DR RICHARD Yen originally planned to become a professor, but a stint in Silicon Valley convinced him to swop a quiet life in academia for the thrill of starting his own business.

The Harvard physics PhD holder is the founder of Ednovation, which develops educational software for children and also runs the ChildFirst chain of pre-schools here and in China.

After having spent three years immersed in the tech start-up scene at Silicon Valley, Dr Yen returned to Singapore in 1991 to start his own company.

"I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in Silicon Valley… it was infectious," said the soft-spoken 60-year-old.

At the time, personal computers were a relative novelty and multimedia technology was in its infancy, but his interest in education prompted him to explore the use of multimedia to promote learning, he said.

Ednovation became one of the first companies in the world to develop educational software targeted at pre-school children.

It now supplies teaching materials and curricula to other pre-schools under the EdnoLand brand - a business model that Dr Yen likens to providing engines to carmakers.

Today, its software is used in 451 pre-schools in Singapore and China and elsewhere in the region.

Eventually, it also moved into building its own "cars" - Ednovation launched its chain of ChildFirst pre-schools in 2007.

"We wanted to realise our vision for the pre-school of the future," said Dr Yen, who is a father himself.

He came to parenthood fairly late after having married late. He has a pair of twins - a son and a daughter - who are four.

He noted that the goal of existing school systems is to churn out "identical products with the same skill sets", but the world of the future will require individuals with unique traits and strengths.

For instance, even though his children are twins, "their characters are very different and they have very different interests".

"My boy knows a lot about dinosaurs - much more than most adults, certainly more than I do. It's a remarkable feat for a four-year-old. My girl has totally different interests... "

He concluded: "This shows that motivation and interest can make a huge difference when it comes to learning."

The twins are in pre-school at ChildFirst, which has two branches in Singapore. A third is due to open at Tampines Central in September.

ChildFirst centres also aim to cultivate bilingualism and encourage children to become comfortable with the use of technology.

The first centre was set up in Chongqing in south-western China - away from more crowded cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where competition is more intense.

Dr Yen said the company chose to kick off the business in China so it could avoid competing with its customers in Singapore - other pre-schools using its EdnoLand software.

"Picking your battlefield is important," he said.

There are now 15 ChildFirst centres in China, which have about 3,000 students in total.

Earlier this month, the chain was named the leading pre-school in Tianjin - less than a year after it set up shop there.

It opened its first Singapore pre-school in 2010, following feedback that a company marketing itself as a "Singapore brand" should have a presence back at home.

"We started ChildFirst here as a full-day child-care centre, so as not to compete directly with our customers, which are mostly kindergartens," Dr Yen said.

The company plans to have about 100 centres around the region by 2017.

Meanwhile, Ednovation's software concepts and platforms have evolved with the times, expanding beyond computer software to include programmes that can be used with tablets and mobile phones.

"Technologies such as the touch screen have made it so easy for kids to use tablets. They learn to do so effortlessly, even before they learn how to use chopsticks or put on clothes," Dr Yen said.

"It would be a sin to deny them access to thinking machines that help them learn better and think faster. But as with everything else in life, such tools should be used in moderation."