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Working together key to growing S'pore's startup ecosystem

Mr Steve Leonard: If we can evolve our collective thinking from a "not sure we can" into a "we think we can", and eventually into a "we know we can" mindset, then we will be on our way to building deep-tech companies from Singapore for the world.

SINGAPORE'S transformation over the past few decades from a developing country into one of the most innovative and tech-savvy metropolis in the world has been remarkable.

In the past decade, Singapore has consistently been acknowledged as a globally-recognised leader in areas of scientific research and intellectual-property protection.

Recently, the Global Innovation Index 2017 ranked Singapore as the most innovative nation in Asia. The WEF Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017 rated Singapore as having the best IP protection in Asia.

Its culture of valuing intellectual property (IP) as a result of a healthy pipeline of scientific research, the amount of available investment capital and the growing number of startups have further strengthened the nation's foundation for the future.

As with many aspects of Singapore's long-term economic structure, the government has played an important role in shaping the depth and diversity of the startup ecosystem here, largely through its support of the venture capital community and a sustained focus on ensuring a world-class education system.

In the past few years, the increasing deal activity in Singapore has been spurred by global trends around e-commerce and the sharing economy. Recent multi-billion-dollar funding for the likes of Grab and Lazada as well as Razer's initial public offering (IPO), point towards a growing interest by international investors in Singapore-based startups.

It's important to note here that Singapore is, by itself, not a sufficiently-large market for ambitious entrepreneurs or investors to pursue. However, Singapore is both the logical hub of South-east Asia - a diversified group of high-growth markets - and an experienced member of the global business community. So, it's not wrong for us to see the world as Singapore's market.


While there are many things to feel encouraged about in the Singapore startup ecosystem, most of the current activity relates to B2C (business-to-consumer) entities. But there is another area in which Singapore-based startups can "move the needle" on a large scale.

We need to imagine, start and scale more deep-tech product companies. To baseline what I mean by "deep-tech" products, it is in simple terms a product which has research-based IP at its core. Creating a new hardware or software system to meaningfully improve the accuracy rate (beyond that of medical professionals) in detecting potential tumours from a CT scan, would be a very specific example of how deep tech is defined.

Singapore has the resources and the capabilities needed to make a positive impact on some of the world's most pressing issues, particularly in areas such as healthcare, transportation and energy. At SGInnovate for instance, our focus is on working with the "scientist-as-founder", so our view is not "we first need more scientific research", but instead "how do we turn already-exciting research into deep-tech products that can advance humankind around the world".

We'd like to see more people in Singapore believing that they can build something that matters to people around the world. Many people, however, readily list limitations on why Singapore "cannot do it". Instead of defining ourselves as "the little red dot", we should instead frame ourselves as "the little (red) engine that could", recalling the famous "I think I can, I think I can . . ." mindset of the tiny train as it climbed the big mountain looming ahead.

Artificial Intelligence: A catalyst for deep-tech startups

One of the prime areas of focus for Singapore as a nation, and for SGInnovate as a contributor, is the field of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Globally, the AI-related market is growing exponentially. IDC estimates that revenue growth for the cognitive systems and AI market will increase from around S$11 billion in 2016 to over S$65 billion in the next three years.

In Singapore alone, there have been significant commitments in AI-related research for some time. In fact, Singapore has world-class research in this area, having been ranked second in the world by citation impact.

The launch of AI Singapore (formerly AI.SG) formalised the collaboration of key stakeholders to accelerate AI-related projects, fuelled in part by a S$150 million commitment from the National Research Foundation.

At SGInnovate, we will be intensifying its efforts around AI for 2018, aligning with AI Singapore's mission to bring together Singapore-based research institutions, AI startups and corporates to enhance and expand Singapore's AI capabilities.

How then, do we meaningfully progress with AI-related advances in healthcare, recognising that societal norms on what constitutes "private data" has already evolved so dramatically?

How do we deal with the inevitable impact on jobs that more automation will bring, especially given these changes are happening more quickly than ever before?

These are important questions to think about when we envision a future of AI. While the building of hardware and writing of software that together form an artificial intelligence system is beyond the capability of most people, we should all be involved in its progression, given the scale of its likely impact on our collective future.

There is now, perhaps more than ever, a recognition that tech startups are disrupting everything. Increasingly, large multinational corporations are trying to lead (or limit, depending on your perspective) how startups affect the growth and profitability of various industries.

Corporations of all sizes, whether domestic or multinational, must be more actively involved in the early-stage deep-tech space.

The advantages of a large corporation include access to financial and human-capital resources, together with a large customer and partner base. Startups don't have any of those assets, but they (hopefully) have people who see a better way to meet a human need.

To state the obvious, startups aren't constrained by the burden of delivering endless quarters of incrementally-improving results to the mass market of public shareholders.

Startups need four things: a differentiated product, paying customers, great talent, and capital to fuel growth.

Corporations can be a source of these key ingredients, and they need to see themselves as champions of ambitious founders, and to encourage, enable and expand deep-tech startups.

Almost without exception, a deep-tech startup is working on problems that take longer to solve, and therefore require more investment. A startup working on computer vision to improve medical-image evaluation may not garner the same attention as a photo-sharing platform right now, but we know what will be the priority in the years ahead with global issues such as with the ageing population.

The bottom line is, Singapore has everything any world-class innovation ecosystem needs: great education, supportive government, plenty of investment capital, strong corporates, local and international talent, and well-funded scientific research.

If we can evolve our collective thinking from a "not sure we can" into a "we think we can", and eventually into a "we know we can" mindset, then we will be on our way to building deep-tech companies from Singapore for the world.

  • The writer is founding chief executive officer, SGInnovate