Category Archives: Thailand

Closing the Loop with Dr. Kespechara

As an Eisenhower Fellow in 2012, I met a tremendous visionary in Thailand.  Dr Kongkiat Kespechara MD has taken it upon himself to reform Thailand’s healthcare system by starting a software company to create Open Source Hospital OS. It has had a compelling impact on Thailand’s health and is spreading to other countries. My original blog post is here

The Eisenhower network has been able to  to sponsor his visit from Thailand to share his fascinating story. Dr. Kespechara will be here next week and I hope to have him networking with Triangle Executives who can tackle rural NC hospital needs by tackling one of their biggest expenses with Open Source. Imagine the impact we could have here at home. Please spread the news across your networks about this compelling vision. The event is free!
October 3, 2013
4:00 PM to 6:00 PM

Research Triangle Park Headquarters
12 Davis Dr
Durham, NC 27703

From Patients to Software to Rice

Tracing the career path of Dr. Kongkiat Kespechara is like reading a treasure map: there are twists and turns and surprises all along the way, but promises an unfolding bounty at the end. Here are some of his current activities: Dr. Kespechara is a still-practicing MD, a software entrepreneur, an open source pioneer, a force in economic development, a big data processor, a nutritionist, an agriculturist and a retailer. Let me explain.

As a practicing physician in Phuket, he became aware of some of the struggles facing hospitals. At one point the Thai government wanted to modernize all the hospitals and demanded that Information Technology be adopted right away. Then he saw the budget. No significant increase were given to help hospitals meet this expensive demand. After some ruminating he realized most of the costs would be tied up in creating the information infrastructure to capture patient records. He thought it would be a huge help to all the hospitals if an open source solution was developed that they could all share and called it Hospital OS.

Since there was not much going on with software development in the tourist-driven island of Phuket, he ended up developing a Phuket Software Park to stimulate a software scene. Then he worked with the local university to support this program.

Hospital OS was not funded externally, but all he asked was to pay for the time of a developer to come on site to customize and install the system and then train key staff on how to use it. This solution was so readily adopted, that his programmers would be on constant tour around the country doing installations.

Dr. Kespechara was realistic too. He knew that most hospitals would not back up their data regularly, so he configured his system to back up each hospital in the middle of the night. But this led to a new insight: he now had data that reflected what was happening in the rural communities of Thailand. In fact, after a few years he was able to not only help hospitals staff up for outbreaks, but was actually able to predict what was coming.

Processing big data became quite a tool that extended beyond emergency needs. Over time he was able to start targeting the growing health risks for Thailand. As in other parts of the world, a key health challenge is the rising incidence of diabetes. This led D. Kespechara to a look at the Thai diet, and a key culprit jumped out: white rice.

By plotting blood sugar values, he learned that it quickly spiked after eating white rice. In searching through older forms of rice he discovered some heirloom varieties that was not only much healthier in vitamins, but it kept blood sugar levels low enough that even diabetics would not suffer.

Next thing you know Dr Kespechara is working with farmers to grow these heirloom rices. He was disturbed by the amount of steroids used in growing rice. Apparently adding steroids cuts the growing season from 90 days to 75 days, so really helps alleviate cash flow pressures for rural farmers. So he worked with farmers to rediscover old techniques in growing rice organically but then had to charge a premium price to make it worth the cash flow pressure.

The Pensook varieties of rice is loved by foodies, but it is different enough that it requires revised recipes to fit into the Thai palate. Dr Kespechara felt the only way to create demand for this new rice was to create a retail environment where chefs could demonstrate it and get people’s mouths watering.

Of course being in the retail world he now has to start thinking about costs. Apparently one of the challenges in the process is the expense of the husking machines… and so the journey continues.

As much as this seems to be a tortuous path of discovery, each of these landmarks have realized significant success. Hospital OS is a massive program with international recognition. Major health concerns are now flagged by big data. Farmers are now earning more and the Thai diet is welcoming a tastier and healthier rice.

