Asking the right questions for a sustainable future

18 September 2015

Throughout his career spanning academia, engineering, and strategic business development, Croucher scholar, Dr Wai Lo (1991 Croucher Scholarship, 1992 Croucher Fellowship), has been driven by a curiosity and desire to understand the implications of scientific achievements on everyday life.

Higher emphasis on applied research in the scientific community of the late 1980s meant that little funds were available for pure research- at this time, Lo was a doctoral student, looking to work on the more fundamental aspects of superconductivity such as interactions of magnetic flux with crystal defects and grain boundaries. He credits the Croucher Foundation’s support for allowing the thorough academic exploration and technological experimentation which has formed the foundation of his later work. “At Cambridge, I had the chance to develop a deep understanding of superconductivity, contributing to understanding and theory, and start to think about what the use could be, and who would benefit.” While early product prototypes were successful, marketability was low due to the competition from conventional electrical technologies. Questions about practical application prompted Lo to move from science theory to the semiconductor industry, quickly emerging as the cutting-edge micro-electronics industry for technology and products.

It was both a natural progression and a conscious shift. “In academia, you focus on how the world works and why, hoping that there is a future application for your work. In the technology industry, the motivation is to find a home for your knowledge, focusing on the product and market research.”

As the senior director of strategic business development at Hanwha, one of the largest business conglomerates in South Korea, Lo singles out his current work in clean technology as a culmination of his academic and industry experience. He is quick to clarify that clean technologies are more than simply clean energy generation and low waste- major aspects are improved energy distribution, storage and customised usage, requiring an integrated approach drawing on the intersection of several sectors and technology. “Energy consumption is ubiquitous but unique,” Lo says, “households, businesses, and offices all use energy, but in very different patterns, which calls for efficient energy generation, storage, and distribution solutions.” Smart energy systems strive to integrate energy consumption trends and predictive mapping to improve energy production, distribution and storage systems. This informs decisions such as whether to generate energy locally or at another site, to align with individual behaviour and consumption patterns that may be dependent on real-time environmental parameters, including weather, lighting and air conditioning needs throughout the day, and other factors. The smartness of the integrated system model is important because it involves learning from the past, checking and predicting usage data, and providing real-time adjustments to account for shifting needs. This involves artificial intelligence, data analytics, electronic and software capabilities, and an interdisciplinary understanding of behaviours. No one company can yet manage the whole system technologies and processes. In many cases, there are no readily available solutions among established product companies for the requirements either.

In his role, Lo is responsible for matching technology and business, with an eye to integrating all the disparate functions, and searching for new technology and components to create a seamless central management system. This involves developing business models that will sustain such products economically in the marketplace, strategic investments and partnerships. As a holder of multiple patents himself, he enjoys the intellectual challenge always present in clean technologies. Whereas his previous work focused solely on product development, he is now charged with finding the gaps between products, and directing generation and sharing of intellectual property, frequently scouting start-ups who are developing innovative solutions. For example, one way to increase the value of energy storage assets while using them for the end users consumption purposes is to use the assets for servicing the transmission and distribution companies by providing power at peak hours and stabilising the grids when there are high power demands. This requires a lot of innovations not only on the business model side, but also new intellectual properties on how to consumption data mining, demand trends prediction, and asset statute management. “Connecting these gaps requires developing new intellectual property, which means I get to ask all the interesting questions,” Lo quips.

Lo also notes the necessary continuation of collaboration between academia and industry. While he appreciates the fundamental need to understand theory and ask why something happens, he predicts an increased interest in condition-oriented application, synthesising the research across diverse fields. Human behaviour is inherently interdisciplinary, which makes Silicon Valley particularly unique as a place where technology is combined with social sciences, physics, biology, and so on for targeted real-life applications.

Growing industry areas reflect this trend. As Lo observes, “clean technologies will continue to be in the spotlight not necessarily because of industry revenue but because of near-universal use, pollution, consumption-based problems, conservation concerns, policy, and changing behaviour trends.” Another field of particular interest is artificial intelligence, as it combines hardware, software, and different disciplines. Just over the last few years, cellphones, computers, and other devices that can answer our questions or give direction have become fairly standard. The same predictive technology central to Lo’s work in clean technologies is again present here, as this ‘smartness’ is dependent on the ability to predict what you need or want as an answer, with a version of emotional understanding. Medicine, a perennial industry heavyweight, has also embraced predictive technology as we contend with the unique issues of living longer. 

Lo finishes, “technology has never been a stand-alone field, but we must continue to ask the right questions across the disciplines to create sustainable, impactful strategies for social issues—we are in the future.”

Dr Wai Lo won a Croucher Scholarship in 1991 and a Fellowship in 1992 for his doctoral research on superconductivity at Girton College, University of Cambridge. Lo completed his undergraduate studies in Physics and Mathematics at the Hong Kong Baptist College in 1986, and received his Ph.D in Applied Physics and Materials from the University of Cambridge in 1992. He continued his research on electronic and superconducting materials research and engineering as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Houston. Entering into the industries in 2001, Lo worked with such companies as Spansion/AMD and Silexos before joining Hanwha in 2011.

To view Dr Wai Lo’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.