When he was a young man, Ge Hailin was planting rice in a Chinese village farm one day as part of his “work experience” and he found the job tiring.
“At that time, there was no electricity or power. So I thought, one day I would invent a machine that could plant automatically,” says the Shanghai-born, now Dr Ge Hailin, a renowned materials scientist with a passion for creating products with practical applications.
“Later on, it was not my invention but someone else’s. Still, my mind is like that. I always have that kind of thinking. My dream has always been to make something that can be beneficial for the world.”
Ge has been able to fulfill this dream by researching and developing membrane technology. It’s a process to separate mixtures with membranes functioning like a filter and is a critical component in wastewater management. His area of specialization has become increasingly important amid the rapid urbanization and industrialization in Asia in recent decades as well as the effects of climate changes, which have made water security a key issue in many countries.
As chief executive officer and executive director of Singapore-listed Memstar Technology, Ge is instrumental in seeing his products through to the market. These include widely used polyvinylidene fluoride hollow-fiber membranes, which have a myriad of applications, such as in pressurized membrane modules used in wastewater treatment in industries, as well as in water purifiers for domestic and commercial use. Memstar is one of the few manufacturers in the world producing the specialty material.
Ge lived and was educated in China right through to his Master’s degree. He graduated from the Wuxi Institute of Light Industry in 1977 and obtained a Master’s in chemical engineering from the East China University of Science and Technology in 1982. Later in the decade, he was awarded a scholarship by Australia’s Wollongong University to undertake a doctorate in chemistry. He completed his PhD in 1990 and engaged in post-doctoral work in Australia.
Shortly after that, Singapore Economic Development Board (SEDB) came knocking on his door. He was offered a job as a senior research fellow at the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research in its chemical processes group. He later took on a broader research mandate as a section head at the Productivity and Standards Board, now known as Spring Singapore.
SEDB was keen to get Ge to plant his roots in Singapore.
“Even before I came to Singapore, my permanent residency had been approved,” says Ge, who has remained a permanent resident of the city state since. “Singapore has wonderful food and an excellent culture that is very mixed. It’s also safe. You don’t worry about being robbed. Finally, it provides a very good platform to do business.”
In the late 1990s, Ge was considering a research specialization. He saw that the authorities in Singapore were very keen to develop their own water sources in order to be less dependent on water supply from neighboring Malaysia. This piqued his interest.
“I thought water would be a more interesting area to go into,” he says. It was a prescient decision because Singapore water authorities were at the cusp of introducing NEWater — potable water derived from sewage — to help reinforce water security on the island.
In 1997, he founded his own company, HW Electrochem Technology, focusing on the development of functional materials and membrane technology for environmental and water treatment applications. In 2005, Ge helped to establish Memstar and it started trading on the Singapore bourse in October 2007 after a successful reverse takeover of a troubled media production company called MediaStream Limited. Ge and Memstar’s executive chairperson, Pan Shuhong, now hold about 50 percent of the company.
Memstar’s listing came against the backdrop of a burgeoning water sector in Singapore. Helped by initiatives like NEWater, Singapore’s water and wastewater management capabilities had steadily gained in prominence from the late 1990s. Memstar has two membrane manufacturing plants in China — in Guangzhou and Mianyang. Its manufacturing capacity is currently about 3 million sq m a year.
Ge says the company hopes to expand its capacity to 5 million sq m a year, depending on the demand for the products.
In the last few years, the company has sought to diversify its income stream away from membrane supply. In late 2010, it won four transfer-operate-transfer (TOT) projects in Hebei, Henan and Fujian provinces in China to treat municipal and industrial wastewater. This was followed by another TOT award in Hebei.
One of the main purposes of investing in projects in China is to showcase the use of membrane technology. China’s commitment to beefing up its water infrastructure is a positive for Memstar.
Demand for Memstar’s membranes could also be fuelled by an original-equipment manufacture agreement it signed with Hydranautics, a US-based subsidiary of Japan’s Nitto Denko Corporation, last October. Under the deal, Memstar will supply high-performance hollow-fiber membrane products to Hydranautics, a global leader in water treatment membrane technology.
“Their network is worldwide,” Ge says. “Recently, we have had products that go everywhere because of them. They will bring us into the world market and add to our strength in the Southeast Asian and China markets.”
Ge believes water will remain a long-term issue causing serious problems all over the world, in both developed and developing countries. In developing countries, urbanization will tend to deplete clean water sources. Water treatment facilities will continue to be needed in many countries to reinforce water security.
The treatment of wastewater from factories has tended to lag behind the pace of industrialization, resulting in water pollution.
“In manufacturing, wastewater treatment is often a cost for business,” he explains. “It doesn’t create revenue. So most people don’t pay attention to it initially. People will pay more attention to something that can make money rather than cost money. That’s wrong. We need to pay attention to the environment. We need to budget for this in our businesses and we need to do something about this along with our industrial development.”
His reminiscences about his own childhood in China in the 1960s and 1970s highlight this predicament.
“When I was young, there was no industrialization. It was very peaceful and the water was clean. If you went to the countryside, you could drink water from a river. But after China opened up for industrialization, things changed. Water is a big problem now.”
And he’s doing something about it, while building his company.
CEO and Executive Director, Memstar Technology
2007: Memstar Technology lists on SGX-Sesdaq
2005: Establishes Memstar Technology
1997: Founds HW Electrochem Technology
1990: Completes PhD in chemistry at Wollongong University
Whom do you admire most?
I admire visionaries who can rally people around a noble cause, like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.
My achievement is that I can convert my knowledge into a real product.
From the very beginning, my biggest mistake has been my stubbornness. Sometimes, as a die-hard scientist, you have a vision and want to achieve that vision. Maybe I have been too stubborn. When that happens, you lose your flexibility. Having said that, being stubborn can be a plus as it gives you the conviction to achieve your goal.