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The Executive Interview: Silicon Craft Technology PCL (SET:SICT)

Silicon Craft Technology PCL (SET:SICT) Co-Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Bodin Kasemset discusses the company’s strategy and outlook in The Executive Interview (TEI) by

TEI: Please share your background and your work experience in the semiconductor industry.

I graduated my bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Engineering, Chulalongkorn University. That was the first batch of the Automotive Engineering Department. After my graduation, I pursued my master’s and doctoral degrees in Hamburg, Germany in Automotive Electronics, which was truly a dream-come-true experience for me. It was fortunate of me that the Head Professor at the laboratory where I used to work was the former Head of Research & Development at Infineon; the world’s first or second largest semiconductor company that specializes in automotive electronics. So that has earned me the opportunity to work with this professor.

When I was granted the scholarship for my doctoral degree, I had a chance to work and live in Germany for 8-9 years; from college years to my career as a researcher. After my doctoral degree graduation, I did my post-doctoral degree in electronic sensors, which is in the semiconductor sensor family. My role has been orientated towards design and development. There are certain products that I designed and developed 10-15 years ago that have just been launched as end products today. This is something that is quite exciting.

After completing my post-doctoral degree, I joined with Philips Semiconductor, or what is known as NXP Semiconductor today. Philips is a home electrical appliance manufacturer. I worked in the semiconductor division that manufactured chips for Philips and also supplied to other companies. I started my career at the headquarters, in the RFID business unit, so my experience has been in RFID security and identification-related products since 2006. My roles were both designer and project manager, where I was the only Thai person and being able to speak German was necessary to work with customers. I got to capitalize my technical knowledge and project management skills, to understand the flow of business operations by coordinating directly with customers. I think my experience during those 4-5 years in this business have earned me the understanding of the flows and processes of the RFID business significantly.

In 2011, Philips Semiconductor sent me back to Thailand to set up a Research & Development center, as they believed that my understanding in the business and the technology would be a helpful contribution, as the focus in Thailand’s operations was solely based on production back then. About half a year after coming back, I got promoted to be a Senior Manager, responsible for a number of areas; business flow, project management, and internal audit. I also had an opportunity to work at NXP Semiconductor in the Philippines for almost 2 years. I spent most of my time firefighting business issues and the collapsing R&D operations due to the change in the management team. The R&D Department had always depended upon expatriates all along and so they needed someone to help set up the operations and solve the problems.

About after 2 years in the Philippines, I came back to Thailand and continued the R&D operations in the customer facing side of things. I had an opportunity to work with customers, get audited by customers and received unusual requirements. I also learned how to approach customers, develop business models and step up to the corporate level management. The semiconductor business is categorized into 2 major parts; wafer and back-end technology. I advanced my career from being the Head of Back-End R&D to Head of Business Unit, responsible for the revenue of 4 billion USD. I had about 100 staff members under my supervision, working in 8-9 countries worldwide. It was considered a good opportunity for a Thai person to work in the management level and understand managerial approaches in a large-scale organization. I learned to work with customers and executives, learn the in-depth business dealings with large organizations. This has served as my important foundation and knowledge base in every dimension of the semiconductor business.

I think that my experience of 4-5 years at Philips Semiconductor was the key enabler that has brought me to SICT today, as I can say that those who have experiences in the RFID business and understand the procedures, customer base, customers’ production, and with similar experiences that I have, are quite rare, especially those who are Thai nationals.

TEI: What has brought you to join SICT?

I have a friend whom I met in my Executive MBA class. He owns Star Microelectronics; an assembly business that got registered in the Stock Exchange of Thailand. He wanted to set up the R&D Department at the time, as they would get requirements from customers most of the time but did not focus too much on proactive development of the products. In order to build the right capabilities, we need to forecast future trends, and so my friend persuaded me to join the team. I had a lot on my hands at that time; my full-time job and some side hustle on the weekend. The work that I helped my friend with was the set-up of the R&D Department and recruitment of staff members.

