too busy with other projects.
Failing with pride
Lim has been making big bets his entire life, and the consequence of this is that his failure rate is high. In a letter to Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization and BoP Hub, Lim writes that Singapore needs to do better in embracing failure:
“Everyone learns from mistake, so its rather sad that Singapore has such a culture of failing once is failing for good. Some of the smartest people I know have made tons of mistakes, but they eventually found the right answers. If there is no culture and support to allow people to fail often and learn, we can’t progress very far […] One of the reasons why Singaporeans overseas do not want to come back, is because the smallness of the vision of the local population”. Lim tells Tech in Asia that he’s not blaming the government or anyone else. Rather, it’s the product of conservative Asian culture and the circumstances Singapore faced. “Our only resource is our manpower. If you’re building a skyscraper on one foundation, you would be very protective. If you’re not careful to manage it, it’ll collapse.” Singapore is unlike larger nations like resource and land-rich United States, which is built on many foundations. Even if one fails, the country can still stand on other legs, giving it room to test new ideas. For Singapore to become an innovation hub, it needs to diversity into intellectual property like water desalination and high-tech logistics, which would make the country far more resilient, Lim says. Lim isn’t the first to tell that to government officials, who to their credit, have been listening and making changes. The government is pouring money into the startup scene, it is tweaking the education system, and it is even pushing to create a space industry right here on the island. But undoing the impact of past policies takes a lot of work. “The traditions on how we manage people are still in place. They don’t take risks, and they don’t think outside of the box. It’s the way we’re educated, and it has worked for the last 20 years. But the world is changing rapidly, and it’s hard for the government to keep up.” Lim writes that he knows a lot of Singaporeans who don’t want to innovate in Singapore because they feel that the government will shut them down because they’re a competitor to a state-owned business. “The government should not be afraid when Singaporeans attempt challenging and disrupting industries,” he adds.
Tech in Asia - Terence Lee/Daniel Tay