The coronavirus pandemic has uprooted most aspects of daily life — and much of the economy built around it.
But out of crisis comes opportunity. And for some young entrepreneurs, the pandemic has unearthed green shoots for a new future.
In Singapore, fast-growing start-ups in the food, retail and technology industries have been working to respond to the changing environment. CNBC Make It spoke to three millennial entrepreneurs to find out how they're meeting new consumer demands, and what that might mean for a post-pandemic world.
When the novel coronavirus emerged at the start of 2020, agriculture was one of the industries first hit. Supermarket shelves were cleared as people feared food shortages amid border closures and supply chain disruptions.
Even before the pandemic, Ben Swan of Singaporean agriculture technology start-up Sustenir was working to make food supplies more reliable.
"Sustenir's vision is to actually grow a more resilient future," the 39-year-old co-founder and CEO said of his vertical urban farm, which enables non-native produce to grow in controlled, indoor environments.
The Australian ex-engineer launched the business in Singapore in 2013 to address land shortages and food scarcity issues. This year, the pandemic has brought more attention to the problem, said Swan.
"Singaporeans became a lot more aware about where their produce was coming from," he said. Meanwhile, border closures made some foods harder to get. "There's a big focus now on how do we get our productivity up."
Today, less than 10% of Singapore's nutritional needs are produced from within the land-scarce country, which is smaller in area than New York City. Singapore's government hopes to raise that figure to 30% by 2030 through better land use and technology, as well as investments of more than $215 million in start-ups.
Honoured to be featured in Prime Minister @leehsienloong's post. It's always great to partner with a country that values forward thinking. Looking forward to further growing the Singapore agritech business and taking the country #astepcloser to sustainable living.
The entrepreneur is optimistic that could also help position the company — and the country — as a leading food innovator going forward.
"Because our system can literally retrofit into any building in the world, we do want to be, eventually, in every major city across the world," said Swan. "Maybe even one day we could consider exporting certain produce into our neighboring countries."
Just as the virus changed agriculture demands, it also shifted shopping habits. Nationwide lockdowns and the subsequent economic blow made consumers and retailers more conscious of their spending.
That's a space Henry Chan of cashback platform ShopBack has been focusing on for several years.
Since launching in 2014, the Singaporean start-up — which gives users a percentage of cash back on every purchase made through its app — has grown steadily, giving $115 million back to more than 20 million users in Asia Pacific. But when the pandemic hit, the business moved quickly to offer new savings.
According to Chan, the pandemic has seen consumers' shopping habits shift to essential needs, such as groceries, at the start of the pandemic, followed more recently by things including fitness products and domestic travel.
Meanwhile, it prompted more retailers to list themselves on the platform in a bid to compensate for lost physical sales. From April to June, ShopBack — which earns a commission from its affiliate merchants every time a sale is made — added 500 new retailers, expanding its list of 4,000 brands including Amazon, Taobao and Expedia.
"Merchants are increasingly mindful of their marketing spend, and that's where our pay-per-sale model resonates with them," said 35-year-old Chan. "You can see this from the uplift in merchants joining us. And in the first half of this year, we have driven slightly under $1 billion in sales for our merchants."
The company's efforts to move businesses online is to help diversify their sales channels. Even before Covid-19 hit, a 2018 McKinsey study found that 92% of companies believed they would haveto alter their business models as a result of digitization.
While the pandemic fast-tracked the digitization of many industries, it also unearthed shortcomings in global internet infrastructure.
Over the past four years, laser communications start-up Transcelestial has been working to bridge that gap with a more efficient and less expensive alternative to traditional internet services.
"When you look at the world right now, nearly half of the world is still unconnected, and we're talking about no internet services, not even basic cellular connectivity," said Rohit Jha, co-founder and CEO. At the end of 2019, 3.6 billion people — or 46% of the global population — were not connected to the internet, according to the United Nations.
Transcelestial's flagship product — the Centauri wireless device — uses light to transmit data, which Jha said is more "infinitely scalable" than fiber optic cables. Meanwhile its three-kilogram, shoe box-size dimensions mean it can be installed overground by telecom companies in around 10 minutes.
The 31-year-old said such efficiency reflects the company's plan to provide internet services fit for a fast-changing world: "We look 50 years into the future and try to imagine a snapshot of what the world looks like."
As the push toward 5G heats up, that technology will become more important. Though Singapore ranks as a global leader for internet connectivity, much of Southeast Asia is still catching up. By 2025, the region is expected to account for almost a third (29%) of global 5G deployments. Jha said his system could speed up the process by "six to eight months, or even a year."
To drive that vision, in July Transcelestial received $9.6 million from investors including Singapore's EDBI and venture capital firm Wavemaker partners — even as global funding dried up due to the pandemic.
"Most of the investors that we got are people who looked at long-term horizons, and that's the conversation I have with investors when we do initial stuff," said Jha, "because there's so much of the journey that's left."
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