Silicon Valley in Rayong
RAYONG, Thailand — Graduates of Stanford University set up companies like Apple Inc., Facebook, Google, Hewlett Packard and Yahoo, helping transform Californian orchards into Silicon Valley, the incubating environment for so many household names in technology.
PTT, Thailand’s largest energy conglomerate, wants to create something similar in Wang Chan, a picturesque district in Rayong province along Thailand’s eastern seaboard, where fruit farms and rubber plantations spread among rocky outcrops. The oil and gas company is investing some 6 billion baht ($180 million) to build an academic park in this area, which it calls Wang Chan Valley, and plans to nurture a new generation of national scientists.
In May, the Kamnoetvidya Science Academy accepted its first batch of 72 high school students. A research university, the Vidyasirimedhi Institute of Science and Technology, begins enrollments in August. The 6-sq.-km site is close to a number of industrial parks, and there is ample space for more research and development institutions and startup businesses.
“There is a lack of educational institutions in Thailand that can foster the much-needed talents in the science and technology field,” PTT Chief Executive Pailin Chuchottaworn said at a recent opening ceremony.
Many young Thais with talent, determination and the financial wherewithal go abroad for their education. The problem, according to Pailin, is that many do not come back.
“We want to create a sense of patriotism so that they will feel they want to come back to Thailand even if they go abroad at some point,” said Pailin.
High school students will board in dormitories near their teachers. Classes are being kept small at a maximum of 18 students, with tutors allocated three to five students each. Curriculums are adjusted to suit individual students, all of whom receive three-year scholarships that cover all fees and expenses.
Piyatida Saengon is one of the students who started in May. “This school has everything I need to prepare for my dream to become a scientist,” she said. The 15-year old is happy to be studying with ambitious friends, and to have been selected from some 5,000 applicants. She is interested in biology, especially bacteria for use in agriculture and other fields. Piyatida does not rule out studying abroad after graduation, but is confident she will come back: “I like my home country and I want to help develop it.”
The military government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has recently increased tax deductions for R&D and innovation expenses to encourage investment.
“Every country needs science to develop itself,” said Prayuth at the opening of the the Kamoetvidya Science Academy.
Thailand has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but its growth has largely depended on cheap agricultural produce and low-cost labor attracting foreign manufacturers.
In recent years, Thailand has been feeling more competition. With increasing export costs and cheaper labor in neighboring countries, Thailand can no longer compete as before. “We need to apply science to innovate and add value,” said Prayuth.
According to the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, Thailand sits at 67 among 144 countries ranked in terms of innovation. Among other parameters, the evaluation was based on the quality of scientific research institutions, university-industry collaboration in R&D, and corporate R&D spending. In Southeast Asia, Thailand lagged well behind Singapore (9), Malaysia (21), Indonesia (31), and the Philippines (52).
Siam Cement Group, the country’s largest industrial materials conglomerate, has meanwhile earmarked $4 million for R&D this year, up from $2.8 million, and is developing links to Oxford University in the U.K. It also recently acquired a Norwegian R&D company.
PTT’s Pailin is happy to have got Wang Chan Valley under way before he steps down in September, and he will leave with big dreams: “I hope that Thailand’s first Nobel Prize winner will be born here.”