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The Peak Power List 2018: Wong Ann Chai

No water goes to waste with this company's cutting-edge technology.

CO-FOUNDER AND MANAGING DIRECTOR 

YEAR ESTABLISHED: 2013

WHAT IT DOES: A water technology start-up that produces its own 3-D printed membranes to treat wastewater.


The river was so filthy that it was opaque and left a sticky residue upon contact. But for a remote village in Indonesia, it had been the only drinking source since time immemorial.

So imagine their joy when home-grown water treatment start-up Nano Sun applied its water filter technologies which led to clean drinking water. It was the first time the villagers had seen and tasted something that most of us take for granted. That was one of the earliest projects Nano Sun took on, and also one that holds sentimental value.

“Look at the ladies dancing,” co-founder and managing director Wong Ann Chai says, as he shows us a video of villagers rejoicing. “Life expectancy there is 50 to 60 years old, and the primary cause of death is cancer,” he says, hoping that clean water will help to bring down the this statistic.

Since its setup in 2013, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) spin-off has grown from strength to strength. Its customisable water treatment systems have been commissioned by governments and companies in Singapore, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. Revenue is set to hit $10 million by the first half of next year, and it aims to launch its IPO in the next three years. Nano Sun’s co- founder, associate professor Darren Sun of NTU’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, drives research, while Wong, an ex-investment banker, takes care of business development.

Investors are paying attention. “We’ve recently got a lot of offers from French and German companies,” says Wong, 51. “But there’s so much more that the company can do and grow before we want to consider them.”

Like the fully automated 3-D membrane printing plant it launched in July. The new self-cleaning membranes are said to treat wastewater five times faster, require less maintenance and are more resistant to biofouling (the accumulation of microorganisms on wet surfaces). “We have a 15,000 sq ft space to support our mass production, and we expect to need more space in the next 18 months,” says Wong.

Among the first clients to test this improved technology are a new municipal wastewater treatment plant in China that can treat up to 20 million litres of water a day (about eight Olympic-sized swimming pools) and two of Singapore’s largest semiconductor multinational companies.

In a way, Nano Sun’s growth runs parallel to Wong’s own career evolution. He served 20 years in the civil service and administrative service before deciding to, as he puts it, “take the plunge” and leave his comfort zone. Thing is, he left without a job. He was 39 and had a family of five to support. “My wife thought I was crazy. But, if you don’t throw yourself into the unknown, you won’t grow.” He soon found his groove as an investment banker at DBS and Nomura.

He came to know of Sun’s work when he was adjunct professor at NTU. “I love to build businesses. Part of the gratification comes from having clients who say, ‘let’s give you a chance’, and you make good. Having worked with tech and engineering companies as a banker, and having served as an adviser to a VC fund in the Silicon Valley, I could see the value of how we can reach a wider market locally and internationally. I want to build a local enterprise that is technology-intensive and creates high value jobs,” says Wong, who is a mechanical engineer by training.

“The earth has only 3 per cent of fresh water. We want to be part of the equation that increases that number to 6 per cent so more people can have safe and non-toxic water to use, even as industrial water continues to be discharged in growing volumes.”

IN 60 SECONDS

Being an entrepreneur has made me more “human”. In the past, I was looking on from a distance. Now I’m in the thick of things. I was even delivering mooncakes to clients!

I wish I was younger so I’d have more years to give. But, when I was younger, I knew nothing.

It pains me when engineering graduates become property agents. It’s not a glamorous work environment but we have to find a way. The Swiss and Norwegians have done it.

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CLOTHES COTTON BLAZER, FROM DUNHILL. THE REST, WONG ANN CHAI’S OWN.