Malaysian tech marvel
By JACK CHUA
In our data-driven world, USB (universal serial bus) storage devices like pendrives, thumb drives or flash drives are a common spectacle.
However, many Malaysians would be surprised to find that the inventor of the pendrive is a Malaysian. Pua Khein Seng, or K.S. Pua, as he prefers to be called, hails from Sekinchan, Selangor.
He was born in 1974 to parents of a modest background, and completed his schooling at Pin Hwa High School. At the age of 19, he began his degree in electrical and control engineering at Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.
After founding Phison Electronics in November 2000, at the tender age of 27, Pua made his mark in the (information technology) IT industry by creating the pendrive.
His invention was truly groundbreaking as earlier data storage devices like floppy disks had become impractical due to their limited storage capacity.
Although USB storage devices had already been researched and manufactured in Israel and the United States, Pua came up with the first single chip USB flash storage device – an advancement over the earlier and more cumbersome multi-chip designs.
The new product, dubbed the “pen-drive”, was not only much smaller and capable of storing larger amounts of data, but cheaper to produce, hence rendering earlier storage devices obsolete.
Today, his company is one of the leading producers of NAND memory circuits in the world – making it to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Tech 100 List of top performing tech companies.
Pua’s story is an excellent lesson on how one can succeed by being able to spot – and pounce on – opportunities in the current marketplace of ideas. Pua’s success as an entrepreneur and inventor is not only a testament of Malaysia’s capabilities of producing talented world-changing individuals, but also an example that we fellow Malaysians can identify with and learn from.
Based on a closer look at Pua’s biography, here are some takeaway points for an aspiring entrepreneur:
1. Others will not immediately recognise your potential; proving yourself to the right people is key
Pua’s journey has not been smooth sailing. He failed to get a place in Malaysian public universities, forcing him to look for choices abroad, and finally making it to Chiao Tung University.
Not being financially well-off, he had to work part-time during his three years studying in Taiwan to pay his way through university, receiving NT$80 (RM8) per hour.
He also almost declined pursuing a Masters due to the financial burden of having to prepare and sit for the entrance examinations. He was later exempted due to a new ruling that allowed graduates with exceptional grades to continue their studies without taking the examination.
It was in Chiao Tung University that his talents were noticed by his teachers. Having received his Masters, he continued to work as a researcher developing memory controllers (with a monthly salary of NT$5,000) under one of his alma mater’s professors who later started his own company.
However, things started falling apart when the heightening office politics and internal bickering forced him to leave the company. Undaunted by this major setback, his skills and determination did not go unnoticed and he was later offered a leading role in a spin-off company.
This promising new beginning turned sour when the investors who had promised NT$30mil, only offered NT$1mil. At the time, shareholders were doubtful of start-ups. They refused to offer the financial backing that Pua and his partners sorely needed.
In desperation, Pua and his colleagues struggled to rack up NT$6mil from relatives, friends and their personal savings.
This saw the genesis of Phison Electronics in November 2000 – the name was derivative of “five person”, representing its five founders. Its debut product was a patented 5-in-1 card reader. Their famous pendrive debuted in 2002. By then, Phison had impressed big names in the industry such as Toshiba and M-Systems, which invested in Phison’s later projects.
2. Great discoveries are made by struggling, not by epiphany
We constantly hear legends of how great discoveries were made with a sudden flicker of inspiration. Legend tells us that Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head; forgetting to mention the years he spent perfecting the mathematics required for his theory of gravitation.
In reality, innovation requires long, careful study, while continuously adding to past knowledge of how things were done. Pua acquired advanced learning in integrated circuits not only from his professors, but also through his research work at Chiao Tung and the practical application of his work in his professor’s company.
Working as an engineer under his professor, Pua was dispatched to Japan and South Korea, where he gained indispensable exposure in the international technological scene.
From his entry to university at age 19, he took about eight years before he got his big breakthrough with his pendrive invention at age 27.
He has stated that he makes perfectionism and determination his personal axioms – striving to get things right everyday and being patient in achieving results. He has also chosen a field that currently produces high-demand products, making his specific expertise invaluable.
3. One can see further ahead by standing on the shoulders of giants
The years and effort it takes to master any field is easy to understand once we
realise that inventions are built upon existing ideas, being innovative modifications of previous innovations. The first patented USB flash drive was invented by a team of researchers for the Israeli company M-Systems in 1999.
Even then, Trek Technology and Netac Technology, of Singapore and China respectively, claimed similar patent rights. Having studied past designs and possessing extensive knowledge of building circuits, Phison accepted a partnership with an Australian company to come up with a better product.
The single-chip USB flash controller was born, employing a sleeker, less cumbersome and more cost-effective design.
When filing the patent, Pua named it the “pendrive”, due to the ubiquity of the word “pen” in everyday usage.
4. There is no end-point to achievement
His invention of the pendrive is not the “happily-ever-after” of his journey. More challenges were to come, as other tech companies realised what Phison was capable of. Pua seeks to keep up the competitive spirit as can be seen in Phison’s recent activities.
Phison’s recent break into the market for NAND flash memory (found in smart mobile devices) is proof of its ongoing innovative vitality.
NAND memory components such as solid-state drives (SSD) and eMMC controllers are now a thriving industry with the tremendous growth in the smartphone and tablet market.
Phison has not only hopped on the bandwagon of producing these components but has bested many of its competitors. In 2011, 556 million units of NAND flash controller were shipped by Phison, achieving revenue of more than US$1bil (RM3.3bil) that year.
5. Success is not the result of a sole genius
Phison’s success also has another ingredient – its employees. His success is not a one-man show as Phison has around 500 to 600 employees, more than 300 of whom are engineers. He recently opened Phisontech Centre, a Malaysian branch, in the Northern Corridor Technology Development Centre (NTDC) in Bayan Lepas, Penang.
His admiration for Malaysian engi- neers, conducive governmental policies and doubts about intellectual property theft when setting up business in China were primary motivations for this choice.
He places great emphasis on trustworthiness, teamwork and timely execution of tasks to meet the increasingly competitive market. Part of Phison’s success comes from its ability to recruit and manage talent that is suitable for the job.