Partnerships that Last


Strategic partnerships enable enterprises to grow faster and gain a foothold in the market. It is exciting when a company embarks on a newly formed collaboration with another like-minded organisation that can lend support, expertise, and resources. However, partnerships fall through as easily as they are formed. In this episode, we will explore the definition of a successful partnership. What types of partnerships are productive and helpful for a business? What is the secret to long-lasting partnerships whose benefits span across the years?



Yvonne Chan: Welcome to futurepulse, a podcast series brought to you by IPI, your innovation partner for impact. Together, we will explore how ideas, creativity and collaboration drive impactful innovation.

Welcome to this episode of futurepulse - Partnerships That Last. I'm Yvonne Chan and I'm joined by David Toh, the Chief Executive Officer at NTUitive and Jason Humphries, the Co-founder of Suu Balm at Good Pharma Dermatology.

As a business takes off, the company's first newly formed collaboration with another like-minded organisation, one that is able to lend support, expertise and resources cannot be overstated. However, partnerships do fall through as easily as they are formed. In this episode, we explore a checklist for a successful partnership. What type of partnerships are productive? And what is the secret to a long-lasting collaboration?

Let's kick it off. Now with a first question to David. David, please tell us more about your role at NTUitive and the role that different partnerships play in making things happen.


David Toh: Okay, thanks Yvonne. NTUitive is the innovation and enterprise subsidiary of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Our mission is to commercialise the intellectual property generated at the university, and we do this through licensing to large enterprises, SMEs and start-up companies. What we do is we work extensively with different partners in the ecosystem to find companies willing to license our technologies, or investors interested in investing in our start-ups, as well as individuals and organisations interested in potential business opportunities in our sphere of innovation activities.


Yvonne Chan: What about the role of different partnerships, though, tell us a little bit about that?


David Toh: We have a significant number of partnerships all around the ecosystem, principally because NTUitive is a rather lean organisation, we cannot be all things to all people. So, we need to lean on organisations, companies and individuals, who may have the necessary relationships to open doors so that we can then do business development activities, or we can find money to help our start-ups or we can find entrepreneurs and people to come in and help build the companies.

We also talk to trade associations, we talk to organisations, such as IPI, who have themselves being part of the Enterprise Singapore group (ESG), have extensive relationships with a number of SMEs in Singapore, as well as organisations and businesses in the region and globally. We depend on organisations, such as IPI, to help us open doors to find potential business opportunities for both the university and our start-ups.


Yvonne Chan: Yeah, you mentioned that as an organisation, you can't be everything to everyone. Let's bring Jason into the conversation here. Jason, can you share with us how Open Innovation, reaching out for partnerships was critical to Suu Balm's commercial success?


Jason Humphries: Thanks for that and picking up on an organisation that David mentioned, which is IPI. You know, we have a business that was formulated, and developed through some matchmaking from IPI, with Singapore's National Skin Centre (NSC). One of the physicians there, Dr Tey Hong Liang, had developed a very unique cream for eczema. They were using it very successfully at the hospital and the far-sighted Head of the National Skin Centre, Prof Roy Chan, was looking for a commercial partner through IPI. That was eight years ago, and the relationship has now gone from strength to strength, that partnership between ourselves and the National Skin Centre. It was set up well, we've now sold over a million tubes of Suu Balm across over 10 countries and so it's been a very good experience.


Yvonne Chan: That was definitely a very critical partnership to have established right from the get-go. Thanks, Jason. David, in your role at NTUitive, I just like you to go into a little bit more detail, what type of partnerships have you seen that really worked?


David Toh: So, the university's research mandate is very broad and deep and NTUitive itself is just the tech transfer organisation of the university, so we cannot match the university's breadth and depth. We have about 2,000 researchers and professors on campus. So, being a lean organisation, as I mentioned earlier, we can't be an expert in all domains of industries. So, we have to rely on organisations such as IPI, trade associations, semiconductor associations, marine industry, individuals or photonics associations, as well as companies to help us understand where the market needs, and opportunities are.

So, in that respect, IPI, for instance, was able to introduce us to one particular SME, who was interested in one of our, for instance, our fire retardation coatings, which were meant to be applied onto buildings. Subsequently, the company expressed interest in taking that technology further. They then took a license from NTUitive, built up the factory capacity and started pilot production of the coatings for their clients.