At first it makes you wonder what’s the next project, but when you sit with Dr. Kespechara and feel his calm and warm smile, you realize that the path of discovery is the project.

The Birds and the Bees and the Condoms and the Cabbages

Mechai Viravaidya is a compellingly progressive figure. Our introduction to his style came in form of an invitation to his restaurant, a hotspot called Cabbages and Condoms.

Mechai has been a significant force in reducing AIDS in Thailand, and he has done it with flair. By using creativity and humor, he allowed condoms to be commonly discussed and adopted into modern life. His work is quite well documented and internationally recognized with a multitude of awards, so will only reference his own links here.

What was even more curious was the serious conviction and detailed planning coming from a man surrounded by colorful artwork made from condoms. He boiled his approach down to a pretty simple but powerful insight: every NGO (nonprofit) has to get money from somewhere, and it usually requires lots of time and effort to secure sponsors to get the required funding. He thought it simpler to approach every NGO as a sister effort to a for-profit venture. So the proceeds that comes from the wildly successful Cabbages and Condoms goes straight to the NGO aimed at preventing HIV/AIDS. It may be simpler but it could be twice the headache – now he has to run a successful restaurant and run and a successful NGO. However time that would be spent fundraising and networking can be focused on the restaurant. Better yet, the more the two efforts are understood as a team, the more it resonates with the community and thus reinforce each other. Going to Cabbages and Condoms is not just fun, it’s perceived as doing some good, too.

Mechai has replicated this approach in several different ways, including his latest effort to re-imagine education in Thailand. His Mechai Pattana “Bamboo School” has garnered significant attention. Mechai once again employs a two-pronged approach to the schools. The students have to perform useful community service which vitally connects the school to the region. The school term centers around rice planting and harvesting so students can participate and learn about farming. Furthermore students have to operate businesses that will have positive social impact with the community. Finally, in their last year they are sent to Pattaya to be immersed in a much different atmosphere, with their campus being located at Mechai’s Bird & Bees Resort.

It seems there is no end to Mechai’s ability to innovate across economic sectors and across Thailand, creating connections all along the way. I think there is a lot for the rest of us to learn here – especially on how to be brave with humor.

Innovative Leather

As an accessories designer, I do frequently come across leather, but have always seen it as a commodity rather than the true form of art it can be. As a guy who tends to stay away from meat, I’m also conflicted when I realize that leather can also be viewed as a way to minimize the waste of our animal consumption. But when in Bangkok I met with Nauvarat Songsawaddichai, President of the Thailand Leather Association. She asked me about fish leather…fish leather?


Then I was asked if I had seen chicken shin leather…really? It’s also known as poulard.


But my imagination really took off when I was shown stingray leather. In fact I had to buy a wallet made out of it. The white eye shape is where the bony tail emerges from the top of the animal. It’s so tough you could sand wood with it.

Now I am determined to find out more about all of these resources and wrestle with the concepts of sustainability in harvesting and tanning the skins of these animals. Perhaps there really is a place for innovative and sustainable leather in our coming product line of shoes. Needless to say, the more I learn the less I know!



Setting the Stage for Great Design

American designers should not read this post. You know that feeling of inspiration that makes you so excited that you feel you might cry? The Thailand Creative & Design Center can create that. A project by the Office of Knowledge Management and Development, it was created by a directive from the Prime Minister to make Thailand a leading force in design…getting misty yet?

The public facility itself is stunning and well-suited to be the centerpiece of a significant design scene. Located in a vibrant shopping mall of the Emporium Shopping Complex, it is easily reached by skytrain and is comprised of these essential elements:

1. Design museum to highlight the best designs in ten different countries and explore “What is Design?” A centerpiece to the whole exhibit is a wall-sized timeline of design that could keep me occupied for hours. The collection itself is truly stunning and not small – an early Citroen in the French exhibit fits well within the scale of the space.
2. A design gallery which rotates exhibits every two months. The current exhibition, “The Databases” is designed to put designers in touch with resources of art, design, business and materials. The combined exhibit spaces comprise 1800 square meters (19,400 sqft) by themselves.

