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Crowdfunding catches on

More independent entrepreneurs in Singapore are turning to this avenue to get their businesses off the ground. BT Lifestyle profiles four local projects

The TinyMOS team, with (from left) co-founders Chia Lih Wei, Ashprit Singh Arora and Grey Tan, and marketing staff Raphael Goh.
The Tiny1 is touted as the lightest consumer-level camera for astrophotography, priced at US$399.
The team at Witching Hour Studios poses for a shot, including co-founders Ian Gregory Tan (centre, with cap) and Brian Kwek (to his left).
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is an isometric role-playing game with a Venetian setting.
The Oowa telephoto and wide-angle lenses can be attached to mobile phones to provide high-quality photographs.
Klug Home connects all other smart devices in the household for optimum convenience and comfort. Acting as the "brain" of the house, it is able to ensure that tasks such as locking the door and opening the windows are automatically synced to the homeowner's schedule.

By Sherwin Loh

IT started with a love for drawing, and the desire to create a sketchbook for artists like himself.

But instead of just making a sketchbook in the hopes of selling it, part-time Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer Erwin Lian went to crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and got 881 like-minded folks around the world to pledge US$53,851 to his Perfect Sketchbook project in July 2014.

In return, his backers received a 60-page leather bound book, filled with 100 pages of 9cm x 14cm cotton paper to draw on. In November 2015, he followed it up with The Perfect Sketchbook B5, a 56-page leather bound book with 26cm x 18cm watercolour paper.

That drew 955 backers who pledged US$54,060 on another crowdfunding site, Indiegogo.

Both crowdfunding sites gave Mr Lian,37, a headstart in a business that did not generate much profit, but he reckons that he now knows enough to be independent.

"Both were successful campaigns, but I don't feel like I need crowdfunding any more," explains Mr Lian. He says that he now has a database of potential customers to start from, if he ever decides to produce a third book.

More independent entrepreneurs in Singapore are turning to crowdfunding - estimated to have raised US$34 billion globally - to get their businesses off the ground.

On Kickstarter, 100 projects are listed as originating from Singapore, though some are from local subsidiaries of companies based elsewhere.

There are also instances where Singaporeans list other cities as their base. Singaporean mechanical engineer Ding Eu-Wen lists his Lumos bicycle helmet on Kickstarter as originating from Boston, Massachusetts, as he met the company's co-founder, Jeff Haoran Chen, at the Harvard Business School there.

Successful local projects include The Perfect Sketchbook, and the iBam smartphone speaker. Popular crowdfunded projects include card game Exploding Kittens, which raised US$8.7 million on a US$10,000 target, and smart watch Pebble Time, which raised US$20 million on a target of US$500,000.

Still, not all successful projects translate into complete products, as companies have folded and contributors have been left with nothing, since a crowdfunding commitment is seen as an investment and not a purchase.

One of the biggest local disappointments has been with Singapore start-up Pirate 3D, which raised US$1.44 million on Kickstarter in 2013, then hailed as one of the most successful projects on the platform. It failed to deliver on its 3D printers, leaving an estimated 60 per cent of its backers without a finished product as at October 2015.

These days, crowdfunding is also used as a marketing channel for smaller companies to raise awareness, rather than depend on it for validation.

Singapore games developer Witching Hour Studios recently completed a £60,162 (S$105,000) Kickstarter campaign to launch its first console and PC game, but having spent the last two years and S$1 million in creating Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, the game would still be released, despite the failure of its recent Kickstarter campaign. The game is slated for release for the PC in August 2016 and January 2017 for the PlayStation 4.

Says Ian Gregory Tan, the company's co-founder and creative director: "Crowdfunding was both a marketing tool and supplement for the game. People are now familiar with who we are, and what we are doing, and it gave us the opportunity to talk about the additional cast that we have for the game."

Changes in expectations have prompted at least one local crowdfunding platform, StarHub's Crowdtivate, to move from funding to playing a mentoring role.

Stephen Lee, head of i3 (Innovation, Investment, Incubation) at StarHub, says: "We remain keen in helping entrepreneurs to learn and work as they get their business off the ground. We therefore decided to move away from managing a crowdfunding platform and we are instead focusing our efforts on mentorship, from accelerating start-ups in-house to transform our business, to referring them to one of our partner accelerators depending on their objectives."

Shooting for the stars

By Tan Teck Heng

AT the tender age of 14, classmates Grey Tan and Chia Lih Wei were already budding inventors who presented an odourless dustbin in front of their entire school. "I always came up with stupid ideas and Lih Wei would indulge me," says Mr Tan sheepishly.