So, it was really through IPI, that we had this customer discovery process where we found this particular SME, which we never heard of before and they gave us a fantastic opportunity. It was a win-win kind of arrangement that came about because we were, through our technology, able to level up the SME, give them a new product to upsell to their clients, while we, in turn NTUitive, was able to capture some licensing revenues from this activity.


Yvonne Chan: So that really was like a matchmaking opportunity that was successful, wasn't it?  Jason, do you want to weigh in here, on this viewpoint about what partnerships can work and do work?


Jason Humphries: You know, I think this is in a way, it should be self-evident, but of course, it's not always self-evident. There has to be something in it for both parties. You know, you can spend a lot of time going through legal contracts or partnerships, but unless there's something long standing and meaningful for both parties, I think you'll never hold someone in a partnership, just because it's in a contract that's unlikely to maximise an opportunity. And so I think, as I mentioned, with Professor Roy Chan, you know, he runs a hospital, he could take a narrow view that it's just about doing the best for the patients at his hospital. But in this case, he felt it was important to get the best skin health for the maximum number of Singaporeans, and therefore he needed a partner to get that done. From our perspective, we could buy lots of formulations off the shelf from OEM manufacturers, but a product that came with the credibility of the National Skin Centre, when once we took it to market, that would give us a very strong unique differentiator in the market. So both parties, you know, had something really to gain from the partnership. And I think it is, you know, as I say, it should be obvious, but it's not always. You know, if you go with the mindset of trying to get one over the partner by being cleverer, I don't think that works in the long term. It is partnership..


Yvonne Chan: It’s about win-win and that trust, right?


Jason Humphries: Yeah.


Yvonne Chan: Equal partnership.


Jason Humphries: Yeah, it is you know, let's face it. We all know in Singapore, the phrase "kiasu", right? And if you try to be a little bit too kiasu in the agreements, I'm not sure it's gonna work too well.


Yvonne Chan: Yeah, hold that thought, Jason. We definitely want to come back to this thing about what would make that partnership last even longer. But just very quickly, Jason, you know, the partnership with NSC, that was facilitated by IPI at the early stages. That was a local one. What other regional or global partnerships was sought to enable Suu Balm to become a globally competitive product?


Jason Humphries: Yeah, it's great question. You know, often when companies try to internationalise quickly, you will look for distributors in different markets. And we had set up distributors in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia (and) Thailand. Two of those, out of the five, have been reasonably successful, three less successful. And when I kind of look at that, it's because where we've held a lot of, you know, our expertise is strong in sales and marketing, where we've held a lot of oversight on that, the product tends to have done well. When we put it with a big company, where Suu Balm is just another product, and there's not been a lot of focus on it, it hasn't done so well.

So again, I think we didn't appreciate early on how much again, you really need to look at how seriously the partnership will be taken. We have other elements of our business, which is supply chain partners to get the product to customers around Asia, where we work with two big companies, one of which is headquartered in Singapore, Zuellig company. And you know, their strength is supply chain, our strength is for sales and marketing. You know, it works beautifully in Indonesia, it works beautifully in Hong Kong, in Malaysia, etc.


Yvonne Chan: Great pointers there. Still, on this topic of regional and global partnerships, David, as an experienced business development and commercialisation director for early-stage tech innovations, how necessary are regional and global partnerships in order to you know, enable business to have a successful impact, right, going beyond Singapore shores?


David Toh: Singapore is a really, really tiny market and we are unique in some, you know, in many ways, and I would say that the Singapore market sometimes is not representative of really what goes on in the rest of the region or the rest of the world, because at the end, they Singapore is a city state. When you go into many of the other markets, you know, the geographical distances are much, much larger. The way products or technologies get disseminated or distributed in regional or global markets is much more challenging compared to just the Singapore market. And at the university, most of the innovations that we do or conduct, typically address global needs, and often they involve one of the many UNDP sustainability challenges. These could be in the area of energy storage or generation, smart grids, electromobility, cures and diagnostics for diseases etc.

So, in order to license our technologies, or help our start-ups get a regional or global foothold, we really need to develop or lean on partners either in the region around the world, to help us open up some of the relationships with businesses or government authorities or regulatory entities in other markets. We can do this for the purpose of licensing our technologies directly to the companies in each market, or we sometimes do this to help our start-ups, which we incubate in our ecosystem to open up new market opportunities. So, some of the challenges of regional and global markets are that without having a prior relationship with either distributors, companies, government officials, or regulatory bodies that we want to do business with, we don't have sometimes familiarity with local business cultures, local regulatory issues, and even market access mechanisms.