3. TCDC Resource Center which includes more than 25,000 books and 250 magazines and journals all dedicated to creativity and design.

4. The gold standard of materials libraries, they have a fully stocked Material Connexion Library within the facility.

5. The Shop@TCDC highlights design with a retail shop supporting the local scene.

6. Meeting, reading, and coworking spaces

7. Actively programmed coffee shop called Kiosk, which also gives home to music and Pecha Kucha Bangkok presentations.

8. TCDC Connect which is a designated virtual and physical meeting place to link designers, clients and suppliers.

What’s most amazing is not the fantastic design, nor the overwhelmingly comprehensive facilities, but instead the federal commitment to give home to the emerging design scene. Upon arrival you feel like design is a priority of the community. Then you meet the likes of the TCDC Executive Director, Apisit Laistrooglai, or the OKMD Executive Director, Pradit Rattanavijitrasilp, and you realize that Thailand has put brilliant minds and generous souls behind the whole effort.

Of course there is more to a great home than a nice house. After some truly enlightening discussions, I realized that TCDC’s work is not yet done. There is a real hunger to grow the inventive culture of Thailand. This is not done with facilities but by empowering grass roots creatives to question more and take the leadership to resolve those questions. Certainly there are a number of new educational programs aimed at opening up these skills in Thailand’s next generation, and I will talk more about these activities on this blog later.  However my resounding impression is that a structural change is needed. OKMD and TCDC ran the first lap and got Thailand a great head start, but it appears the baton of design leadership needs to be handed off to Thailand’s creative minds to finish the race.

It appears that the American design scene is running this same race backwards, and it will be exhausting until we find more substantial support to pass the baton of design leadership.

Special thanks to OKMD President Pramode Vidtayasuk and all the OKMD and TCDC staff for supporting my visit.

Below is a slick video that gives an overview of the TCDC efforts. If I find the English subtitled version, I will repost it here.

Thailand’s Vision on R&D

Just outside of Bangkok, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Pramote Dechaumphai, Deputy Executive Director of Thailand’s National Metal and Materials Technology Center (MTEC) along with U-sarat Bunnag, the Senior Division Director of the Thailand Science Park (TSP), both of which are under the National Science and Technology Development Agency NSTDA. These two people were able to relate some of the most interesting aspects of research & development happening on the scientific frontier of Thailand.

Thailand’s Science Park is a huge complex that includes more than  sixty companiesfour research institutesthree universities, one medical school and two nearby universities. The facility supports 2500 full-time researchers, of which around 1000 are Ph.D. scientists. This facility is really ground-zero for Thailand’s R&D efforts. When you hear the deal they offer, it quickly becomes apparent why.

If you join the TSP, you enjoy the following incredible benefits from the Thailand Board of Investment:
• Import tax exemption for machinery
• Corporate income tax exemption for 8 Years
• 50% Corp. income tax reduction for 5 more years after tax exemption period ends (a total of 13 years of tax breaks)
• Work permit and visa facilitation for foreign specialists and researchers

The Thailand Revenue Department further sweetens the deal by offering:
• Accelerated depreciation rate for R&D machinery and equipment
• 200% tax deduction for R&D expense

The 320,000 sqft facility is modern, well-outfitted and includes:
• Wet Laboratories
• Dry Laboratories
• Pilot Plant
• Retailing Area for projects
• Land for special-build premises
• Seminar rooms
• Auditorium with 380 seats
• Outdoor meeting spaces
• Food courts, restaurants and retail shopping

One of the aspects I really enjoyed was an R&D Gallery which showed off successfully commercialized projects. One of the examples was how sludge from water treatment is now pelletized and turned into filler aggregate for construction concrete which reduces costs and eliminates a significant waste product.

