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S'pore needs more entrepreneurs to stay competitive in next 50 yrs

Prof Shih urges the Republic to lose its risk-averse mindset and foster a culture of exploration and experimentation, and says that failed entrepreneurs are, in fact, a great asset to Singapore and to any company.


TO stay competitive in the next 50 years, Singapore will need more entrepreneurs, even if a staggering 95 per cent of them will fail, said former NUS (National University of Singapore) president Shih Choon Fong.

As much as just 5 per cent of entrepreneurs will successfully take an idea to market, the rest would have acquired sought-after skills such as street savviness, thinking out of the box and finding better ways of doing things, Prof Shih explained.

"Failed entrepreneurs are in fact, a great asset to Singapore and to any company," he told BT in an interview, after speaking at an NUS Society lecture on Wednesday, where he urged the Republic to lose its risk-averse mindset and foster a culture of exploration and experimentation.

As Singapore looks to the next 50 years, it must develop its entrepreneurs and enterprises into global players and brands, added Prof Shih. "If you don't scale, someone will come and eat your lunch. If your market is important, foreign giants will move in. Singapore businesses have to think big and global."

One way to do that is to build Global Innovation Launchpads in at least 10 startup hotspots worldwide, complexes that house incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces for local partners and some 1,000 Singapore entrepreneurs, Prof Shih suggested. "We will have our startups launch there, take off, and maybe go for an IPO (initial public offering) in different parts of the world."

Overseas market access however, may be too complex to be resolved by just physical spaces, said Alex Lin, head of Infocomm Investments (IIPL, the venture arm of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore).

"Although business networks and local knowledge may be available, no stakeholder will 'help' unless there is reciprocal benefit to them. Worse, our young startups may get cannibalised while finding their way," he noted.

IIPL's Global Startup Exchange Programme, he shared, offers local startups the opportunity to go to any of its partner incubator or accelerator's countries to understand the ecosystem and market better. In return, IIPL plays host to startups sent by its overseas partners accessing Asia via Singapore. Said Dr Lin: "What we do is build on the 'heart ware' rather than the hardware or the physical infrastructure in these overseas markets."

Prof Shih on Wednesday also suggested to start an Innovation Enterprise College programme, in which selected undergraduates will spend two years at NUS, and another two years at a China university, while engaged in entrepreneurial work.

"A China-dominated Asia is the future of the global economy. Its major cities Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have become hotbeds for mass entrepreneurship and grassroots innovation. It's normal for people there to hold day jobs and work on their startups at night," he said.

Darius Cheung, local serial entrepreneur and an alumnus of the NUS Overseas Colleges programme (in which students intern at startups and study entrepreneurship-related courses at partner universities located in entrepreneurial and academic hubs of the world), agreed that it would be a China-led Asia for the "next few decades". "This is a very important strategic opportunity for Singapore, as one of the best places in the world that has both the software and hardware required to be a nexus of innovation, and one that can understand and bridge the East and West," he said.

Asked about Singapore's place in the innovation world, Mr Cheung said: "Perhaps somewhere between a Switzerland, a Silicon Valley and a Shenzhen."