On the managerial aspect, I contributed my strategic viewpoint on how the business should be heading towards, who should help drive the business forward. Once we recruited the CEO and COO who have the desired competencies to join our team, my role was considered completed. To be honest, operations are not my passion, as my whole working life has always been in the business side. I like meeting with customers, working with them and my passion is more towards R&D.

At that time, I got to know Khun Apinetr, who is a professor and knows my friend. He introduced me to be the technological advisor at SICT, which is a lot of fun. The founder was of the view that I should be ready to work here full-time, so we discussed the matter in early 2020, which is how I got to be here.

TEI: What made you decide to join SICT?

If you ask me why I decided to join SICT, the reason is that I have proven that Thai people can step up to be the key person in large organizations, and I am a living proof of that, when I got to be the number one in the R&D operations at NXP Semiconductor, which was considered the peak of my career that a Thai person can achieve. So I thought that if we could capitalize our knowledge and skills to develop this company, how far can we go?

One of the reasons that technological start-ups in Thailand rarely make it is because the foundation is not strong enough. SICT has been in the business for 17-18 years, and we have a strong R&D team. But if we want to see an exponential growth from 300 million Baht to 600 million Baht, we need to think of which direction we should be heading to. My dream is to see the Company grow by 10 times, or at least 2 times in the next 3-4 years. That is when I came to analyze the Company’s strengths, weaknesses and I also need to reflect upon myself of the values I can contribute if I were to join with the Company.

My previous experiences in the RFID business and SICT’s business quite match with one another; the knowledge in product development, procedures, customer understanding, and customers’ RFID applications. We work collaboratively with customers in partnership, trusting each other. The company founder asked me to supervise the commercial side of the business, the market and new product ideas. If I need deep technical knowledge in chip design, I can always consult with highly skilled team members, and many of whom have PhD degree, to discuss whether my ideas are feasible, or whether we can do better than what the market already has.

Our intention is not to sell at low prices. If you look at our financial statement, you will see that our gross profit margin is somehow different from that of the service business. Since we are an asset-light company, we sell ideas and knowledge. We must be able to identify our strengths that exceed that of others, to determine how we can compete with Chinese manufacturers, who mostly compete with price, but performance is another issue.

Nowadays, we compete with NXP Semiconductor, Infineon or Texas Instrument. The reason we are able to compete in certain markets is because our products are genuinely of good quality, which means that Thai people are full of potential, and we are able to do what westerners do. And sometimes we are capable of doing better than them. We also registered patents to prevent our ideas from getting developed further. But if our ideas are interesting to someone, we are willing to sell them too. That is why I am interested in this Company, and I want to see how far Thai people can go. With my doctoral degree and personal passion in technology and innovation, I think that my interests and the Company’s vibes are aligned, so we got to work together.

TEI: How has your global experience benefited the management of SICT’s business towards strong and sustainable growth?

I was fortunate that I had a chance to work at NXP Semiconductor in Thailand for a short while. That was the period of time that I had to adapt myself quite a lot, and the thought of going back abroad also crossed my mind. Workplace politics was one thing, but you are likely to experience it somewhere else too, though it might be less intense than here in Thailand. I think that the advantage of working here is that it is the headquarters. I had experiences working at a number of headquarters before, for instance, in Texas, the Netherlands and Germany. I think that organizational culture varies from places to places. The value I have contributed quite significantly is my knowledge shared to sales team, from my diverse experiences working with different people, different ways to approach them, and different techniques to do so. Each culture does not have its own drawbacks, we just need to learn and adapt. It was fortunate of me that I got to work with diverse teams and customers, with the exception of Africa where I have never been involved in before. This should have made my team learn from me. Apart from the Co-CEO role, I also supervise the business and sales & marketing, so I have a chance to provide consultation with my team on how they should prepare the information prior to meeting with customers. They will usually send the information to me to review first, and that leads to coaching opportunities. I think that over the course of the previous year that I have been working here, our team has adjusted their ways of working in terms of speed of execution, working mindset, as well as English conversation. I think these are the values I can contribute to the Company.

TEI: Regarding SICT’s view on the IC or microchip industries compared to the global market, how can we enhance our potential to compete in the international level?

