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South-East Asian governments should simplify patenting and boost regional collaboration to support incubators and university spin-offs, a conference has heard.

Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are on the cusp of becoming global innovation centres, but their small businesses need a better entrepreneurial environment, speakers said. This includes providing start-ups with more information on available funding and existing networks, and issuing them with incentives to patent inventions and collaborate regionally, delegates heard.

This call for action was made at the second ASEAN-EU Science, Technology and Innovation Days event, which took place in Paris, France, last week (17-19 March). The conference explored collaboration opportunities between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), but flagged up several obstacles preventing small, innovative companies from reaching their potential.

“If a person can use the same office to file a patent in several countries, that would lead to great time and cost savings.”

Bernard Ong, Singaporean patent office IPOS

“Across the region we see that small and medium-sized enterprises have not contributed to patenting,” said Fortunato de la Peña, a former undersecretary in the Philippines’s Department of Science and Technology.

Information on patenting needs to be strengthened, and the harmonisation of standards would also be an important framework condition.”

The conference heard how South-East Asia’s economic strength is shifting from producing consumer goods such as shoes, sports goods and perfume to more innovative areas such as hi-tech and pharmaceuticals. In addition, Asia’s growing middle class, now equal in number to that of the United States, is opening up new markets for more expensive goods produced by European companies, said Anu Sahai, the founding director of the ASEAN Private Equity & Venture Capital Association, which supports businesses in the region.

But EU businesses also face obstacles when trying to collaborate with those in South-East Asia, said Alexander Degelsegger, who monitors Asian-EU research collaboration for Austria’s Centre for Social Innovation. It can be hard for foreign firms to access local government funds, while large amounts of red tape, with paperwork often only available in the local language, can be a further hurdle, he told a panel.

The EU may be the largest provider of foreign direct investment into Asian economies, but these obstacles mean that 57 per cent of this money goes to easily accessible Singapore, according to Bernard Ong, the director of international engagement at the Singaporean patent office IPOS.

Ong told the conference that South-East Asian businesses should lobby their governments to enhance the compatibility of their patent systems and reduce bureaucracy. “If a person can use the same office to file a patent in several countries, that would lead to great time and cost savings,” he said. “We could reduce queues and backlogs, maybe bring down the time it takes to patent an invention by several years.”

His views were echoed by the European partners at the conference, who said they understood why national governments were reluctant to share patent data and open up already scarce funding sources to increased competition. But in an era of globalisation, small companies need access to venture funds and knowledge outside national boundaries to thrive, said Thibault Danjou, the managing director of Augusta Pte, a Singaporean construction materials company.

“There is no other choice,” he told the conference. “It has to happen.”