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Singapore’s innovation-friendly initiatives attract next-generation entrepreneurs from around the world
By Karyn Hede
A visit to Block 71, the nexus of Singapore’s vibrant start-up scene, reveals a 50-year-old industrial estate that has been refurbished to bring out the vibe of entrepreneurship. The JTC LaunchPad @ One-North, as it is officially known, overflows with more than 500 start-up companies. So many, that in January the government agencies charged with industrial development and economic growth announced a mega-expansion expected to double its current size along several city blocks, including the well-known Block 71.
Watching the current generation eager to seize the entrepreneurial reins, it’s easy to forget that a decade ago Singapore was still exporting most of its would-be technology entrepreneurs to Western markets like the famed Silicon Valley. Since its birth as a city-state, Singapore has culled the best ideas from around the globe to fashion a thriving economy in which its primary resource is its people, all 5.5 million. Its lack of natural resources, combined with extreme population density—first among sovereign nations with more than a million inhabitants—present unique challenges that the island nation is solving by encouraging innovation from within. But creating a milieu in which starting a business with global aspirations is not only possible, but also expected, required quite a shift in attitude.
That change in mindset is what Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), believes is happening. “Innovation means ensuring the ecosystem understands and is ready to look not just at local solutions, but disruptive ideas which can scale globally, and are nimble enough to change course when things do not work as hoped for,” he says.
For example, BASH@Block 79—Singapore’s largest integrated start-up space run by Infocomm Investments Pte Ltd (IIPL), the investment subsidiary of IDA—does exactly what its acronym spells out: Build Amazing Startups Here. BASH is thematically zoned for networking and exchanging ideas, and it includes open areas for accelerators, incubation space and a place to relax. In a year, BASH housed six successful runs of IIPL-invested acceleration programs, which provide mentorship, training and education and networking opportunities. In that year, 65 start-ups were accelerated in BASH alone, out of about 230 start-ups accelerated across Singapore. Of the accelerated start-ups, about three-quarters raised funds to move on to their next stage of development.
As a next step for start-ups, the Accreditation@IDA programme is available to assist. In over a year since the programme’s inception, it has helped accredited companies create more than S$27 million worth of project opportunities, with over S$3.3 million won. To date, venture capitalists have invested over S$16.4 million in its our accredited companies. “By working with the startups to strengthen their products, processes, team and financials, we are lowering the risk for buyers and investors,” says Edwin Low, director of Accreditation@IDA.
With the built-in intellectual capital at the National University of Singapore (NUS), the government of Singapore helped create fertile ground for business start-ups by connecting researchers and inventors with investors and providing matching grants. For every S$1 invested, the National Research Foundation can add S$5, up to a maximum of S$500,000. Entrepreneurs can get matching grants of up to S$50,000 to further develop their companies. Some of them choose to stake a claim in Block 71, where venture capitalists mix with CEOs and innovators in an ecosystem where risk is expected, change happens daily and inventors aim global.
“Singapore enjoys a fantastic workforce that is highly educated and skilled, and has exposure to many sectors that are demanding high-tech solutions,” says Peter Ho, CEO of HOPE Technik, a bootstrap engineering firm that exemplifies Singapore’s ambitious attitude. “This combination of supply-and-demand together means solutions get to market and can be test-bedded and refined in Singapore, before they become market-leading global exports.”
Ho’s company worked with NUS assistant professor Yu Haoyong and his colleagues from the department of biomedical engineering to develop a robotic walker for stroke patients and others with neurological conditions to regain a natural gait. The prototype is now moving into clinical studies supported by a National Medical Research Council grant, and conducted at National University Hospital. If successful, HOPE Technik plans to commercialize the device.
“HOPE Technik’s success stems from how we, as a small company, are able to provide nimbleness, reasonable cost structure and a can-do attitude to our clients while delivering gold-standard documentation and certification—things which are hallmarks of the big boys,” Ho says.
NATION AS LABORATORY
Singapore presents an almost perfect laboratory for testing technology concepts that require a high degree of coordination among government, research institutions and industry. For instance, Singapore’s relative scarcity of fresh water has made it a leader in desalination and filtration systems. Neal Chung Tai-Shung and his colleagues from NUS’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering—entrepreneurs with rich industry experience—have successfully developed some of the world’s best-performing membranes for forward osmosis and membrane distillation, including the Hyflux Kristal ultra-filtration membranes that now make up a family of solutions for water recycling and wastewater treatment, and they are in use around the world. In short, this technological advance made it easier and more affordable to purify water on a wide range of scales.
Such public-health improvements with water reveal Singapore’s overall interest in healthy living and aging. “Singapore has led in water management and transport, and that leadership will now extend to health and wellness,” says Sir David Lane, chief scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). “The area of health monitoring and prevention is especially exciting.” He adds, “The potential impact of big data computing and new monitoring devices to predict and prevent disease is huge.”
The marriage of information technology and biomedical research is the culmination of a strategic plan put in place as the new millennium dawned. With virtually no presence in biomedical research, the government began a major push and funding for biomedical science and technology, from basic research to clinical trials, product and process development, full-scale manufacturing and healthcare delivery, says Ho Teck Hua, deputy president of research and technology at NUS. “We are now at the stage where we are ready to intensify our pace of development,” says Ho.
At the university level, NUS is partnering with École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Technische Universität München in Germany, to develop a new generation of engineers trained in design-thinking, high-tech research translation and venture formation. “This program is specifically targeted at postgraduate students interested in ‘deep tech’ commercialization,” says Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise, which has helped spin-off more than 60 companies from the university’s research, and commercialized more than 350 technologies, raising more than S$200 million in equity funding in 2015 alone.
In addition, the government recently announced the new Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) Plan, where S$19 billion has been allocated to develop Singapore as a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy over the next five years.
Already recognizing the need for skilled manpower in fast-growing fields like data analytics, cybersecurity and software development, IDA has partnered with companies to train young professionals in these skills. Recently, for example, IDA and Google launched the third run of a data analytics–training program for new professionals. IDA and NCS, a subsidiary of Singtel Group, collaborated to train 100 new professionals in advanced software development to design and develop smart city solutions in transportation, healthcare and energy.
In Singapore’s overall ecosystem, roads take up considerable room, so competing interests are pressing every inch of space. Moreover, the issue intersects with Singapore’s aging population, because public-bus and freight drivers tend to be older and will be in short supply in coming years, according to Lam Wee Shann, director, futures division, Ministry of Transport (MOT).
Lam envisions surface travel on foot and bicycle, supplemented by self-driving vehicles or pods. Freight delivery and mass public transport would be relegated underground. Long-term planning is underway, led by MOT’s Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS), which includes thought leaders from Toyota, Continental, ST Kinetics, CISCO, MIT and the UK Behavioural Insights Team.
In 2015, the Ministry of Transportation put four self-driving vehicles to work at Gardens by the Bay. Experiments like this and ongoing projects at Block 71 promise to continue fueling Singapore’s innovation ecosystem.
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