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Start-ups

Innovation Nation: Entrepreneur's Playground

Innovation Nation:

Entrepreneur’s
Playground

Why Singapore is a Magnet for
Entrepreneurs Around the World

Singapore’s landscape in a nutshell

  • Business-friendly Environment

    Business-friendly Environment

    The World Bank has consistently ranked Singapore in the Top 3 for its ease of doing business.

  • Gateway To Southeast Asia

    Gateway To Southeast Asia

    Singapore is located in the heart of Southeast Asia, the world’s fastest-growing Internet region with a market size of over 670 million people.

  • Strong Rule Of Law

    Strong Rule Of Law

    The 2020 U.S. Chamber International IP Index recognizes Singapore among the most financially transparent in the world and the country sits in the Top 10 across various categories of the 2020 global index.

  • World-class Talent Pool

    World-class Talent Pool

    In 2020, Singapore continues to top the charts as the best country for developing human capital in a report by the World Bank. It ranked first out of 157 economies thanks to a world class education system and the ability to attract global talent.

The inconvenient truth is not all start-ups succeed. And yet, there are over 4,000 start-up founders in Singapore alone. Though the start-up scene is fraught with peril including fears of premature scaling and cash flow issues, these innovators are braving the proverbial start-up storm with hopes to become the next unicorn.

In 2020, these challenges were taken to even greater heights, as founders were faced with the struggle of how to lead their businesses through a global pandemic.

Dr. Sandhya Sriram and her team have a radical idea to produce seafood from stem cells. Engineer Suresha Venkataraya is on a mission to invent a wearable kidney dialysis machine. Tech entrepreneur Shaun Chong is scaling his business to become the dominant logistic tech company in the region. And serial entrepreneur Peiru Teo’s artificial intelligence start-up builds chatbots for companies and governments.

What these four entrepreneurs have in common with the thousands of other start-up founders in Singapore is that they have chosen this country as their home base for innovation. A choice that they believe increases their chances of success particularly amid a global crisis, and in a world that is in a state of flux.

“This country wowed me with its entrepreneurial spirit and the opportunities that are available to start a business. It takes S$300 and two minutes to set up a company here.”

Dr. Sandhya Sriram
CEO, Shiok Meats

“It has been very encouraging for us to set up here since we are looking at a very novel sector that people have never heard of,” says Dr. Sriram, who met with many detractors when she pitched her unconventional plan to make cell-based shrimp meat in 2018.

While plant-based meat substitutes, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, had already hit mainstream awareness by 2018, her idea of harvesting stem cells to create real shrimp meat was unheard of. Dr. Sriram says she was happy to be given a chance to set up in Singapore and kickstart her ambitious project.

A Vibrant And Well-
connected Ecosystem

Singapore’s openness to original, visionary ideas is just one of the reasons why it is increasingly viewed as the Silicon Valley of the region and an ideal business environment for start-ups, MNCs, incubators and venture capitalists.

  • Start-ups
  • Incubators
  • Venture Capital
    Funds
  • US
    In Funding
    Support

The country’s dynamic start-up ecosystem and diverse tech-savvy population make it a powerhouse for building and growing new businesses.

This is why innovative high-tech start-ups, digital businesses and enterprise solutions builders establish their headquarters in Singapore.

Singapore’s strong network of international companies, venture capitalists and incubators put entrepreneurs in close proximity with potential investors and funding, thereby facilitating access to the key resources needed to grow their businesses.

Just 15 months after establishing itself in Singapore, Shiok Meats completed a US$4.6 million seed round funding as well as a highly successful US$17.3 million Series A funding in September 2020. It has since grown from two co-founders to a team of nine, with plans underway to commercialize.

But a well-connected ecosystem alone is not the only key to success. Connections aside, a culture that supports innovation is a must.

A Foundation
For Innovation

Singapore’s well-established scientific infrastructure and facilities are a boon for start-ups working on high-tech and research-intensive innovations.

AWAK Technologies CEO Suresha Venkataraya says he has received strong support from the government and healthcare ecosystem to conduct the research necessary to develop his medical technology company.

In December 2019, AWAK Technologies raised US$40 million in an oversubscribed funding round to build a wearable kidney dialysis machine.

He says, “Since ours is a very clinically-oriented product, we needed credible facilities, readily available data and well-constructed processes to track data. Our biggest advantage was the clinical support we received from Singapore General Hospital and the clinicians we work with.”

With a countrywide focus on digital innovation, new businesses in Singapore find it easy to embrace disruption and experiment with their ideas on the ground. In fact, a poll by an employee engagement platform of 20,000 employees in Singapore revealed an increase in productivity during the country’s two-month circuit breaker. The survey canvassed 127 companies across various sectors.

“Singapore’s strength in supporting innovative technology and enforcing intellectual property, makes it easy for entrepreneurs to safeguard our rights.”

Suresha Venkataraya
CEO, AWAK Technologies

But, beyond the ease to innovate, a key concern for entrepreneurs who are creating brand new disruptive technologies is intellectual property protection, and Singapore’s legal framework eases those concerns.

Singapore consistently ranks among the top in the world for its protection of intellectual property rights, which assures start-ups that their innovations are safeguarded. In 2020, the Singapore government lauded several firms for managing and harnessing IP to survive and flourish during the pandemic. Singapore has proven to be a hothouse for innovation, but that’s not the only ace up its sleeve.