So, for example, this is an interesting case study in, you know, Bangkok or even in places like Japan, when one of our companies tried to set up a subsidiary in Thailand, they sent a Singapore General Manager (GM) over to oversee the business expansion into Thailand. Of course, when the Singapore GM attempted to have dialogues with the Thai companies, they would nod their heads and they would, you know, they would go into meetings and nod their heads and say, thank you very much, and then nothing would happen. So, this continued for a period of about 1 to 1.5 years until finally the founder got fed up, and he then asked, you know, a Singapore company that had been in the Thai market for a while for some tips, and that Singapore company said, "Well, who's your country manager?" And he said, "Well, I've got the Singapore guy in charge of trust him, blah, blah, blah, and I've got this, you know, Thai sales guy, you know".

So, he says, "Well, you know, your problem is that you need to hire a Thai country manager because they don't want to deal with a Singapore country manager sitting in Thailand, and they have their unique way of building trust. And that trust has evolved from having somebody who's a local face who can, you know, maybe go out and socialise, go and eat dinners and have drinks but conduct business in local Thai language." So, you know, you could say the same thing for Japan, a complex market to enter as well, but many of these markets are unique in the sense that there is a business culture that you cannot ignore when you enter some of these markets.


Yvonne Chan: Oh, absolutely. I am sure Jason would also agree on that. Jason, you've talked about some of the difference in the partnerships that Suu Balm has had with you know, big players versus smaller, niche players who give a lot more attention to the product. Going forward, what kind of partnerships are you looking for, what sort of synergies would you be focusing on?


Jason Humphries: When you're an SME, and you're growing, you have to kind of decide what capabilities am I going to build within my company and what capabilities? Is it going to be an overstretch or not sensible for us to build? So early on, we realised that e-commerce would be a big bit of our business, but we didn't honestly have the wherewithal to hire great talent in there. And so, we found in Singapore an enterprising lady who had an e-commerce specialty, and she built our partnership. As we've grown bigger, you think, actually, now, we can't afford to have her outsourced anymore, we need to build it. So that's one place where we had it, but we'll bring it in.

But as our portfolio, as we see interesting opportunities, it's kind of an interesting thing. If you walk into Guardian or Watsons, you'd see an aisle for the beauty masks from Korea and if you think about sensitive skin and eczema, often children have it and they scratch. And if you could put a patch, like a beauty mask, where they have the problem, you can stop them scratching there and you can get the moisturiser to last for a long period of time. But that patch technology is quite tough for moisturisers, we can't build it internally. It's not with our existing contract manufacturer, so we now have a partnership with an interesting Taiwanese company that has until now be all about beauty patches but is now about to be sensitive skin patches for children.

The one other key area where I'm looking for partnerships today, and I'm finding it amazingly hard to find a partner is real sustainability in packaging. You know, we sell 40/50,000 plastic tubes a month, they are recyclable. I'm not sure many of them get recycled, and I would love to know that they were biodegradable. So that's an area we're looking at.


Yvonne Chan: So, this is an open call for potential partners out there who could perhaps help Suu Balm on that sustainability front. But let's crystallise this podcast episode, and what are the elements of a lasting successful partnership? I mean, really, how can we make it a mutually beneficial one, like Jason said earlier, it should be a win win with not one party trying to one up with the other, David?


David Toh: So, I think a good partnership requires three components. One, is that you need to build trust in a relationship. Two, you need to create win-win value propositions for both parties. And the third point is the long-term goals of both parties need to be aligned. right? So, if you're doing something for the short term where the goals are aligned, but the long-term goal is not aligned, that will eventually break the partnership.

Then if you look at trust. Trust, in turn, has to be earned. And it's derived not just from the actions that you take, but the reputation of the parties who are involved in the partnership. So, if you have one party that has a shady or bad local reputation, you know, no matter what time or amount of money you spend in that, you're not going to overcome the trust issues because typically, you know, a tiger doesn't change its stripes. And so, if you do have one bad party, trying to pretend he's good in a relationship where he's trying to build trust with you, that usually doesn't work as well.


Yvonne Chan: That's like making sure you do your background checks and your Know Your Customer (KYC)?


