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Singapore firms urged to see innovation, going global as a single process

"We want enterprises to think international earlier in their life cycle," says ESG chairman Peter Ong.


JUST as two government agencies merged to form Enterprise Singapore (ESG) in April, local firms should think of innovation and internationalisation as "a single conversation" instead of two separate journeys, said ESG chairman Peter Ong.

"Innovation and internationalisation are mutually reinforcing pillars," he told The Business Times.

Innovative offerings require a market; given Singapore's small size, internationalisation is crucial. Conversely, going abroad will not work if firms sell "me too" products, so innovation is key if firms are to create intellectual property and build brands.

Previously, firms tended to think of these as sequential steps, he noted: first going to Spring Singapore for help in building capabilities, then approaching International Enterprise Singapore to go overseas.

But both agencies merged to form ESG in April, giving firms a single touch-point - and a chance to talk about both steps at the same time.

Said Mr Ong: "We believe that such a more holistic approach will be better, and in fact it's the intended objective of the merger."

Internally, the merged agency has reorganised its staff to support this holistic approach, with teams comprising officers from both agencies.

And to get the message out to firms, ESG has reviewed its processes, including grant applications.

One early step for ESG was to make grants more streamlined and business-friendly, with everything available via a single grant portal.

In April, three schemes by different agencies were streamlined under the new Productivity Solutions Grant.

And in October, two major grants - the Capability Development Grant and the Global Company Partnership - will be combined to form the new Enterprise Development Grant.

This is in line with both ESG's efforts to simplify grants, and its push to get firms to tackle innovation and internationalisation simultaneously.

To get firms to move away from the previously-mentioned sequential approach , ESG wants to make internationalisation "mainstream", said Mr Ong. "We want enterprises to think international earlier in their life cycle."

There are major opportunities close by, he notes. China is an obvious example, and as growth moves from its coastal cities to second- and third-tier cities, Singapore must "continue to ride that wave".

Even closer to home are the neighbouring economies of South-east Asia, with the number of middle- and upper-class Asean households projected to double from 67 million in 2010 to 125 million in 2025. With the rise of Asean's middle class, opportunities will proliferate in consumer sectors, infrastructure and connectivity in particular, said Mr Ong, citing Indonesia and Vietnam as especially promising markets.

With Internet penetration still quite low but growing, it is also a good time to enter online markets in the region, he added, noting that Internet companies from China are already moving into South-east Asia.

ESG hopes to help by facilitating more overseas missions, providing more "landing points" such as Global Innovation Alliance offices, and providing connections through free trade agreement networks.

In innovation, Mr Ong hopes to nurture a new approach. Thus far, the focus has been on "technology-push innovation": commercialising ideas that originate in research labs.

While this remains important, ESG wants to complement it with "industry-pull innovation", which starts by asking what the industry needs.

An example of this is the "open innovation" approach, in which firms make their problem statements available to external solution providers and researchers, including startups, universities, and research bodies.

"We want to support that process and encourage SMEs to open up their problems but also participate as solution providers," said Mr Ong.

For the industry-pull approach to take off, it needs "bilingual" people who understand both industry issues and technology, he added: "So I'm really calling out to Singaporeans who are 'bilingual' to come forward and work with us."

READ MORE: ESG to help new SMEs be digital from birth

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