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Leaving the Nest
A government-backed high-tech lab looks to nurture brash, cutting-edge dotcoms
By ERIC ELLIS Singapore

Perched on a hillock with a commanding view of Singapore, Kent Ridge Digital Labs is the sort of place where people lower their voices on entering. It feels as if something ominous, or perhaps important, is going on in the five-story, concrete-and-glass building. Scientists in white coats gather in knots, furrow their brows in discussion and tap data into hand-held devices. As you are led to meet "The Director," you half expect to find a sinister, white-suited figure, stroking a cat and plotting to conquer the planet.

At it turns out, Juzar Motiwalla is planning world domination: his aim is to make Singapore a global power in information technology. "There's no reason why we can't," he says. "The human capital we have here is just as valuable as that in Silicon Valley." If the institute's acronym sounds like "cradle," that's no accident: it's a nod to the New Economy phenomenon of "incubators." krdl nurtures start-up technology companies with seed capital, research facilities and management support until they are ready to go out into the world and do business on their own.

Private firms play a similar role across the Asian Internet scene—as nannies to good ideas. But in Singapore the government has traditionally presumed to know best how to rear its populace, and its technocrats have had a hard time changing their ways. krdl, the oldest and most prestigious of 14 state-supported research centers, is the sharp end of the government's efforts to keep up with the New Economy. The lab gets $23 million annually from the National Science and Technology Board. "The national goal is to help Singapore move up the technology ladder," says Motiwalla. "We have to 'architect' how that happens. We're sort of Singapore's corporate lab."

In this day and age, that means looking outside the tiny city-state for help. At krdl, 70% of the 300 full-time workers are non-Singaporeans. German neurosurgeon Ralf Kockro and his Barcelona-born colleague Luis Serra came to krdl to develop software that can enable virtual brain surgery. "I can't imagine getting this type of official support in Spain," marvels Serra, as he operates on an electronic brain through what look like souped up 3-D glasses. Their firm, Volume Interactions, has $3 million in krdl funding and is approximately six months from launch. Motiwalla has about 20 such start-ups in his nursery, across the fields of e-commerce, medicine and cognometrics, the science of speech and touch recognition.

Some krdl graduates have already gone to market. An early standout was ThirdVoice.com, which developed software that allows surfers to apply Post-It style notes to Web pages, with their comments or suggestions. Last year, Internet telephony company Mediaring.com became the first profitless firm to list on Singapore's stock exchange. After initially soaring, Mediaring.com shares have slumped, a victim of the recent worldwide rout of dotcom stocks. Another company, Buzzcity.com, developed software that alerts web users to changes in their favorite sites—and recently got $10 million in U.S. venture capital.

The next wave of fledgling firms under Motiwalla's care includes ewgate.com (the e and w stand for East-West), whose software automatically translates English-language Web pages into Chinese, Hindi and Thai—and vice versa. Trustcopy has developed an application that ensures copyright protection while enabling easy downloading of music files. That would counter the threat to giant recording companies posed by software like Napster and Gnutella—something Singapore's by-the-rules technocrats would surely appreciate.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

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