David Toh: Yes, correct.


Yvonne Chan: Jason, do you want to add on to that list?


Jason Humphries: Yeah, I think David makes a really good point. I mean, that due diligence. I mean, for us, we're a brand company, you know, the elements, the brand, does it work? Does it do what it says it does on the tin? Can I trust it? And so, when we go into a market with a partner, there has to be a reputation of that partner in the market, which is a strong reputation and a good reputation. So I think that's probably the good final point to crystallise this on. You know, you wouldn't marry a shady spouse.


Yvonne Chan: Spend some time.


Jason Humphries: You probably shouldn't get into business with someone like that either.


Yvonne Chan: Yeah, you need to spend some time cultivating that relationship, right, and getting to know that person or that partner. So, if I had to summarise, it would be trust, win win value propositions, and alignment of long-term goals, and just making sure that whoever you decide to get into a business relationship with or a partnership, you must have done your due diligence. So, what last piece of advice would you give to start-ups seeking partnerships in this current environment of a pandemic, right? Seeking partnerships to grow in this environment, David?


David Toh: I think, as we have mentioned earlier, you know, the building of trust is important. And typically, the problem is that no matter what kind of legal agreement you have in place, with the partner that you've decided to go into business with, no legal document can cover all aspects of the relationship. But there has to be a governing kind of principle that there's certain gray areas where you don't want to wander into because it would arouse suspicion on the other part, you know? And managing expectations is really important for companies, right? You always want to under promise and over deliver, right?

So, start-ups, in this environment where we can't travel (and) we need to do business overseas, it's going to be even more important to be able to leverage on institutions that already have prior relationships with companies or enterprises outside of Singapore, so that, you know, you want to short circuit that trust building part.

You can use an entity like a trade association or Enterprise Singapore or IPI to say, "Look, I need to get into the Chinese market. So do you have relationships there?" IPI might come and tell you, "Well, I know of this company out there in Shanghai, they're very decent company. The owner is an honourable person and listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. So, I think that this is a good partner, potentially, for you." So, you need relationships to short circuit those relationships that you're trying to build on, because you're not going to be able to start from scratch and cold call that company without some kind of recommendation or matchmaking agency. So, it's having that relationship of I trust you and you trust him, therefore, that trust can be built, because it's built on you knowing that person is of honourable and good character, and then kind of marrying that relationship up.


Yvonne Chan: Sure. Yeah, I think that's a great point though. Leveraging on institutions who can really short circuit this partnership seeking phase of the business. Jason, your key piece of advice, please?


Jason Humphries: You know, I can only really answer this as a, you know, a small, medium-sized enterprise. Building a business is really hard unless you are really lucky. You know, there's going to be a lot of things that come in from left field, right field, that you weren't expecting. They're going to take a lot of your time. So, the reality is, you probably do need partnerships. You know, you’ll need people who are doing things that are non-core to your business. Not all of them will work out perfectly whatever you do. You know, some things will go awry. Some of them will work, some of them won't. So, I don't think we ever look for perfection, but what we look for is can this move us forward, you know? And by doing a number of these things, we just de-risk ourselves, but acknowledging that yes, we'd love to do everything ourselves, but we can't, we need them. And over time, we get better at how we get into business and partnerships and how we manage them. But you learn as you build, right? You don't get it right from day one.


Yvonne Chan: Yeah, I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you so much, Jason. And thank you so much, David, for sharing your valuable insights with us today. When it comes to looking for the right partners, key advice that you both share that really resonated with me are, you know, partners, really striving to make it a win win really, not one up against the other, and why the business culture of global and regional partnerships cannot be ignored. If not, you'd spend another one and a half years not having things move. And how do we make that partnership last? While leading to that whole matchmaking relationship metaphor, the key ingredients are trust, equitable fairness, and I think open communication is also very important. So, thank you very much, gentlemen.


Jason Humphries: Thanks a lot.


David Toh: Thank you.


Yvonne Chan: I'm Yvonne Chan. Thank you for joining us for the past 10 episodes of futurepulse. We've covered a diverse range of topics from the importance of design thinking, overcoming adversity to succeed to identifying that crucial pivot point for a business. We've also heard from esteemed industry leaders, CEOs and tech advisors, who have shared much valuable insight as to how businesses can navigate the future forward landscape, and we do hope you found the sessions useful. Thank you, and goodbye.