As a matter of fact, we are already operating in the international level. Our 4 core businesses are Animal ID, Access control/reader, Automotive and Advanced NFC, with 99% of the business being overseas customers, which is somehow aligned with my expertise. However, Thailand is an uncovered market, and Thai people still view technology as cost, rather than as value-added features to the product that can be the selling point. This is the key difference. Technology can eventually drive costs down. The viewpoint on cost of ownership is more receptive. But at the end of the day, there is no right or wrong. The first thing that comes to mind for Thai companies is procurement, but in some other countries, especially large organizations, they see it as the total package of the product; what exactly the added features mean for the product. We are not just producing standard products and distribute them as they are, but what we do is that we discuss with our key accounts, who are specialists in their industries, and we share with them of our execution plan. Recently, I met with the Vice President in R&D of the number one company in the animal industry. We shared our development plan of 3-4 new products that should be launched in the next few years. The customer is very interested to discuss deeper into the details. I think this is how we do technical marketing on what we have studied, and this kind of approach is as if we are part of the customers’ company. We need to see ourselves as part of the customers’ growth, to have the willpower that our customer will be the number one in their business, with higher market share and revenue. If we can see it this way, our thinking or product development mindset will immediately solve customers’ problems. This is because we understand what the customers will use our products for, for instance, how should we design a chip and how should it be positioned to serve the customer’s applications? If we have this kind of thinking, we can outpace our competitors. This is the thinking approach of overseas companies. If we can think like this, our competitors can as well, depending on who can come up with the ideas faster. Partnership is critical in this kind of business; either with customers or suppliers, as well as universities, institutes, or R&D centers. These are the most important partnerships in my point of view.

TEI: As you regard SICT as the Data Shuttle Company, please elaborate further of the background or its meaning.

Technology is the enabler of the applications or use cases to materialize. For instance, IoT is the topic that has been widely discussed in the past few years. When I was the Senior Director in IoT R&D at NXP Semiconductor, we talked about it a great deal. Sometimes it took months to develop a product portfolio. On the other hand, IoT is also a fancy technical terms that simply means the connection of things with the Internet system. This is because the Internet connection has become faster and devices have become ‘smarter’. Our true objective is not to be an application-based company, but instead a data shuttle company; essentially the transmitter of data. Everybody talks about cloud, which is something we cannot see, but we know exists. Hence, we serve as the data shuttle that sends the data up to the cloud, allowing those who do data analytics, software analytics or marketing analytics to process the data, to do marketing, to develop new products from the data we contribute. Our focus is not on communication data, but instead on different types of applications. For instance, our focus is not on WIFI, but rather on wireless application that can further enable other utilization.

If our company has a hundred years of history like some other companies, we might have a more diverse products than them today. However, we have been a start-up before and our success over the past 17-18 years has been built upon wireless communication using RFID as the connector between devices or applications and the cloud or data server, which is our expertise. We hope to be the data shuttle that transmits data from customers’ devices or from animals up to the cloud to enable more value-added applications. I think our role is about bringing these data to contribute some positive changes to humanity, and I want us all to be proud that Thai people are capable of doing this. Despite many overseas companies that are in the RFID industry, but they definitely know SICT’s expertise in animal ID or after-market automotive parts industry, as we are a big player in these areas. As for NFC, major competitors are aware of our presence as well, since some large companies also imitate our features. With that being said, the challenge in launching new products is that we need to build our own ecosystem, and we cannot build it as fast as large companies can. But once we can do it, those large companies are likely to follow suit.

TEI: COVID-19 has forced changes and transitions in several industries, including supply chain shortage globally. Has SICT been affected by these changes or are there any opportunities arising from them?

We started to encounter the supply shortage in the fourth quarter of 2020. This crisis has led to an immediate requirement of laptops, cameras for video conference, and speakers, which need chips and Bluetooth, to connect several speakers. We need a lot of chips for these teleconferencing devices. This had called for a rapid surge of demand, and the whole world was not ready to accommodate this abrupt change. We did not bring in advanced technology because we wanted to achieve cost optimization in order to secure the lowest cost in product development, so advanced technology was not that necessary, also due to the fact that our device is quite small in size. All in all, I think COVID-19 has caused an abrupt demand surge, while the supply in the market cannot keep up. Everyone has to wait as production capacity is full everywhere. They might have to wait until the middle of 2022. This is the thing that I have said before, that we should start to see signs of improvement in the second half of 2022.

