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Singapore startups get kickstart from the crowd

It was a platform co-founders Kenneth Lou (left), Delane Foo and Mark Keong said could help them raise money and provide "international reach on a limited budget", the only caveat being that they had to raise US$60,000 in 30 days in order to receive any money.


TWO months ago, when Singapore startup Novelsys was ready to debut Ampere, its wireless charging sleeve for mobile phones, launching a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter had seemed like the obvious course.

It was a platform co-founders Kenneth Lou, Mark Keong and Delane Foo said could help them raise money and provide "international reach on a limited budget", the only caveat being that they had to raise US$60,000 in 30 days in order to receive any money. But in just under a day, their campaign raised US$60,897; at its close, the sum was more than US$87,000, almost 1.5 times the target amount.

Mr Lou and his team are among a growing crop of contemporary Singapore makers who take to Kickstarter from the get-go to "sell" their self-made wares. Could this hint at a revival of the maker culture - driven by entrepreneurs dedicated to creating and selling self-made products - which seemed to have languished here after early successes like Creative Technology and Tiger Balm?

But first, why Kickstarter?

The platform that popularised crowdfunding the world over reportedly has the largest audience of backers (8.24 million) and has raised more than US$1.61 billion for 81,000 successful campaigns since 2009.

It is often lauded as a quick way for entrepreneurs to promote and validate new ventures to the world, and to raise funding without having to lose equity. In comparison, pitching to venture capitalists (VCs) can take months and will entail giving away part of the company.

Johnathan Leow, founder of local crowdfunding consultancy firm Crowdfunding Collective, told The Business Times: "Crowdfunding really entered mainstream consciousness in Singapore in 2013, when The Buccaneer, the world's cheapest 3D printer (by Pirate3D), made headlines by raising more than US$1.4 million on Kickstarter.

"At that time, raising that amount of money was unheard of for an untested startup."

He estimates that there are now at least 250 Singapore projects hosted on Kickstarter, not far from the number on rival platform Indiegogo.

When contacted, a Kickstarter spokesman did not disclose numbers, but said most known Singapore projects are in film, technology, games, design and publishing. Generally, 40 per cent get funded.

Mr Leow said: "Crowdfunding is part of the more general trend of crowdsourcing, a phenomenon which has so subtly permeated our lifestyles that we don't even realise it. For example, if you want to find the best cut of beef for making steak, you need only to post the question on Facebook or Quora, and receive answers from the crowd. That's crowdsourcing, and it will continue to redefine the way we live."

But William Hooi, founder of not-for-profit association Singapore Makers, said that even as crowdfunding catches on, there is still some way to go for Singapore in terms of a "maker culture".

"It's still too early to say whether the (crowdfunding) success of a few products is indicative of a maker culture. We still don't have a critical mass of good ideas for creating hardware startups. Many are still very much driven by R&D labs in tertiary institutions and even then, there's not enough deal flow for VCs to consider."

He added that a thriving maker culture should have real democratising effects; it is an environment in which almost anyone can make something, given access to cutting-edge technologies, know-how and equipment.

"(But) the culture is definitely growing, as there have been deliberate efforts by both the government and the private sector to encourage this, such as the launch of IDA Labs and the Prototyping Lab @ NDC. The government has been generous with funding, but unless it's matched by an appropriate talent pool that can bring a good idea to value, it will be a futile effort."

Equally important is the need to cultivate the "right" mindset to build something that will make a difference to the world, as opposed to something which merely solves minor pain points, and to have the acumen to look for and plug a gap in the market, he added.

"The only way is to start building, tinkering and experimenting from a young age, and to facilitate access to tools so that anyone can make something." It is those who innovate in creating new products or services who will be the new rich, Singapore's first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, once said in 2002.

Notable made-in-Singapore products include Creative's Sound Blaster, which, after its debut in 1989, reigned as the de facto standard for audio processing cards in personal computers over the decade following. Other examples are Leung Kai Fook's Axe Brand Universal Oil, a medicated oil that has been used globally for nearly 70 years now; Razer's gaming hardware, among them the world's first high-speed mouse for professional gaming; XMI's X-mini capsule speakers, which typified self-powered and compact speakers globally; and Zimplistic's roti-maker Rotimatic, the world's first automated robot that can produce a warm roti in a minute.