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Silicon Valley still a draw for Singapore startups

But govt support and having a location-specific business are persuading some entrepreneurs to start up at home

Billions of dollars have been channelled into moulding Singapore into what the Wall Street Journal touts as "South-east Asia's Silicon Valley", and while there has been rising startup activity here, more than a handful of enterprising Singaporeans are still packing their bags and headed for the original Silicon Valley, the world's start-up central, or to other hotspots in the US.


BILLIONS of dollars have been channelled into moulding Singapore into what the Wall Street Journal touts as "South-east Asia's Silicon Valley", and while there has been rising startup activity here, more than a handful of enterprising Singaporeans are still packing their bags and headed for the original Silicon Valley, the world's start-up central, or to other hotspots in the US.

Himawan Gunadhi, an Indonesian-born serial entrepreneur based in San Francisco, says the trickle of such individuals has widened, especially among those in the early stages of launching their startups.

He should know, for he has spent the last 11 years as consulting professor for the National University of Singapore's Overseas College (NOC) entrepreneurship programme in the US. An NUS alumnus himself and a former Singapore permanent resident-turned US citizen, he says local entrepreneurs are often driven to the US by the nature of their business, particularly those in software development and big data.

For these startups, the US provides much better access to financing, co-founders, technical workers and market opportunities. He adds that the ease with which Singaporeans can make a foray into the US has also been a contributing factor.

For some of them, starting out as tech undergraduates doing summer internships in top Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook blossomed into job offers; for others, the foot in the door came through university exchange programmes.

And then there is the NOC programme that he mentors; this dispatches dozens of aspiring student entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley and New York City every year for year-long immersions in an entrepreneurial culture. Data from the US embassy in Singapore has it that the number of Singaporeans studying in the US has surged in recent years. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of student visas issued to Singaporeans shot up from 5,596 to 7,739 - a 40 per cent jump.

Prof Gunadhi says: "Many of them came to study and stayed, or came back to the US later. And now, fresh tech graduates can get jobs straight away in the US, thus giving them the opportunity to assimilate into the innovation culture.

"A programme like NOC has produced many Singapore startups and several US startups are founded by returning NOC alumni."

He cites the example of Y Combinator-backed Semantics3, an e-commerce product-and-pricing data platform set up by Varun Sivamani, an NOC alumnus who had spent a year studying entrepreneurship at Stanford University in Silicon Valley.

Prof Gunadhi, having started up four times in the US himself, says that two of his ventures - algorithmic search startup WiseNut and Internet search-and-advertising firm NetSeer - would not and could not have got off the ground in Singapore because of their complex algorithm technologies and the lack of appropriate talent and access to funding.

He is exploring ways to get his other two startups into Singapore - Haileo, a Web-scale fashion-discovery engine, and Sankia, a virtual marketing platform - but he has come up against issues such as Singapore ownership being required, and the conditions for government-subsidised funding applying to early-stage US companies looking to expand into Singapore.

"My thought is that if the Singapore innovation ecosystem were more flexible, I could imagine there being a more balanced two-way flow of ideas and venture financing," he says.

Still, he encourages his NOC students to look to Singapore first; he believes it is easier for them to obtain seed funding, given the level of government support.

Where their business ideas are location-specific or involve cloning a US model, many Singapore entrepreneurs have also realised that they are better off starting up and growing their businesses from Singapore, he says. "These entrepreneurs and the investment ecosystem are realising the potential in Asean and Asia, rather than just thinking of the US as a panacea."

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast from California is New York City, another booming entrepreneurial hotspot where Singaporean entrepreneur Wang Jing Li has started up a food product line.

She first landed in the country more than a decade ago to study finance and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she worked in New York City's Wall Street for 10 years, and then quit to launch her startup. Today, she is the founder of Jellyous Jellies, an almond milk pudding which she describes as having a tao huay or bean curd-like consistency.

Ms Wang, who has thrived in the city she finds dirty and less than refined, cannot deny its palpable "can do" spirit. She says: "You can be a free spirit here, and this makes it easier to create your own path and do what you want to do."

People in the city network shamelessly, she says. "I have always asked for help, and 90 per cent of the time, I get some help in terms of advice, or people talking about their own experience . . . I think in Eastern cultures, if you network, people put labels on you or are not as willing to help."

That said, she still thinks Singapore has fantastic infrastructure and top-notch government support, which would enable her to grow her product line, so it is only a matter of time before she expands Jellyous to Singapore.

Jupe Tan, vice-president of international operations at the Plug & Play Tech Center, a business accelerator headquartered in California, says that when Singapore startup tenCube was bought out by US security technology company McAfee in a raved-about acquisition in 2010, the innovation ecosystem received a confidence boost.

tenCube, which offered a comprehensive mobile security suite that protects against loss of data when one loses a cellphone, was the baby of NOC Silicon Valley alumnus Darius Cheung.

Mr Tan says that, besides Silicon Valley, Singaporeans are choosing to launch their startups in cities such as Seattle, home to major companies such as Microsoft and Amazon; other startup destinations are Austin, Boston and New York City, all hotspots for media, advertising and financial technology ventures.

Every three months, a group of enterprising Singaporeans in San Francisco's Bay Area congregate to suss out the latest in Silicon Valley. These gatherings are organised by the duo behind three-year-old Facebook group SG Founders - Lo Min Ming, a Stanford University alumnus and co-founder of San Francisco-based Y Combinator startup Pixelapse, and Tay Kah Hong, an NOC Silicon Valley alumnus and now product designer at Quora, a community site headquartered in the Bay Area.

Mr Lo says: "We started by just adding friends in the Bay Area doing something related to startups and the tech scene."

Today, just three years on, the group is a gathering of 170 Singaporeans who are either starting up their own ventures or are working across multiple startups in Silicon Valley.

Such is the draw of the American Dream.

Starting up: Tech innovators enticed by Silicon Valley