Meet Norman Lim. I call him Chee Seng because that was the name he went by when we first met in 1984. We were both recruits in the same company in Singapore Armed Forces commandos.
Norman was not a typical commando. He was not an aggressive person and my first impressions about him was that he was a rather religious person. It was only much later that I found out that Norman graduated with a diploma in divinity. That would have explained a lot. He was eccentric to say the least, with many strange ideas. Some people dismissed him as a "kook" and yet more did not expect him to do well in the commandos.
Yet Norman did excel in the commandos. He went on to becoming a signal specialist and he even became a regular non-commissioned officer (NCO). I suppose he found a different calling.
Norman and I went our separate ways when I went to officer cadet school (OCS) and from there, onto a scholarship to the university. I finally returned to the commando formation in 1990 and then onto the Ministry of Defence in 1993. I left the regular service in 1996, by which time Norman would also have left. We didn't really cross paths after that.
Then one day the Singapore newspapers, The Straits Times featured Norman in a little article. I would have missed it if not for his picture. It reported that Norman was experimenting with ceramic materials for body armour - in his kitchen! If he was not the modern day garage inventor in Singapore, then no one is! Perhaps it does take a little bit of eccentricity to become innovative!
I finally caught up with Norman again in 2013. By this time, Norman had already filed a patent (check it out here!) for his body armor and is in production for security forces around the world! He had already been for two rounds of funding and, at the time we were talking, was looking to see if he could get an interested buyer. But only if the price was right.
I did ask him how his divinity background impacted his work; since they both seem at odds. His answer was sublime: he makes passive armour - to protect rather than to attack. In a sense, he is still saving people - if not spiritually, then physically.
I asked him what the ingredients were for his success as an innovator and he was very pragmatic about it:
1. Really understand your product - he spent fully one year scouring all the patent literature in this field before he found his white space;
2. Never give up - his early days in his kitchen were one of the most productive. Of course it didn't make for a great family setting, but he was to reap its benefits in the future;
3. Don't take any heat from outsiders - nobody knows your product better than you. So don't sell your idea or your product short by listening to outsiders and so-called experts. Many of them don't really want you to succeed.
That's it! Three very simple rules he lives by to make his innovation work. A man of Christ to a man of men. He didn't have a degree, no professional certification, no innovation schooling. Just a great idea and greater tenacity!