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Business Opportunities Ahead
With financial and entrepreneurial support, Singapore is committed to turning great ideas into great companies
By Zach Goldberg
Trial and error, followed by fast-tracked adjustments, best describes Singapore’s business plan. In the late 1960s, the country’s fledgling government pursued industrialization through importation—positioning itself as a supportive base camp for multinational corporations and value-added manufacturing. Singapore’s newly formed business-courting apparatus, the Economic Development Board (EDB), created an enticing environment for foreign business, and Western companies—including Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and General Electric—started pouring in. This fueled huge business and economic growth, until difficult times drove that to a halt early in this century. In one of many adjustments, Singapore is rapidly evolving from borrowing innovation to seeding and attracting the brains to create it.
“Many governments don’t know it, but they are in competition with one another for the great minds, people, entrepreneurs and businesses of the world,” says Tim Draper, founding partner of California-based leading venture capital firms Draper Associates and DFJ. “Singapore has, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, truly understood the competitive nature of government and has become one of the shining lights, as they lead with one of the most accommodating business climates in the world.” He adds, “With the death of this great leader, Singapore needs to continue to lead with a light-touch government to continue to attract business and drive innovation in the face of an open world of citizens with choices.” He looks forward to seeing how innovation in Singapore continues to evolve. “Some areas of potential innovation could be in a more unregulated private company stock market or in their acceptance of Bitcoin as a currency and an asset,” Draper points out. “They could innovate with healthcare data and maybe a streamlined FDA. They could innovate with new schools like Draper University. They could innovate with a basic income to efficiently replace welfare and social security in the country.” As he notes: “The next 10 years will tell whether the country will lead toward a brave innovative country, or be pulled back by special political interests as many countries have.”
By streamlining both the discovery and commercialization of scientific breakthroughs, the government, explains Yeoh Keat Chuan, managing director of EDB, aspires to “make Singapore the location where the world’s most promising billion-dollar businesses are created.” Key to its strategy is the pooling of resources and knowledge through intimate synergies between public research institutes, universities, multinational corporations, small to medium-sized enterprises, established and new entrepreneurs, and government agencies.
Securing diverse sources of funding for academic and entrepreneurial undertakings allows the government to foster potentially groundbreaking advances in otherwise neglected fields. Yeoh makes this clear: “Singapore will continue to focus on quality investments—those that are capital-, knowledge- and innovation-intensive that will bring our economy to the next level of competitiveness.”
For example, Singapore’s government teamed up to create SG-Innovate, which was launched in 2016 to accelerate the growth of Singapore’s startup ecosystem by supporting startups in partnership with accelerators and incubators. SG-Innovate also matches start-up entrepreneurs with mentors and facilitates their access to technology, talent, markets and investors. Working under SG-Innovate, Infocomm Investments Pte Ltd (IIPL)—the investment subsidiary of IDA—will expand its scope of work beyond the digital and information and communications technology to grow other new and innovative areas, including financial technology, digital health, smart energy, digital manufacturing and “Internet of Things” devices.
Advanced material manufacturing is one of many areas in which the country hopes to gain a global edge by addressing local problems with broader market relevance. “Like other densely populated cities,” explains Seeram Ramakrishna, director at the National University of Singapore’s Center for Nanofibers and Nanotechnology, “Singapore needs to find ways to make the best use of its limited space while further improving the quality of life.” He adds, “Advanced materials that meet the requirements of a certain application in terms of strength, durability, self-repair, noise mitigation, thermal management and security, while limiting the use of raw materials, are fundamental to this strategy.”
Economic development means more businesses, more people and thus more buildings. In Asia alone, an estimated 55% of the population will live in cities by 2030. Given Singapore’s dwindling landmass, sustainable long-term growth will depend on going vertical.
ceEntek, a local start-up that makes nano-engineered Ultra-High Performance Concrete (UHPC), is a determined pathfinder on this front. Carbon nano-fiber materials have long tantalized the construction industry. These supernaturally robust yet lightweight materials promise taller, more efficiently assembled structures. Until recently, however, engineers toiled to figure out how to homogenously disperse these fibers in a concrete paste. Now, with its new UHPC concoction, ceEntek believes that it’s finally solved the riddle. At half the mass and one-tenth the carbonation rate of normal concrete, UHPC offers superior strength, multi-elemental impermeability and a useful life expectancy of 100+ years.
From bigger skyscrapers and readily transportable prefabricated homes to lagoon cities, material pioneers—like ceEntek—are placing Singapore at the forefront of a looming global battle against overpopulation.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Buildings won’t be the only things shooting for the sky. Originating as an experiment in the backyard of his aluminum factory, Jack Ng’s company, Sky Greens, offers the world’s first ever low-carbon, hydraulic water-driven vertical farming system. Occupying just one hectare, these agricultural towers yield 10 times the amount of crops as conventional cultivation at just a fraction of the cost. For a country that has to import 90% of its food and—more broadly—for a world in which future climate change and urbanization are increasingly consuming our acreage, Sky Greens promises new ways to ensure a healthy supply of food.
The assistance of International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, one of the government’s many economic agencies, was integral to Sky Green’s fruition. As Ngiam Tong Tau, chairman of parent company Sky Urban Solutions, told IE Singapore: “Whenever we received overseas interest from, for example, China or the US, IE would refer us to their officers on the ground. They helped make the necessary connections.” IE also provided funding for marketing consultants, lawyers and patenting—all the ingredients that Sky Green needs to grow from small-time start-up to global corporation.
The success stories of ceEntek and Sky Greens illustrate how Singapore’s corporate matchmaking and diffusion of capital allows anyone with a good idea a chance to flourish in the marketplace. Supportive communities also help. The Growing Enterprises with Technology Upgrade (GET-Up) program, for instance, features a brain-loan component that sends precious university—often student—talent to fill the knowledge gaps of skill-deficient businesses.
Whether it’s helping companies upgrade their production capabilities or walking novice entrepreneurs through the trademarking process, Singapore’s government has truly created a “city of opportunity” where promising ideas are nurtured locally, but blossom globally.
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