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Salesforce joins the ranks of AI research centers in Singapore

Written by Zhixin Tan Published on   4 mins read

Salesforce, Alibaba, Grab: opportunities abound for AI research in Singapore

Cloud-based enterprise software company Salesforce has opened an artificial intelligence (AI) research center in Singapore with the promise to train up to 100 postgraduates over a three year period, the Straits Times reported last week.

This research center is Salesforce’s first outside of its R&D hub in Palo Alto, California. It’s set to start admitting students from three local universities in a few months. Admitted postgraduates will undergo training in various fields of AI, including deep learning, machine learning, and natural language processing.

Company-backed research centers are somewhat of a mushrooming trend in Singapore, which wants to be a global player in frontier technologies such as AI.

The city-state’s government is devoting resources to make this a reality. It announced in March that it would inject SGD 500 million (USD 369 million) to research in artificial intelligence and other areas.

Strong state support, geographical connectivity, renowned universities, as well as the diversity of population are reasons why big tech companies are establishing research centers on the island-state. Salesforce is one in the ranks of many others.

Alibaba-NTU Joint Global Research Institute 

Alibaba also recently set up its first joint research institute outside of China in Singapore. The research center, a collaboration with Nanyang Technological University (NTU), focuses on developing AI applications in areas such as health care, smart homes, and urban transportation. Alibaba hopes to leverage on NTU’s AI expertise to address challenges in its business ecosystem.

Both Alibaba and NTU pledged to invest millions of dollars per year over the next five years to fund various research projects. Alibaba refused to comment on concrete numbers, but revealed that its funding comes from the USD 15 billion R&D program called Damo Academy it announced in 2017. Damo Academy is meant to help Alibaba create new technologies.

The joint research institute, located on NTU’s campus offers a PhD program called “Alibaba Talent Program” to nurture R&D talents in AI and other areas such as Internet of Things, Cloud Computing, Optimization, Data analytics, etc.

Grab-NUS AI Lab

Grab, a Southeast Asia-native tech giant, announced a new R&D center in Singapore this January. The in-house R&D center will be Grab’s largest to date. Grab has several similar centers around the world, but its first lab dedicated exclusively to AI research was established in July 2018 — through a collaboration with the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The ride-hailing unicorn partnered with NUS to launch a SGD 6 million AI lab to develop solutions that would make urban cities more liveable. The research lab harnesses Grab’s abundance of stored data as well as NUS’ research expertise in the field of AI to devise solutions to improve efficiency and reliability of transportation in Southeast Asia. Upcoming areas of interest are mobility and liveability.

Like the Alibaba-NTU collaboration, the Grab-NUS AI Lab will also contribute to nurturing local tech talents by offering a PhD training program to students enrolled at NUS.

Yitu Tech 

Chinese AI startup Yitu launched its first Southeast Asian R&D center in Singapore this January with a commitment to deepen relationships with the local AI community. The center will devote itself on developing AI solutions to improve quality of life for people in the area of healthcare and infrastructure.

The newly launched research center currently houses 30 staffs comprising of AI algorithm researchers, system researchers, hardware experts, and experienced engineers. The company said it plans to triple its R&D staff count within the next three years to accelerate AI innovation.

Yitu is exploring collaboration opportunities with local partners, such as with Nanyang Polytechnic to develop industry-relevant AI training courses as well as organizing the Yitu Hack-AI-thon that had students from NUS, SMU, NTU, and SUTD participating.


Founded in 2012 by two classmates from University of Massachusetts, DataRobot is named one of the world’s top 100 AI companies by CB Insights with more than 400 employees around the world, half of which are established data scientists. DataRobot specializes in AI applications for fraud detection, dynamic pricing for businesses, and loan default predictions.

DataRobot decided invest SGD 15 million to set up an advanced R&D center in Singapore in 2017, the same year it closed its USD 67.18 million Series C round led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA). The company said it will hire approximately 50 employees in 2019, focusing on technical experts and data scientists.

Dyson Technology Center

Dyson, a brand well-known for its vacuums and home appliances is now looking at machine learning, software development and AI. It opened a SGD 587 million R&D center in Singapore’s Science Park in 2017 because of the city-state’s abundance of world-class engineering and supply chain talent.

The company wants to tap on the AI ecosystem here in Singapore to research and develop core technologies which Dyson could eventually engineer into innovative products so it can remain competitive in the industry.

Accenture says that effective AI applications have the capacity to double Singapore’s growth rates and increase productivity by 41% by 2035, underlining the importance of AI in helping Singapore stay economically competitive. The country’s AI landscape is also getting increasingly active with startups like Scry, Sense Infosys, and Tabsquare. Research centers with backing from the various big tech companies have the potential advantage of bringing researchers access to vast data troves, a necessity for advanced AI research.

Editor: Nadine Freischlad


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