THE proof of the pudding lies in the eating, so goes the old saying and this is especially true in the case of Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS’ Research, Innovation and Commercialisation (RIC) Unit.
In the five years since UTP embarked on a transformation of its research priorities and key focus areas, and ramped up its business development activities, revenue has grown almost more than threefold - from RM30mil in 2017 to RM109mil work book order at the close of 2022.
And even before the curtain falls on 2022, the RIC has already booked revenue of RM30mil for the first quarter of 2023 – a significant milestone for UTP, which celebrated its silver jubilee last year.
Prof Ir Dr Mohd Shahir Liew, who set the RIC on this change journey when he assumed the post of UTP’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Innovation and Commercialisation in May 2017, attributes the leap in earnings to the transformation of the university’s research agenda towards a portfolio that is more attuned to global megatrends, and the creation of a culture that’s driven towards technology and innovation for industry and community.
Although the turnover raked in for 2022 is certainly cause for celebration, especially since it has exceeded the RM80mil target that had been set for 2025, Mohd Shahir believes that there is no room for complacency.
“For 2023, while we will continue to do what we do best, we are also looking at doing different things through the application of the technologies that we have developed to date,” he says, adding that in doing so UTP will be diversifying and expanding its client base.
Currently 60% of RIC’s research output and consultancy services are from the oil and gas industry but this will change as the university expands its digitalisation, predictive analytics, and social innovation solutions to more sectors of the economy.
The country’s reigning top university for research output per capita, according to Times Higher Education, Mohd Shahir says although Industry 4.0 has been a feature of the research agenda, the university is already training its lens on research and solutions related to Industry 5.0, which describes the revolution where man and machine find ways to work hand in hand towards greater efficiencies and optimisation.
“We remain focused on addressing the global megatrends. In 2023 and beyond we’ll be putting in more focus on research and innovations related to the circular economy, energy transition, logistics via the use of drone technology, predictive analytics in agriculture, and employing data analytics in carbon calculations,” he says.
Research and progress on the latter, he adds, will be especially vital as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles and decarbonisation become the focus of Corporate Malaysia.
“We’re looking at how we can support the financial institutions, regulators like Bursa Malaysia and the Securities Commission, as well as corporates themselves in the move towards a zero-carbon economy. We believe that the blockchain technology that we have developed can offer improvements to carbon markets as well as provide the transparency and assurance required by the financial markets,” he says.
Digitalisation solutions, he adds, will remain a revenue earner. “But in the coming years we expect the application of digitalisation will be expanded to other areas such as predictive analytics, machine failures, and in replacing time-based inspections.”
Invaluable partner to industry
To capitalise on the opportunities ahead, talent management in particular retaining talent will be key.
“We need to look at how to incentivise the talent to stay longer, including offering competitive remunerations. Diversification of our customer base is also important, not only for financial sustainability but also to incentivise the researchers and academic staff. Take for example structural health monitoring.
“By diversifying the technology, researchers will be exposed to new opportunities and sectors – moving from offshore platforms to telecommunication towers, bridges, tunnels and buildings – which then expands on their knowledge and experience. We’re also constantly developing new talent from the existing pool by honing their talents through mentoring,” says Mohd Shahir.
Although UTP’s successes have piqued the interest of its competitors, he maintains that UTP still has an edge.
“Our researchers have been trained to look at the megatrends and how these impact industry. Our closeness to industry is also something that others do not possess. From day one we’ve forged close links with industry, and this closeness has been reinforced since 2017 when we focused our attention on addressing industry’s pain points.
“Over the years we have also developed the business acumen of our researchers, created a culture geared towards meeting the needs of industry and gained a track record of delivering on time and giving the best to our clients,” he adds.
What’s more, UTP is able to take stock of the gaps and recommend solutions as it stays up to date with the latest industry developments.
“Industry doesn’t tell us where they are or the areas that they are interested in. I’ve always advocated the fact that you cannot wait for a request for proposal or RFP to come in, but you work with industry and create the jobs for yourself.
“For example, we share what digitalisation looks like and how such solutions can drive cost optimisation and efficiency, which in turn spurs the company to consider these solutions as a need rather than a nice to have. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.”