The bin never made it to production, but the pair, now 26, have come a long way since. Along with fellow co-founder of TinyMOS Ashprit Singh Arora, 24, the team recently ran a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for the Tiny1, a consumer-level camera for astrophotography, priced at US$399.

Their campaign made global headlines by hitting its US$100,000 goal in just four hours, and is now at US$337,858 as at July 7, 2pm, with three days left to go.

"Our goal is to introduce astronomy to the mainstream," says Mr Singh. "People used to be quite active in following astronomy, but after living in cities for many generations, we've lost touch."

Adds Mr Tan: "We want to make it as affordable and portable as possible for Singaporeans to bring the camera out of the city." At around 300 to 400 grams, Tiny1 is practically half the weight of a DSLR, which is probably the next most accessible camera for astrophotography, explains Mr Tan.

"But even for astrophotography within Singapore, you can go for shots of brighter objects like the sun, the moon, the Great Orion nebula, or even space satellites," he says. Here's a tip: try shooting from the base of the Singapore Flyer.

The goal is to sell 2,000 units in the first year, and there are already 700 orders from Indiegogo alone. Mr Tan is confident that the 2,000 unit target is achievable. He pegs the market at around two million people a year in the US alone, based on annual attendance at official astronomy events. In fact, over 40 per cent of crowdfunding came from the US, with over 12.5 per cent from Singapore.

While the Tiny1 sounds like yet another crowdfunding miracle, the project has been over two years in the making. The team previously attracted S$250,000 from investors, including entrepreneur Lim Qing Ru and Mercatus Capital, with a Spring Singapore grant (TECS POC) clinching them another S$250,000.

The campaign itself was also broadcast to a mailing list of over 4,000 subscribers, and the team expected the campaign to be funded within two days. Four hours, on the other hand, took them by surprise. Says Mr Singh: "We were hoping for a 'miracle,' but you can never really expect it."

But for him, crowdfunding the last phases of their project is "not so much marketing but market validation. It proves to ourselves and investors that the market is accepting of the product, before we invest large sums of money in production."

Telling stories through games

By Tan Teck Heng

ON a backpacking trip to Venice 10 years ago, Ian Gregory Tan and his friends sparred with wooden swords in a drunken haze along the waterways of the floating city. "I used that as a premise in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign!" recalls the 31-year-old.

Since then, this co-founder of Witching Hour Studios has also turned that fond memory into a full-fledged video game - Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a role-playing game with a Venetian setting. It's Witching Hour Studios' fourth title and first campaign on Kickstarter, which made headlines for hitting 135 per cent of their £45,000 (S$67,200) goal within two weeks.

However, unlike typical Kickstarter projects, this crowdfunding effort comes at the tail end of their fund-raising, and is only a fraction of the over S$1 million budget, much of which comes from an external gaming publisher. "Kickstarter is a supplement to the project, rather than having the whole thing hinging on crowdfunding," explains Mr Tan.

The game is priced at US$25 and co-founder Brian Kwek reckons they'll need to sell 75,000 copies to break even. It's not unreasonable given that their critically-acclaimed debut effort, Ravenmark: Scourge Of Estellion, currently priced at US$9.99, has sold 100,000 copies to date.

Almost half of Masquerada's backers came from the US, with a whopping 30 per cent from Singapore alone. It's immense support from the domestic market, says both co-founders. "Right after the campaign ended, some of us went for some bak kut teh to celebrate, and this teenager came up to us in his school uniform, asking if we were from Witching Hour Studios," recalls Mr Tan. "He's a Kickstarter backer, it was completely surreal!"

The 2.5-D graphics are inspired by French comic books and Disney-styled animations. Explains Mr Tan: "There's something timeless about Disney movies and comics like Tintin and Asterix - we want to create something that will still feel warm and natural 10 years from now."

While 55 per cent of the game is filled with battle scenes, each fight is designed to further the plot. Says Mr Tan: "The goal is for adults to play - when you sit down to play, away from your significant other or kids, you want a valuable experience."

The developers have also included a gay character as a small but mandatory part of the plot. "You play Cicero, a straight character in a homophobic world, and he grew up with those values," says Mr Tan, who explains that players will witness the protagonist's own struggle with discovering a friend's sexuality.

"We're trying to humanise the experience, and we're not being particularly controversial," he continues. "The conversation we're starting is one of mutual respect for everyone, regardless of race, language, religion and sexuality."

Telling complex stories is part of the studio's belief that games are art too. "Games allow us to talk about deeper issues wrapped around a fantastic world worth exploring," says Mr Tan. "Stories are what connect us as human beings, all the way back to tales told around a campfire to keep the shadows at bay."

