Hyflux: Keeping Asia’s water flowing with innovation

Founder, group chief executive officer, and executive chairman of Hyflux, Olivia Lum. Photo credit: Hyflux

With climate change, industrial pollution, and population growth all jeopardising the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption, nations around the world are stepping up on their efforts to realise a secure supply of water.

Singapore, a little island nation with minimal and constrained freshwater resources, is one such unlikely contender in this quest. But, through sheer grit and determination, along with a healthy dose of innovation, the city-state has beaten the odds to showcase its self-reliance even in the event one of its key water sources – or “Four National Taps” in government vernacular – runs dry.

And the small nation is confident that even when its water agreements with Malaysia expire in 2061, and demand doubles to an estimated 800 million gallons (three billion litres) of water per day, it will be able to remain self-reliant in terms of water.

So how did the “Little Red Dot” – as Singapore is fondly nicknamed – achieve that seemingly unattainable goal of water independence? The answer is in the country’s two other national taps: Desalinated water, and high-grade reclaimed water, also known as NEWater in local jargon.

Together, these two sources make up some 55 per cent of Singapore’s total water supply. By 2060, the government has projected that they will be able to meet up to 85 per cent of demand.

Over the past ten years, Singapore’s expertise in high technology interventions much like desalination and water recycling have earned the tiny nation the titles of “global hydrohub” and “leader of the water revolution”, where business opportunities and expertise in water technologies are both abundant and internationally renowned and sought.

As of 2015, there were around 200 water companies and 26 private research centres sprawled over the water industry’s value chain based out of Singapore. These organisations have not only bolstered Singapore’s own enviable water management skills, but also exported their skills – very much in demand – around the world to countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

But one organisation in particular has been central to Singapore’s water journey, growing alongside the determined nation – Hyflux, Singapore’s homegrown water treatment outfit.


The TuasSpring desalination facility in Singapore – designed, built, and owned by Hyflux – also boasts a gas turbine power plant that supplies electricity for the desalination process. Photo credit: Hyflux


Challenging the status quo with innovation
Although it is an international, publicly-listed company today with more than 1,000 employees to its name and generated close to S$1 billion (US$724 million) in revenue in 2016, Hyflux was founded in 1989 with S$20,000 (US$14,500) of start-up capital that founder Olivia Lum, now group executive chief officer and executive chairman, fronted.

In a recent interview with Future Ready Singapore, Lum said, “Hyflux’s dream is to improve and transform people’s lives through sustainable technology and constant innovation.”

Hyflux, then Hydrochem, in its early days was a distributor for filtration membranes, which are still used in industrial and municipal water treatment.

But as the company grew over the years, their attention soon turned to the possibility of creating its own membranes, with the belief that their technology would be able to differentiate and give them an edge over competitors. The result was the innovative Kristal hollow-fibre ultrafiltration membrane, technology that Hyflux still uses today.

Since the launch of the Kristal membranes, Hyflux has gone on to develop seven generations of the technology, and in 2001, also became Singapore’s very first publicly listed water treatment company.

In the 1990s, Hyflux began to extend its reach beyond Singapore’s borders; currently, the organisation boasts offices in China and India, and has built multiple desalination plants in nations in the Middle East and North Africa, namely Algeria, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

Now, Hyflux’s membranes are used in some of the globe’s biggest desalination facilities, like China’s Tianjin Dagang Desalination Plant and the Magtaa Desalination Plant in Algeria, among many others.

Yet, after more than 20 years and an established reputation, at Hyflux’s headquarters – the Hyflux Innovation Centre, where the company conducts their research & development (R&D) – innovation remains at the core.

“Making clean water accessible and sustainable will continue to form the core of Hyflux’s businesses for the next five years, and beyond,” Lum, who foresees numerous opportunities in Asia’s industrial and residential sectors as the region continues to undergo massive and expeditious economic, population, and urban growth, explained.

According to Lum, desalination and recycled water would aid Asia in dealing with water stresses in a way that is both cost efficient and sustainable. Furthermore, her view has been supported by increasingly draconian regulations on discharging wastewater in multiple nations, which will force companies to look to investing in treating their industrial wastewater more effectively.


The bumpy road to sweet success
With business continuing to boom and a multitude of awards and acknowledgements for entrepreneurship and innovation under its figurative belt, Hyflux is widely considered one of Singapore’s success stories.

But their path to success was not always smooth, the group executive chief officer said, though it was certainly made much easier through two key contributors: Singapore’s pro-business conducive environment for entrepreneurship and start-ups, as well as Lum’s own moxie and strategic vision for her company.

When she first started Hyflux – and selling her car and apartment in order to raise the needed start-up capital – the company had no track record to speak of, and was unable to compete with the far more established high-value manufacturing and multinational firms in the water industry and otherwise, attracted by the dozens to the opening Singaporean economy.

It was tough for a company with no track record to not only engage and hold on to talent against larger firms, but also to penetrate some competitive markets in the region.

However, the Singapore government enables homegrown enterprises to compete with larger players in the market based on merit by keeping their tenders, according to Lum, “Open and transparent, and awarded based on criteria stated in the tender documents.”

Nationwide government initiatives were a major contributor as well, Lum continued. Ranging from funding to trade missions government agencies led into potential markets beyond the borders, as well as tax schemes for entrepreneurs, backing for start-ups much like Hyflux was abundant. The push to develop and improve Singapore’s environment and water industries, the creation of an ecosystem for R&D, attractive bundles for research institutes to enter the country alongside encouragement for collaborations between said institutes, companies, and universities all benefitted Hyflux immensely.

And, the group executive chief officer shared with Future Ready Singapore, the government also placed a high priority on sophisticated water management systems and infrastructure, and water security, encouraging companies to make long-term project commitments with public-private-partnerships. In fact, in 2003, Hyflux entered into its first public-private partnership with the Public Utilities Board (PUB) through its first contract for a desalination facility.

“Such support is crucial in helping Hyflux, a global local company, remain competitive on the international stage,” Lum said.


Looking to the future
With a string of successes in the water arena, Hyflux was begun to explore possibilities beyond its current portfolio, preparing to tackle imminent trends much like energy and labour scarcity in order to remain competitive even as natural and human resources continue to grow ever-scarcer.

A shortage of manpower and economic pressures are trends that Singapore and the rest of the world will have to address and through a number of programmes, and the government is already encouraging businesses to brace for the future by adopting automation and advanced, cutting-edge manufacturing.

“Through automation of our processes, we are able to increase productivity, thereby reducing our reliance on foreign labour and eventually we will be able to upgrade our manufacturing workforce with higher skilled manpower,” Lum explained.

In the future, Lum stated, the water challenges in Singapore and Asia will not become easier – if anything, they will escalate – but simultaneously, they will also open new opportunities for expansion and innovation.

“In Singapore, we can expect an increasing demand for water by both homes and industries thanks to urbanisation and population growth,” Lum said to Future Ready Singapore in the interview. “Similarly, the demand for sustainable sources of clean water is also expected to grow across Asia and around the world.”


Sources: Future Ready Singapore, Eco-Business