From The Straits Times    |

No matter your profession (or inclination towards technology), there is a chance that you might have already encountered one of Camellia Chan’s inventions. The co-founder and CEO of Flexxon – a leading
cybersecurity and computer memory storage solutions firm based in Singapore – is a self-taught cybersecurity expert who has developed NAND flash storage and memory devices that are encrypted with top-notch data security.

In a nutshell, NAND flash storage technology is a form of digital storage technology that’s designed to store and retrieve information (think files, photos, videos, and apps) in devices ranging from smartphones and tablets. Basically, it forms the bedrock of digital circuits that no fancy smart device can do without.

Despite the fact that Flexxon’s products are used across a wide range of industries, including the medical, military, automotive and industrial sectors, it is what some big tech companies aren’t – unassuming and unobtrusive. There is no big, showy reveal to catapult its new launches into the stratosphere, nor does Camellia take to Twitter as her sounding board.

In a way, Camellia, who’s in her 40s, embodies her own brand. Although she has 17 patents under her own name and has won several industry awards, she prefers to stay in the background.

“I always try to maintain a low profile, but recently, we realised the need for more awareness about X-PHY Cybersecure SSD. It’s because X-PHY is a truly revolutionary technology that is going to disrupt the world,” she says.

What Camellia is referring to is the world’s first embedded AI-based security system that can learn, adapt and evolve to cybersecurity threats through machine learning. This invention made waves in the cybersecurity industry in 2021 as there were no cybersecurity solutions then that actually focused on preventing attacks by reinforcing the hardware of the computer.

Solutions in the market were software-based, meaning they focused on resolving problems with cloud based applications – technologies that are so fast evolving that it’s hard for cybersecurity companies to keep up.

Since then, it has garnered multiple awards, and in 2022, Flexxon produced Lenovo’s first-ever range of laptops with X-PHY hardware. It’s been a game-changing milestone for her. The product helped strengthen and expand the firm’s partnerships with stakeholders and distributors in the US. Camellia even represented Flexxon as one of 13 global tech companies to be invited by the White House to discuss the threat of ransomware last year.

“X-PHY, which functions as the last layer against cybersecurity threats, is highly significant to me because it presents an opportunity to shift the balance against cybercriminals.

“No software alone can fully protect against attacks targeting data stored in memory storage devices. When hackers attempt to steal data through methods like cloning or ransomware, they specifically target the data stored inside memory storage devices,” she explains.

Camellia Chan, CEO of Singapore-based cybersecurity company Flexxon

Steady as she goes

The entrepreneur is measured and matter-of-fact when speaking, preferring to turn the attention to her work and company instead. Camellia grew up in Malaysia and moved to Singapore in 2007 – the year she co-founded Flexxon with her business partner and chief operating officer May Chng. She does not reveal much about her family, only sharing that her parents passed away when she was in her 30s.

“My co-founder [May] as well as my core team form my support system. I’m a very independent person, and I have a very strong determination. You have to rely on yourself, and you have to do more exercise [to deal with stress].

“I’m personally very concerned about my leisure time, but I also understand the importance of being efficient. I’m a fast-paced person, so I strive to maintain the discipline of waking up early every morning and starting my day,” she says.

Camellia makes it a point to work out every day, waking up at 5am each morning for a 5km run before heading to the office. And just like how she keeps to a clockwork schedule, consistency has been key to her foray into the tech industry.

Fascinated by how computers work since she assembled her very first PC during her second year at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, the business major, who did a specialisation in IT, picked up the technical aspects of computing from her colleagues when she worked at an electronics manufacturing company after graduating.

“From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of it. I started delving into various technical topics, such as circuit logic, and learning from my colleagues while working for multinational companies all around Asia. But I knew that I needed to follow my dream to create something that could really make an impact on the world,” she shares.

It didn’t take long for Camellia to combine her experience in business with her love of deep technology. Wanting to provide clients with solutions that addressed their “pain points”, such as extending the life cycle of their memory storage components and ensuring that the products enhance compatibility with other technical systems, she eventually left her job as business director with digital solutions provider Gulf Business Machines (GBM) in 2005 to start her own company.

