With a strong foundation of knowledge and skills, a passion to make a difference, and a driving entrepreneurial spirit, Dr. Tay Feng Huai emerged as the winner of the Entrepreneurial Award in the 2018 Study UK Alumni Awards. He established Elite Advanced Materials Sdn. Bhd., a company that was started up based on an idea he had with his co-founder and wife, Goo Xin Yi, who is also a fellow engineering graduate. As Malaysia’s first producer and supplier of high-quality solvents, the company is making significant inroads into the local industry, addressing a long-standing problem of a lack of access to good quality solvents.
Feng Huai has had a robust experience in academia, which helped him apply his knowledge to solving a real world problem. His first class honours master’s degree in chemical engineering led him to a PhD. Both programmes were completed at Imperial College London. From his research work at the institution, Feng Huai published 13 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in several areas: stem cells, supercritical fluids, and biomaterials, just to name a few. His portfolio has been further boosted by some impressive collaboration with numerous research groups internationally such as The National Gallery in London, Unilever, Shell, and ExxonMobil.He fondly remembers his research experience with Professor Sergei Kazarian, a professor of physical chemistry in Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering, who is a winner of the Sir George Stokes Award, awarded biennially by the Royal Society of Chemistry for outstanding and sustained contributions to analytical science.
When asked about this opportunity, he says, “Not many postgraduate students are able to experience so much outside their PhD specialty. It is also through working with Professor Kazarian and many other colleagues in the department that I understand the importance of passion for learning and commitment to work.” He has also bagged several awards himself for his work, including the Henry Sawistowski Travel Fellowship for the best final year research project and the Dudley Newitt Prize for Experimental Excellence for his PhD project.
Feng Huai cites his biggest achievement since returning to Malaysia as having started up his company, Elite Advanced Materials Sdn. Bhd., which is Malaysia’s first high-purity solvent company. Solvents have many uses not only as an essential component in the processing of chemicals, but also as ingredients in the manufacture of various products in electronics, pharmaceuticals, personal care, food processing, and diagnostics. Despite the vast applications, the couple discovered that most local chemical companies are in the business of importing, repackaging, trading, and distribution of solvents, instead of production. According to Feng Huai, the industry within the region is dominated by global brands such as Merck Millipore, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Avantor Performance Materials, and together, they take up more than 75% of the market share. This means that most end users are paying inflated prices due to cost of logistics and distribution, in addition to volatile currency exchange rates.
Despite Malaysia being a country rich in resources, very few companies capitalise on this. Feng Hui identified a gap in the market and took advantage of this opportunity to address a long-standing industry problem. He began working on a model of purchasing locally-produced, low-cost, and technical grade (low purity) solvents and refining it to become products of high specification and value. With this strategy in mind, his company launched its products in January 2016. In addition, he also offers tailor-made technical support and services to his clients with the main aim of bringing a positive impact to their operational processes. His customers to date come from a wide range of industries: B. Braun, a medical and pharmaceutical device company; TT Electronics, a British optoelectronics company; Kotra Pharmaceuticals, a Malaysian generic drug producer; Jabatan Kimia Malaysia, the national testing laboratory, and more. In the following year, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI) awarded the Smart Challenge Fund to the company, after having identified it as a business dealing in new technologies, processes, and/or products that will lead to long-term solutions and solve national problems.
Feng Huai speaks fondly of his time in the UK for two reasons. It is where the fundamentals of his expertise in science and engineering were formed, and most importantly, where he met Xin Yi, who has become both his life and work partner.
His story would not be complete without mentioning her involvement, which he passionately acknowledged upon being announced as the winner. His wife is also an alumna of Imperial College London in chemical engineering. While he continued his journey as a PhD candidate, Xin Yi also graduated with a First Class Honours and went on to work for several EPC (Engineering, Procurement, and Construction) companies such as Amec Foster Wheeler in Aberdeen, Scotland, where she was nominated as the Target Graduate of the Year, and MWH in Singapore.
On receiving the Entrepreneurial award, Feng Huai said, “Education is more than just a recognition from a prestigious university. It is to solve real world problems.”