Malay Mail: Homecoming of ‘father of USB drives’: Featured at KL20 Summit, who is KS Pua and his company Phison?

KUALA LUMPUR, April 23 — One of the major highlights from the KL20 Summit yesterday was Datuk Pua Khein Seng of Taiwan-based Phison Electronics Corporation’s announcement of a new venture based in Selangor, called Malaysia AI Storage (MaiStorage).

According to Pua, the startup aiming to push Malaysia towards the generative artificial intelligence (AI) era would be backed by his company, with the deal including a technology transfer worth over RM1 billion and bringing home 200 experienced engineers — in what has been described as a “reverse brain drain” for the country.

Technology news site SoyaCincau reported that MaiStorage would be offering new designers wages starting from RM6,000, and targeting to launch its initial public offering (IPO) in the next few years.

Phison was also announced as one of the four partners in Selangor Information Technology and Digital Economy Corporation’s (Sidec) Malaysia Semiconductor Accelerator and Integrated Circuit (IC) Design Park, which was touted by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as South-east Asia’s biggest.

Yesterday, Pua had set KL20’s tone with a speech titled “Malaysia’s Time is Now”, followed by joining a roundtable titled “A Trillion Dollar Industry: Meeting the Growing Demand for Semiconductors”.

Today, Pua will join a panel titled “IC Design: Is Malaysia Ready for Disruption?”, along with other guests from chip giant Intel, Taiwan-based silicon intellectual property firm InPsytech Inc, and Bayan Lepas-based IC designer SkyeChip Sdn Bhd.

Also known as KS Pua, the technologist is widely regarded as “the father of USB drives”. Malay Mail charts Pua’s rise and contribution to storage solutions which has changed the way we store, transfer and access digital data:

Humble beginnings

Born in 1974, Pua worked his way up from humble roots in Sekinchan, Selangor, to the top of his field as the founder of Phison in Taiwan.

According to a report by local startup and SME-centred media platform, WargaBiz, Pua was educated at Pin Hwa High School in Klang.

He was then accepted to the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan where he majored in Electrical and Control Engineering.

After graduating, Pua ventured into the field of semiconductor technology, as he saw the immense potential of emerging technologies like flash memory.

In 2000, at the age of 27, he founded Phison Electronics Corporation in Taiwan, together with four other partners.

A page from Sidec’s slide on Malaysia Semiconductor Accelerator & IC Design Park: Selangor Hub.

A page from Sidec’s slide on Malaysia Semiconductor Accelerator & IC Design Park: Selangor Hub.

What is Phison Electronics?

Phison penetrated Taiwan’s tech market with the vision of harnessing the power of flash memory to create a new generation of storage solutions.

The company’s groundbreaking innovation eventually pushed out the then go-to storage system, the floppy disc, due to its impracticality and limited storage capacity.

Phison became a prominent player in the semiconductor industry, providing controller integrated circuits for solid-state drives (SSDs), universal serial bus (USB) flash drives, memory cards, and other storage devices.

According to a MyStarJob report, Pua invented the first single-chip USB flash storage device, which was an improvement over the older and more laborious multi-chip designs, despite the fact that USB storage devices had already been investigated and produced in Israel and the United States.

The new product, called the “pendrive,” was not only cheaper to make than previous storage devices, but also smaller and more capable of holding larger amounts of data.

Over the years, the storage solutions company has grown to employ over 3,800 employees globally with more than 75 per cent of them being engineers.

Under Pua’s leadership as the chief executive, the group has emerged as a trailblazer in the NAND flash controller technology.

Overcoming setbacks

Pua and his partners experienced a major setback prior to its establishment in November 2000.

According to MyStarJob, the investors, who had promised NT$30 million, only offered NT$1million and shareholders refused to offer financial backing as needed.

This saw Pua and his partners struggling to raise funds desperately from their families, relatives and friends.

Their first product to debut was a patented five-in-one card reader. They developed their first pendrive in 2002.

Following the success, the company managed to impress giant information technology industry companies, such as Toshiba and M-Systems, which invested in Phison’s next projects.

Phison now plays a critical role in supplying essential technology for data storage across both consumer and enterprise-level products. Its storage solutions can be found in personal computers, gaming consoles, and smartphones.

It employs a team of approximately 4,000 engineers, including around 200 Malaysians.

Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre in Taipei’s meeting with KS Pua, February 23, 2023. — Picture courtesy of Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre in Taipei

Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre in Taipei’s meeting with KS Pua, February 23, 2023. — Picture courtesy of Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre in Taipei

Revisiting investment in Malaysia

Phison had established a presence in Malaysia in 2012. However, the group completed the liquidation of Phisontech Electronics (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd in October 2020.

In his interview with The Edge Malaysia last year, Pua mentioned that their plans to reinvest in Malaysia were driven by demand from their clients to diversify operations outside Taiwan.

“Why now? Because my clients from the US have been urging us [to diversify elsewhere] since last October.

“Phison has zero debt. We have no loans from the banks, and we are doing US$2 billion (RM8.9 billion) in business annually. We are a cash-generating business.

“While we intend to move certain portions of assembly to Thailand and South Korea, I never thought of moving our design base until [around] January and February, as we began to have some confidence in the current government. After Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s China trip, we thought maybe it is good timing now,” he was quoted as saying by The Edge.

The business media outlet further reported that Pua believes if Phison could establish itself as a viable firm in Malaysia, it would serve as a model for other international IT businesses looking to invest in the nation.

As early as February last year, Pua had arranged a meeting with the Foreign Ministry’s Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre in Taipei — where the mission said it was exploring “possible collaboration to benefit fellow Malaysians”.

By March this year, Pua had met with Ng Sze Han, the Selangor executive councillor of investment, trade and mobility, in Hsinchu, Taiwan to discuss Selangor’s proposal for the IC Design Park.

“Thanks Datuk KS Pua, the founder and CEO of Phison Electronics Corporation for driving me around in Hsinchu, Taiwan. We had a fruitful discussion during our meeting here. Stay tuned for a more exciting announcement soon,” Ng said in a Facebook post.

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