Today, Flexxon has a presence in 50 cities worldwide, including a satellite office in Hong Kong, with over 70 employees based globally. It has since established itself as an ever reliable brand that builds systems to deter malicious actors – and Camellia applies this same ethos to how she builds a safe and positive culture in the office.

“We always wanted a company that is all about innovation, openness, and fairness. This means absolutely no politics; we have no tolerance towards politicking. But it’s a long journey, because you still need to really instil that kind of culture in the office,” she says.

How she does that, according to her colleagues, is to be “very involved in every single person in the company”.

“She’ll ask things like, ‘How can I help you? Is there anything you need?’ She’s that kind of person, and I don’t think that gets talked about a lot,” says Samantha Wong, Flexxon’s director of communications and media.

She adds: “There was once I witnessed a conversation between Camellia and a colleague who was upset about something. She came in and spoke to him in a very supportive and motherly way, and encouraged him not to dwell on setbacks and to focus on his next targets to get himself back up.”

Co-founders May Chng (left) and Camellia Chan on a recent trip to the US. Both women are currently enrolled in Harvard Business School’s Executive Management Programme. Photo provided by Camellia Chan

The power of AI

Having launched an invention that taps on the ever-evolving capabilities of AI, what does Camellia think about the technology?

“I personally welcome the use of AI-enabled productivity tools to enhance our daily work. However, it’s important to acknowledge that AI has its limitations. Generative AI, in particular, lacks the human touch.

“While AI can assist with certain tasks and alleviate some of the manual work, you can’t solely rely on AI for certain aspects of running a business, especially when it comes to complex decision-making,” she muses.

Following the success of X-PHY, Camellia has been busy with plans to not only expand Flexxon’s headcount by about 15 per cent locally, but also set up an outpost in the US that focuses on R&D and production.

According to reports, the company, backed by Heliconia Capital Management (a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings), is currently being financed to the tune of some US$30 million (S$40.2 million) in external funding, as well as via internal profits.

Camellia reveals that her dream for Flexxon is for every piece of device to be encrypted with default data protection provided by the brand’s storage devices, and for investors to have a mindset shift away from just focusing on funding the development of cybersecurity software, especially with the advent of AI.

“Looking ahead, one of our goals is to go for an initial public offering, which would provide us with additional opportunities for growth. The trend in investment often follows where the money is, and software is often considered highly scalable, because it offers a faster turnaround in terms of generating products and revenue. On the other hand, hardware development requires substantial upfront investments and a longer turnaround time.

“But if we want to further digitise our world, it’s important to have a robust cybersecurity infrastructure in place to support and safeguard this digital transformation,” she says.

Camellia with Harvard University professor Das Narayandas during an executive training session. Photo provided by Camellia Chan

Leading by example

Stories of tenacity, grit and strength are not unheard of when it comes to profiling women in the STEM industry. Figures from the World Economic Forum indicate that only 25 per cent of women are in cybersecurity worldwide, which means most women in STEM have to work doubly hard for a seat at the male-dominated table.

Camellia acknowledges that at Flexxon, there is a shortage of women in the research and development (R&D) side of things – although women make up most of her management team, she’s noticed that it is mostly men who have applied for posts at the company’s R&D Department.

“I believe that there is a tendency for many women to exclude themselves from the start when it comes to tech fields. They may think that these fields are not for them, or that they won’t be accepted or valued. As a result, their minds are already set on pursuing other career paths outside of the tech industry.

“In my opinion, what matters most is whether individuals genuinely have an interest in the tech field. It’s not about encouraging women or anyone else who is not passionate about it and trying to create an environment for them. If they are not interested, they may not find happiness in the field,” she points out.

However, while Camellia takes a decidedly pragmatic perspective on the issue, she still believes that the most important way to empower women in the tech industry is to lead by example.

“When I gather with other women, I always share my own experiences and the challenges I faced. I help them see that they can not only survive, but also thrive and achieve success in the tech field.

“Certainly, there are challenges in the industry, and women continue to be under-represented, especially in STEM fields. However, I see awareness growing, and more women are stepping forward into the tech field each year.

“Ultimately, what matters most is your hard work, not your gender. Your ambition, perseverance, and dedication are what make a difference in building a business that provides value,” shares Camellia.

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