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Tech-driven social innovation on the rise

Purpose-driven companies are harnessing technology to find solutions to social problems, and are being helped along the way by investment companies and companies performing CSR

THANK YOU, MINISTER: Peter Bruck (left), chairman of World Summit Award, presents a token of appreciation to Minister of State for Communications & Information Janil Puthucheary.


PURPOSE is the new profit.

Mission-driven businesses are on the uptick, as more entrepreneurs use technology to build novel, sustainable solutions to social problems. In other words, they are finding it feasible to do good and make money while at it - and they are getting help along the way in the form of seed money, networking help and tips on shaping their ventures.

Janil Puthucheary, Minister of State for Communications and Information and for Education, said on Wednesday that it is an "exciting" time for social innovation. "Tech has changed the world. It has created many new opportunities in all sectors - business, finance and healthcare, to name a few."

Dr Puthucheary, also the second minister in charge of Singapore's Smart Nation initiative, was speaking to global leaders at the opening of the first South-east Asian edition of the World Summit Award Social Innovation Congress, organised within the United Nations framework and of which Singapore was host.

The congress ended on Friday with the presentation of a series of World Summit awards to startups behind the best digital innovations with impact on society.

On Wednesday, when the minister spoke of Singapore businesses that use tech to promote the social good, and in particular, to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and lower-income, he cited BevEat, a homegrown startup that has developed an e-wallet solution so that individuals with deafness or autism can be employed at food and retail outlets.

BevEat colour-codes each customer's order, simplifying the process for employees who take or track orders. The startup is backed by Singtel, among companies which have chosen to support startups under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) drive.

The telco, which provided BevEat with S$10,000 in seed funding, on Wednesday launched Singtel Future Makers, a six-month programme to nurture up to seven "social-impact startups" via a cash funding of up to S$20,000 each, along with mentoring support, networking and commercialisation opportunities with the telco.

Andrew Buay, Singtel vice-president of group corporate social responsibility, noted that startups face challenges in fundraising, commercialising business ideas sustainably and in securing partnerships.

"We want to play a part to help change-makers turn their ideas into reality ... build a more inclusive society through innovative technologies ... and contribute to the public's understanding and support of social entrepreneurship."

Venturecraft, a private investment firm, wants to train its resources on helping social enterprises focused on healthcare tech. It told The Business Times that it has set aside S$200,000 over two years to support 10 such groups.

Its chief executive Isaac Ho said: "As venture capitalists, we see a particular opportunity to contribute to the community as we face a rapidly-ageing population; we'll do this by driving innovations such as those that support family members as caregivers of elderly relatives suffering from illnesses that require daily monitoring, such as dementia."

Temasek International this year partnered the Singapore International Foundation to offer mentoring to social enterprises; DBS in 2014 set aside S$50 million to champion social entrepreneurship, and has since 2012 supported more than 100 Asian social enterprises with grants.

Neeuro, a local company that makes tech wearables, on Friday found itself beribboned for its business idea; it emerged as overall champion among the winners of the various categories of the World Summit Awards (South-east Asia).

Neeuro's products are gadgets that incorporate elements of game-playing - point-scoring, competition against others following rules of play - to slow down the progress of Alzheimer's disease or dementia; the judges were impressed with its "innovative, practical" solution which addresses the mental health of an ageing population and is replicable outside Singapore.

Micepad, a Singapore-founded audience-engagement app, was one of five winners of the World Summit Award (Business & Commerce category). Its spokeswoman said that the company does not see itself so much as a social enterprise, but has a vision to create "paperless" audience engagement solutions at conferences.

She said: "Coming from a small country, we set out to be a global company from Day 1. Participating in the World Summit Award gave us the opportunity to be plugged into the global network of creative and purpose-driven companies around the world."

World Summit Award chairman Peter Bruck, said in his address on Wednesday that he was encouraged by the growth of "social-impact activism" in South-east Asia and urged social entrepreneurs, who, while using tech to do good, to ensure that "tech is not only in the hands of the maker, but in the hands of the user".

READ MORE: Temasek shows way for local firms to support social entrepreneurship