RESEARCH and development (R&D) has always been at the heart of Tee Tone Vei’s venture. He calls it one of his biggest passions.
If anything, he founded Intrix Group in 2003 so he could zoom in even more on R&D.
“During my tenure of 13 years (in a previous company), I found myself falling in love with R&D more and more everyday. However, due to the many responsibilities I had on my plate, I was not able to focus on R&D.
“I was determined to pursue my passion which led to my decision of starting up my own company,” he shares.
Tee aspired to solve market problems, which was often an overlooked process in the business landscape at the time.
He observed that Malaysians did not really understand the true value of owning their own intellectual property (IP) then and mostly followed in the footsteps of a product that was already successful in another country. They preferred to buy the rights to the product rather than invest in developing their own.
Many, adds the managing director, didn’t even understand what owning an IP really meant. The first inquiry the company received was for drawing and drafting fees instead of R&D services.
This, Tee realised, called for a rather drawn-out education process in the local market which the team was prepared to do.
But in the meantime, Intrix also focused on building its reputation and portfolio in markets, mainly the UK, that were hungry for its R&D services, particularly in the area of heating solutions.
Together with his band of engineers and innovators – or rebel techies as he likes to refer to them – the company tapped previous contacts and networks to secure a design project for the largest heating company in the UK and the top water heating company in Germany.
The company grew its reach in the overseas market and got a big break in 2012 to install 1,000 units of hand-wash machines in the Olympic London Stadium.
“We were ecstatic and excited but also very nervous. Millions of people would be at the Olympics and the deadline was set in stone. There was almost no margin for delays or errors of any kind,” says Tee.
Tee recalls that the London Olympics had taken place during the Influenza A pandemic and designing a touchless hand-washing system was necessary. It also had to dispense hot water instantaneously and cater for exceptionally high traffic.
“We had to be able to design and deliver the project on time even though we didn’t have the solution on hand at that point.”
It certainly was a good experience for the group, one which Intrix continued to build on as it developed more partnerships.
In 2018, it tied up with the WCD Group, UK’s largest independent supplier of hot and cold hydration, to launch an instant boiling tap under the Reinz brand.
“When Intrix started, we never aimed to sell products. We were just an R&D consultancy company, and we wanted to design and invent different things at different times, always.
“However, we soon realised that we have the capacity, capability and know-how to cater to the consumer market,” he says.
Based on its success with Reinz in the UK, Intrix started developing a similar product that catered to the Malaysian market.
After many years of making a name for itself overseas, the company introduced its Reinz Plus range – an instant purified boiling water tap – for the local retail market.
“We definitely had a very unconventional start. Most of the SMEs in Malaysia would acquire their technology from more advanced countries or they would start from manufacturing and then invest some portion (of profits) into R&D. They would then expand into the export market when they are successful locally.
“We started by providing contract R&D consultancy services to leading UK and European companies. Only after establishing years of success in the UK, we started to expand into our home country and then ventured into manufacturing and distribution of our own brand instead of just pure R&D,” says Tee.
Currently, its business in the UK still makes up the bulk of its sales, contributing 65% of its annual revenue, while the remaining comes from South-East Asia.
In Malaysia, Intrix has been building up its portfolio with hotels and high end condominiums, supplying them with hot water systems. Some of its clientele include the Four Season Hotel and Banyan Tree.
It is also working to deliver a hybrid solar and heat pump heating system to new customers.
According to Tee, the group’s sales have been growing at an average of 30% year-on-year. Notably, revenue was stagnant last year due to the pandemic.
But he is looking at a stronger comeback post-Covid.
Intrix will be launching more products in the coming weeks in response to developments with new virus strains.
“We want to be able to contribute our R&D expertise to improve the current technologies and help solve the virus spread,” he says.
He is confident that its upcoming series of products will also boost the company’s growth in the short and long-run.
Nonetheless, Tee acknowledges that challenges remain for Intrix in the current landscape as economies reopen and markets adjust to new norms.
Tee expects supply chain disruptions to continue for some time due to a shortage in shipping containers. Additionally, its suppliers may also have to juggle with unpredictable production schedules due to sudden temporary shutdowns.
Material shortages in electronic components also remain a major challenge for many industries.
“Although the supply chain disruption is inevitable and is out of our control, we are working on different ways to solve this problem.
“In terms of our products, we foresee challenges in penetrating the consumer market and educating the consumers about our products and technology. We develop inventions that challenge the norm and our technology is new to the consumer market especially in Malaysia.
“That being said, we have to study the consumers – their trends, their behaviours and their problems, and we bring the best solutions to the table,” he says.
Over time, he thinks its products will be able to carve out a space in the local market and also gain more prominence in its other markets.
Tee encourages more local SMEs to invest in R&D to cater to new and larger markets. Intrix itself has successfully filed 17 global patents.
Understandably, SMEs have limited funding resources to do R&D on their own, which emphasises the importance of a conducive support ecosystem. This means having more SMEs collaborating with universities to commercialise research ideas or utilising government grants, or both.
However, Tee notes that local universities have a lot less industrial collaboration by percentage in their research. This is why commercialised research from Malaysian Universities make up a very small percentage in comparison to other countries.
This points to a need to foster stronger industrial-based research among local academics.
In terms of policy and government subsidies, Tee opines that there is ample support for local companies. Organisations such as the Malaysian Investment Development Authority and SIRIM have a lot of innovation funds which local players can benefit from.
While many would think that the application process for these funds is complex and lengthy, Tee says the company’s experience has shown otherwise.
“They work quite professionally.”
He also thinks that local graduates and engineers need to have the drive to challenge the norm and think outside the box to find innovative solutions to solve market problems.
“A word of advice: always aim at the international market when doing any R&D or new product design. There is a market for everything, we just have to explore our options.
“The beauty is that the world is so small now. Why not aim for the global market? With a niche product, you have to think about the wider market. If we start thinking more globally, the budget for R&D investment could be better justified compared to if you were only aiming for one market,” he says.