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The Accidental Robot Trainer Gary Ng

Volume 4, 2016

By Charmaine N Clarke

“When I first signed on to do my PhD, I wanted to be a professor, to be in an ivory tower.  I wanted to be the one teaching students, the one with the smart glasses and the Einstein hairstyle. I thought that was actually kind of cool at that point.  But things change, right?” says Hong Kong-born Gary Ng with a mischievous chuckle.

He’s sitting across from me in my office, completely at ease as he explains how a series of coincidences took him from dreams of academia to Silicon Valley and eventually the CEIBS MBA programme in Shanghai.

While doing his PhD at University of California, Irvine in the US, Gary liked the fantasy of one day being a professor but he wasn’t thrilled about all the time he would have to spend writing papers “just for the sake of getting grants, which is a big part of the US system”. A lunchtime chat with a scientist from Exxon Mobil who had just spoken at an inorganic chemistry seminar showed Gary he had other options. “He talked about what they do in the lab, the impact their work had, the industrial processes. I was very fascinated. I told myself: OK, I’m down for industry. I’ve got to do it!” That was the end of his dreams of Einstein hair and smart glasses.

After completing his PhD he began applying for jobs all over the world. Eventually he landed an interview with a company called Freeslate, a biotech start-up in Silicon Valley. He had no idea what the company did but he nailed the interview anyway and got a job as a scientist “It was a steep learning curve,” he says of the early days. He eventually found his feet and was soon neck deep in automated robotic tools, petrochemical pharmaceutical and biologics research. For someone who had hated having to manually do lab work while doing his post-doctorate research in synthetic chemistry, the idea of training robots to do some of the work was especially appealing.

“When I was doing my PhD research, I would spend most of my time working in the lab instead of generating new ideas or talking to people; and I didn’t like that. So when I first learned about automation at Freeslate I was very, very excited. I thought: this is going to be the future! This is going to be one area that I want to dedicate my life to!” he explains. “It’s very challenging.  It’s not like you are asking a dog to do certain tricks, this is actually training a robot to do traditionally tedious human work. We had customers from Lilly, GSK, Merck – basically every major pharmaceutical or chemical company used Freeslate tools.”

Part of the job was mundane planning meetings in the early phase of each project; and then Silicon Valley was just like any other place to work, not the image of the holy grail of tech innovation the name often brings to mind. But then there was the travelling.  He flew all over the world installing Freeslate equipment, and showing clients how to use them. In 2013, on one of these projects for a major Chinese SOE in the petrochemicals industry, he had his first visit to the Chinese mainland. He spent a year on the project’s implementation phase, racking up 120,000 flight miles between San Francisco and Beijing. “It’s not typical to travel so much on one project, but this one was extremely difficult. Freeslate only sold three of that kind of system in the world. The only one outside of Europe is in China. So it’s a very new system,” he says.

Gary was Freeslate’s team leader on the ground in Beijing, a job that fell to him because he was the only one in his team that spoke Mandarin. He had learned while living in California, just in case it proved useful in the future. It did. “My life has been a series of coincidences. I didn’t plan any of this but it just happened to me as if I had,” he says with a wry smile.

While working on the project in Beijing, he saw the opportunities available in the field of robotics and decided he would return to China. Unlike the US’ mature economy, he feels a still-developing China is where he can make a difference.  After the Beijing project ended, he spent the next two years getting more experience in the working world. He felt it would better prepare him for doing his MBA. Now he is looking forward to what comes next, after he completes his 18 months of studying. First he hopes to get into management consulting, where he can draw on his analytical skills and all he has learnt while traveling the globe during his stint at Freeslate. In the long run, though, he wants to be a venture capitalist. “There’s no lack of talent in China. There are actually a lot of extremely talented and technically capable people here but the biggest challenge is fund management,” he explains. “I think one of Silicon Valley’s greatest strengths – in addition to having talented people from all over the world working as high-performing teams – is that they can actually drive capital to work in favour of technological advancement.” Gary is hoping to focus mostly on science and engineering ideas that may touch on areas including pharmaceuticals or drug development; maybe automation or new energy/material.

If his past accomplishments are anything to go by, odds are he will succeed.
Gary is spurred on by the greatest lesson he says he learned from the three-and-a-half years he spent in Silicon Valley:  be adventurous and open-minded, never underestimate any opportunity. “This world is changing very fast. So you can’t just sit there, based on your old skills and think that something will fall in your lap.  That is not going to happen. So always just go out and be adventurous, try things that are totally out of your comfort zone,” he says.