Target exceeded for phone lenses

By Sue-Ann Tan

JUGGLING between cameras and phones on holiday has always been a hassle. Either you're forced to lug a hefty DSLR to get a good shot of the Grand Canyon, or settle for a half-baked result with your phone's camera function.

Oowa's mobile phone lenses were designed to solve this problem. By screwing the lens onto a specially made Oowa phone case, the photographs captured will rival that of a proper camera.

This is a project that Chan Li Han, chief executive officer of DynaOptics, has been raising money for on Kickstarter. The 37-year-old's company specialises in free form lenses which bridge the gap between a phone and a proper camera.

These lenses deviate from the norm in that they are not rotationally symmetrical. Ms Chan explains: "The lens-making process is similar to shaping clay on a spinning wheel. The wheel ensures that lenses are symmetrical as it rotates. It takes a complex effort to distort this symmetry to create the free-form lens that we want."

Unlike the conventional symmetrical lenses, the free-form lens provides sharper images, less distortion and no colour "bleeding", allowing the photograph to have clean, straight lines. And rather than have clip-on lenses, Oowa provides a special phone case that the lens can be screwed onto. This prevents the vignetting that occurs when lenses are clipped onto phones.

In an age of Instagrammers who focus on uploading the best photograph possible on their profiles, it is no surprise that people have responded to Ms Chan's crowdfunding call. With just over a day to go until the end of the campaign (as at July 7), they have already exceeded their target. They have raised US$63,245, way ahead of their US$50,000 goal.

Ms Chan's reason for using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform is also one that differs from the mainstream. Rather than raising funds, she wanted to raise awareness of the free-form technology she is invested in. "More than anything, this validates market interest in our technology," she says.

Two-thirds of her backers are from the US and the rest are mostly Singaporeans. Looking at the statistics provided by Kickstarter, Ms Chan reveals that the backers are people who enjoy photography, travel, technology and surprisingly, movies.

Having reached her target, Ms Chan expects the products to be delivered by November. It costs US$139 for two lenses - a "zoom" or telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens, and US$79 for just one. The package also comes with the phone case, which currently only fits iPhones. Ms Chan anticipates that they will roll it out to other brands after the initial stage of sales.

"These are the first free-form lenses that can be attached on cameras in the world," Ms Chan reveals with pride, "and through crowdfunding, we hope to get this technology in the hands of consumers who care about high-quality photography."

Intraix hits 30% of target to fund energy efficiency ideas

By Sue-Ann Tan

WHEN Darrell Zhang wakes up each day, his air-conditioning turns itself off, the lights in the living room come on and his coffee machine starts preparing his morning beverage. All this happens without him needing to lift a finger.

Harry Potter wizardry at work? No, says the 32-year-old co-founder of Intraix, a start-up company that focuses on energy efficiency. He hopes that people will turn their homes into "smart" places that can also provide them with the comfort and convenience he enjoys.

Mr Zhang has been working on an unassuming small USB-sized device called Klug Home, which can connect all other smart devices in a household. Acting as the "brain" of the house, it is able to ensure that tasks such as locking the door, opening the windows and starting the coffee machine are automatically synced to the homeowner's schedule.

When Mr Zhang returns home, his fans, lights and entertainment systems can be turned on and ready for use.

On top of this, Mr Zhang also developed a second product, Klug Air, which specifically answers the problems homeowners have with air-conditioning. "I've spoken to people who say that they wake in the middle of the night feeling too cold and have to turn the thermostat up," he says.

Klug Air resolves these practical problems by regulating the temperature according to the room conditions and the owner's needs. Homeowners can set the temperature to rise slightly at 3am when the external temperature dips, and even turn the air-conditioning to fan-mode an hour before they wake. However, his campaign did not find too many supporters and he ended up with only 30 per cent of his target US$30,000 funded by backers.

"The challenge is that the market for smart appliances has not matured," he conceded. "It takes time for smart homes to go mainstream and it is not easy for people to adapt straightaway."

Mr Zhang reckons that some markets, such as those in Europe and Japan, are more receptive to new technology, while Singaporeans worry if the smart plugs will "explode" or "cause radiation".

Still, he managed to get enough external corporate support to go into production. He expects the Klug Home and Klug Air to go on sale at the end of the year, costing less than S$100 each.

Still, crowdfunding has been a good experience for him. "Crowdfunding allows for the validation of our ideas in the cheapest, fastest way," he says. "Sometimes in companies, most employees think a product is a good idea but in reality, it cannot sell." Crowdfunding platforms also provide demographic information on a campaign's backers, giving start-ups an accurate idea of their target audience. "In the end, we have nothing to lose," Mr Zhang adds.