Further strengthening this culture of innovation, is Singapore’s openness to deep tech.

A Hotbed For Deep-tech

Shaun Chong, who is CTO of Ninja Van, says Singapore’s advanced digital infrastructure and digital savvy population is a key reason why the company continues to be headquartered here, even though it currently operates in six markets across the region.

“It is very obvious to us that Singapore is at the forefront of technology, making the country a very good testbed to experiment with disruptive technologies,” Chong says. The proprietary technology used in Ninja Van’s apps, including the algorithms that allow its delivery personnel to optimize their routes, is created in Singapore, before being rolled out to other countries.

“The next big thing for us is how do we dominate the whole e-commerce logistics market of Southeast Asia? Through our established partnerships with our major customers in Singapore, we have journeyed with them in their expansion across the region as well.”

Shaun Chong
CTO, Ninja Van

Nearly half (45%) of start-ups being created globally now are in deep tech-related sub-sectors.

Start-up Genome

Singapore is also investing US$19 billion into R&D efforts over the next few years to propel the growth of deep tech sectors such as fintech and artificial intelligence.

The Startup SG Equity scheme is one such avenue. It allows private-sector investors to co-invest with the government in Singapore-based start-ups. The scheme was announced as part of Singapore’s 2020 budget, with an additional ~US$220 million added to encourage investments from private sectors.

To further sustain the growth momentum of promising start-ups amid the pandemic, the government also launched the S$285 million Special Situation Fund for Start-ups (SSFS) to provide time-limited funding support.

This drive for innovation and deep tech is also fueled by a diverse and tech-savvy population who is well equipped to help start-ups thrive.

A Diverse And Tech-
savvy Population

Singapore’s diverse and highly educated population, which hails from the region and beyond, also contributes to the success rate of Singapore-grown start-ups. Research scientists and engineers from across the globe are attracted to Singapore’s high livability standards, hence offering tech start-ups a valuable human resource to tap into.

Local tertiary institutions and communities are also boosting talent capabilities. For instance, in 2019 the National University of Singapore (NUS) invested ~US$1 million in its students and staff to co-create deep tech start-ups.

In light of the pandemic, it was announced in August 2020 that the Startup SG Founder program would also be enhanced with ~US$110 million put aside to increase training and mentorship opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs at NUS and four other tertiary institutions. The government has also propelled businesses and the population at large to embrace digitalisation with the roll-out of a nation-wide SG Digital movement. As part of this move, it was announced in July 2020 that anybody who faces difficulties with their digital devices will soon be able to get help at almost 50 new SG Digital community hubs island wide.

Digital savviness aside, Singapore’s stature as a microcosm of Asia presents businesses with a unique advantage. The benefits of gaining insights to an entire region from one location, the founders say, are obvious.

“In Singapore, enterprises are willing to test and invest in technology. And that is great for us because we need to generate revenue and be able to prove our case here.”

Peiru Teo
CEO, KeyReply

Peiru Teo, CEO of KeyReply, an AI chatbot developer, says, “Southeast Asia may seem like a single region, but the market is actually very fragmented. Being here gives companies exposure to the rest of the region.”

Her company, which deals with AI and natural language processing, requires team members who are culturally sensitive and fluent in various regional languages, such as Thai, Bahasa Indonesia and Malay.

Being in Singapore provides KeyReply with access to qualified talent from across the region, who have the necessary language skills to support and develop the algorithms for her chatbot software.

When it comes to scaling beyond Singapore however, the icing on the cake is the country’s reputation, international ties, and strong bilateral relations.

A Gateway For
Regional Growth

Singapore’s credible reputation, and strong international business ties and bilateral relations have been indispensable for Singapore-based founders who have the ambition to scale beyond Singapore.

Even on home ground, Singapore’s central location allows easy access for collaboration between start-ups and global players. The wide slate of business conferences and events provides ample opportunity for entrepreneurs to make connections with potential clients and collaborators around the region.

The country has also prioritised finding ways to resume business travel in the earliest and safest way possible. At the time of writing there are plans underway to host hybrid digital-physical events of up to 250 people, thanks to new technology that paves the way for rapid testing of Covid-19.

The Top 4 Fastest-growing Start-up Sub-sectors Globally

Advanced Manufacturing & Robotics
Blockchain
Agtech & New Food
Artificial Intelligence, Big Data & Analytics

When abroad, the trust that foreign companies place in Singapore’s well-established regulatory system and strong track record in technology and innovation can’t be underestimated either.

Teo observes, “When we market our software to companies or governments in other countries who might be a little bit more risk-averse, there tends to be more trust when they find out we are from Singapore. They attribute more credibility to us, and that opportunity is very valuable.”

The Bottom Line

There’s no denying that Singapore attracts some of the best start-ups and entrepreneurs from across the globe. From Medtech and Foodtech, to AI and logistics, start-ups in Singapore are reaping the benefits of setting up business in this country. The country has always been notorious for its resiliency and this has been put to the test amid the current global situation. In 2020, Singapore has upped the ante to support the start-up ecosystem and has put together a robust set of measures to help start-ups not only to sustain, but thrive.

This page was paid for by Innovation Nation. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.