Though our sales bookings have increased, the supply issue has affected us as well. However, we have developed a business contingency plan, which is typical of large companies, where I got to capitalize my experience from when I was in the business contingency plan team. When I sensed the formation of crisis in the fourth quarter of 2020, I started planning right away, determining which products or procedures needed second sources of supply or outsourcing. The impact can be realized to a certain degree due to higher demand, so we needed to manage lead time and delay some delivery as we got delayed by our suppliers too. This is the issue commonly encountered worldwide. Some overseas manufacturers chose to increase prices in order to manage cost and delivery lead time. But I value long-term partnership more. We always treat our long-standing customers in a special way, helping each other out. I think that the 80:20 rule can apply here; 20% of our customers have strong relationship with us. We do not increase their prices without prior discussion or if it is really necessary, we need to discuss first. Mutual relationship management and business plan management are really important. We need to understand that customers want to increase their revenue, and if we cannot facilitate customers’ business continuity, their revenue will be affected, and consequently our revenue will be impacted too. The impact is on both sides. If we treat customers as partners, the relationships will remain positive and we will have our customers’ understanding. The rest is just goal management on a daily basis.

TEI: Are we going to see any different or new changes from SICT the next year?

I have to admit that the time it takes to develop semiconductor-related products is at least about 2 years, or at most about 5-10 years, or maybe longer. Products that take about 2 years to develop are mostly the derivatives of existing products. It might not sound very exciting but there are some added features. Of course we are going to launch some new products but I cannot say what they are at this point. I can only say that it is a new business line that will serve the applications that we have not yet touched on. We plan to invest the fund raised from the IPO in the R&D activities that will increase the advancement in the sensor business, which is not only limited to medical sensors but also environmental or food sensors, emphasizing on advanced innovation NFC. The other portion of the fund will be invested in the studies of something new, which our competitors will know right away if I say it. It is something that has been talked about but has not gained much of a popularity, but it will be a key differentiator from available products in the market as it consumes less energy but has higher efficiency, and also reduces waste. A good number of new products will be launched next year, though our focus this year is to meet the target according to the milestones, meeting delivery due date as much as possible. The next year will be the year of new product development, reaping the harvests we have made, and new product marketing. Speaking of which, I would appreciate your good wishes for our team and support for Thai people’s products too.

TEI: How is the growth outlook of the IC or microchip businesses, in terms of innovation for new products?

I believe that our mobile phones are going to change the world. Almost everyone has NFC phone, meaning that we have ‘readers’ with us at all times. For instance, when we buy a certain product that comes with a warranty, instead of scanning the QR code and filling out the information, we can just use chips and all we need to do is authenticate our identity on our mobile phones from the chips attached to the products. When you scan and verify, you will be automatically linked to the product’s warranty system right away. This will solve several pain points, i.e. in logistics. We can enable a temper detection to determine whether our parcels have been opened, as the data will be sent directly to the cloud, allowing manufacturers, vendors and buyers to know immediately. In my opinion, I think this is the technology that will make changes and I am very excited about it. This has been widely used overseas, for instance, sensors are attached to wine bottles, tracking whether the bottle has been refilled. The application in Thailand has not yet reached that point but I hope we will one day. With our increased exposure and growth, we should be able to market the products and solution more intensively, but now we aim to focus on the global market first. Our aspiration is to expand the business as much as we can.

TEI: From now on, how would you drive both SICT and the microchip industry personnel in Thailand for future growth?

At the end, it goes back to my decision to join SICT. I want to take part in developing younger generations and Thai people to be able to think differently, in terms of innovation, media, knowledge, finance or technology. I want to see those in engineering or science backgrounds to have opportunities to work in a great company like this, being able to capitalize their knowledge to get hands-on experiences. I think this is the important stage for younger people who wish to be microchip designers to have a great place to work in Thailand. This is considered a way of building brand for Thai people all at the same time.

About The Executive Q&A Series

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