In fact as you walk into the facility you are greeted with a touchscreen presentation that not only gives the visitor a view of what is there, but actually promotes the local network, knowledge and capital resources available.

I was also interested in a project that Dr. Dechaumphai had spearheaded for the Small Medium Enterprise (SME) market. His group identified a transportation need for small trucks in rural Thailand. Beyond this need, they focused on being able to make the truck with local resources and to run on local fuel. The result is a small biodiesel truck that works for passengers or freight. It features:
• being able to run on locally-produced palm oil biodiesel
• chassis, steering, braking, suspension and powertrain all made in Thailand
• only the engine is imported due to significant missing infrastructure

They then created 10 vehicles and sent them to villages around Thailand to study how they are used, and what improvements will be needed. Not only does this have merit in meeting needs, but developing the precursor to a domestic car industry.

Certainly the Computer Hard Drive industry in Thailand dominates the global scene. In fact, a recent flood in Thailand affected worldwide computer supply. What was shocking was that when I asked how the rest of R&D was going in Thailand, I was given a mediocre response. Despite all of this financial support and intra-agency efforts, they are not yet happy with the state of R&D in Thailand and think it has a long way to go. But if I look at the incentives and structure of their offering, I don’t think this situation will last very long.

In fact U-sarat’s marketing background is a great asset for the TSP, not only to fill it with great tenants and talent, but then to assist colleagues in rolling our multiple versions of the TSP all over Thailand. That’s when I realized, this was not a cool concept, but a massive federal commitment.

Lessons from the visit:
1. It has become increasingly apparent that R&D has been identified as a key sector for many developing economies.
2. R&D is part of the global marketplace, and world-class facilities with tantalizing incentives are becoming the ante to play.
3. However facilities and incentives are not enough. As we’ve learned at home, the key to success is developing a vibrant community, and this gets into thinking about the bigger ecosystem of complementary factors surrounding R&D, and why workers prefer to work at one place versus another. Frequently this gets into cultural influences like the arts, independent business and inclusivity.
4. Too often, our R&D efforts in the USA are so locked up in proprietary secrecy, that we fail to share our achievements with the greater community. NSP’s exhibits and information sharing was an inspiration on connecting R&D to the community.
5. I was inspired by MTEC’s desire to connect community needs to community resources with a special focus on SME development. This was a dominant theme expressed in Thailand, and consistently neglected in the USA.
6. And from U-sarat: try the mango with sticky rice!

Special thanks to Dr. Chadamas Thuvasethakul, Executive Vice President of NSTDA, for arranging this visit – and for ultimately helping me take U-sarat’s advice!

Welcome to Thailand


With fantastic experiences already accumulated in Indonesia and Singapore, going to Thailand was like having a third dessert. And maybe a 7-layer cake at that. Beth and I were given a 5 star reception, with an attendant ready for us as we exited the plane, and the kind and diligent Sopida Weraklultawan waiting for us in the hotel with a full packet of printouts, maps, detailed schedule and even a SIM card for my travel phone.

All of this was the result of the concerted efforts of the Thai Eisenhower Fellows. In particular Supinya Klangnarong, Dr. Chadamas Thuvasethakul, and Dr. Somkiat Tangkitvanich dedicated time and effort to introduce us to a diverse yet highly targeted group of thinkers and Ieaders.

And then there’s the food. Lovers of Americanized versions of Thai cooking, Beth and I were in absolute heaven. Food was everywhere, frying on the street, cooking in the mega malls and in wonderful restaurants. Only in Italy have I felt food to be so integral to culture… and so good!

Although details of my visits will follow on this blog, I’m happy to report that overall this pioneering effort by the Thai EF group created a stunning program and I think future fellows will really benefit by coming to this proactive and talented country.