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What it Takes to Grow an Advanced Materials Startup in Singapore from Lab-to-Market

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Jax Lee Nanolumi

We talked to Jax Lee, CEO & Co-founder of Nanolumi about the best reliable, high-performance advanced luminescent materials for premium quantum dot displays and this is what he said about it.

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times? 

Jax Lee: Hi, thanks for caring. My family & I are based in Singapore where the nation’s efforts to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have been successful. We have adapted to our new post-pandemic lifestyle and I am grateful that we continue to be all in good health. Amidst all of it, there has been a personal silver lining; In my previous project management and business development positions and current role as CEO of Nanolumi, many of my days were spent traveling and overseas. With a toddler in tow and a newborn arriving next month, being ‘grounded’ allows me to be more present with my wife and children without hindering business growth as online meetings via video calls become acceptable, efficient, and to some extent, more effective.

Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Nanolumi.

Jax Lee: I received my Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS), during which I had the opportunity to also be a part of the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) Silicon Valley program, hosted by Stanford University. This was back in 2007-2008 so it feels like ages ago, but there is no doubt the 1-year experience ignited my passion for science, technology, and entrepreneurship. Some of the relationships formed and people I met in Silicon Valley in those early days continue to be close friends and business partners today.

It’s hard to get any regular job after you’ve been bitten by the ‘technopreneurship’ bug, so I joined an innovative manufacturing startup; As with most startups, we ran fast and I was quickly placed in a role where I was managing a team and setting up a thin film photovoltaic manufacturing line for the company in China. Following that in 2012, I joined an American transparent conductor technology company that was ripe to go from startup to scaleup; As their New Business Development Director, I led the applications development in photovoltaics, EMI shielding, transparent heating, electrochromic, displays, and more. The company formed a joint venture with Foxconn to commercialize ultra-large format projected capacitive touch modules for displays between 32” to 104” and I was appointed the Business Director for this new entity. I felt like a tourist in Singapore then as I was spending more time in China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea than I was in Singapore establishing the key supply chain and end-to-end manufacturing partners in the displays industry.

While the path to where I am today was unplanned and one paved with many ups-and-downs, my life came full circle when I founded Nanolumi in 2018 together with my co-founders, Wong Ying-Chieh and Tan Zhi-Kuang. It is extremely rare for an advanced materials startup to focus on product commercialization from the beginning, but that’s the big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) we’ve set out for our team.

How does Nanolumi innovate? 

Jax Lee: Nanolumi is a Singapore-based technology and business accelerator for advanced luminescent materials. One of Nanolumi’s six core values is ‘Innovate Purposefully’. We believe innovation only matters when it’s a great idea, executed brilliantly that creates value in the world. And so, we don’t just innovate, we do it with a purpose.

Our team comprises cross-disciplinary individuals and industry professionals with deep technical expertise, global business experience, and a proven track record for commercializing new technologies. We focus solely on (1) market-led innovations, an approach where solutions are developed based on a clear understanding of the opportunities and most urgent challenges faced by the industry, (2) establishing strategic partnerships that minimize product development investments, and (3) designing products thoughtfully to ensure they not only provide a solution to a real problem but are cost-competitive, scalable and compatible with existing manufacturing processes and supply chain.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business and how are you coping?

Jax Lee: During a period known as ‘Circuit Breaker’ in Singapore, workplaces were closed and we had to work-from-home from April 7 to June 1, including our technical team who could give up their laptop but not their lab-top. Not being able to work in a lab for close to 2 months would have significantly delayed our 2021 product commercialization timeline. We were forced to evaluate what was most essential for us; Within the short timeframe of four days, we managed to design a home-based testing station that’s safe and functional, as well as decentralized our reliability testing capabilities, allowing us to successfully continue our product development experiments while ensuring everyone on the team stays healthy. Slowing down also gave us the mental space to reflect, analyze and optimize our systems and processes. All in all, we came out of the Circuit Breaker period stronger and more focused.

Our positive business momentum during this period is also made possible by the continued trust and commitment of our supply chain partners throughout Asia. We are extremely thankful for their support; 2021 is already looking to be Nanolumi’s most exciting year since its inception.

Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?

Jax Lee: As our business grew in 2020, so did the size of our team going from less than 10 to close to 20 members today. The need to expand into a larger office, lab, and reliability testing facility became a clear priority, but finding the perfect space for our new home was a difficult choice to make. After viewing and weighing out the pros & cons of several venues, we finally signed off in August 2020.

Keeping the wheels of our business and technical activities turning amidst the move, renovations, and lab setup while adhering to the pandemic safety measures was ambitious! I’m proud of my team for being resilient and resourceful throughout this period, for without their positive attitude and energy, Nanolumi would not have grown during these challenging times.

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