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A deep look into Singapore’s startup ecosystem with TRIVE

Fresh off the recent rebrand from Tri5 to TRIVE, we sat down with Christopher Quek, Managing Partner, to find discuss the startup scene in Singapore and more broadly Southeast Asia.

There are always healthy discussions around this topic, especially with the amount of money currently being invested in the region.

Christopher had a lot to share, especially about Singapore’s funding landscape and he doesn’t mince his words.

You have been quoted saying that Singapore founders tend to follow the big ideas. Were you referring to an industry filled with copycats or something else? Also, do you believe it is still the case at the moment?

Yes. To put things into perspective, I have advised over 800 startups since 2011.

Singapore entrepreneurs will admit they were inspired by a proven model they heard of from the US, where they feel can be replicated in Singapore.

The challenge is that Singapore is uniquely different in terms of a business landscape than the US. With a limited market size, copying such ideas will see limitations. Singapore entrepreneurs fail to understand Singapore’s strengths and weaknesses. I find this mindset inherent due to our education system which is still limiting Singapore founders to think outside of the box and be creative.

Total funding has continued to rise, with a lot of money coming from outside investors. Do you think there is a potential for a funding bubble in Singapore and on a broader scale, the rest of Asia? There have been some high valuations coming out of India and China, with potential for Indonesia to follow the same route.

To put into perspective, Singapore is the center of SEA’s VC funding, with 75% of USD23b VC transactions done in 2017. In the last 2 years alone, many new huge mega funds (series B and above with USD100m in fund size) focusing on SEA have been launched, led by the likes of Vertex Ventures, Insignia, Baidu, B Capital, Vickers Ventures and Openspace.

SEA startups are still relatively at low valuations, with the exceptions of Grab, Go-Jek, Tokopedia, and others that have to attain unicorn status. I currently do not see a funding bubble happening in the short-term of the next 2 years, despite the large funds seeking series B-stage companies.

Reason being: ASEAN startups are still generally lacking in quality due to the less developed ecosystems across ASEAN, based on my observations. Those startups (using Singapore as their investment HQ) seeking funding will struggle to prove a high valuation to late-stage VCs/PEs, unless they have proven a unique USP or defensibility or disruption solution in their industry. They are also required to show huge traction growth and speed, which has been challenging.

ASEAN is fundamentally different from India or China, which each have a large homogenous market of above 1 billion people. ASEAN has 10 nations of disparate economic growth and political systems, which makes any startup difficult to command a high valuation as they move to Series B and above.

Do you think Singapore needs more entrepreneurs and is the government doing enough to nurture the industry? Beyond the grants and local funds, are we encouraging the next generation of innovators?

In comparison to other ASEAN ecosystems I have visited and observed, the Singapore government has done well in terms of hardware (the setting up of infrastructure) like inviting many global tech firms to build a regional HQ and the building of the Launchpads like Block 71.

However, the heartware (the building of community and paying-it-forward culture) is a difficult and intangible aspect that has yet to be nurtured to propel the startup ecosystem to the next level. This should be left to the entrepreneurial community to work on the second aspect, but the government should provide ‘no-strings attached’ funding and resources to build this up.

Singapore will always need more entrepreneurs to replace the old stalwarts of blue-chip SGX-listed companies. Transport companies like SMRT, ComfortDelgro are losing out to rising Grab and Go-Jek. Very soon, fintech-blockchain companies will snap at eating out our financial institutions and they too might lose their dominance.

Singapore needs deeply-rooted Singapore entrepreneurs who run the business economy, hire Singaporeans and constantly push the nation in forefront innovation. It is a fallacy to believe that transient foreign entrepreneurs will be concerned with the nation’s economic future. I foresee Singapore’s economy being taken over by global tech giants in the longer term if nothing is done to nurture the next generation of Singapore entrepreneurs.

Current efforts led by Singapore education institutions and the government are still limited, with the exception of NUS NOC program. The community needs to spruce up its pay-it-forward initiatives of fundings, connections, mentoring to truly build up a new generation of Singapore entrepreneurs.

Your passion for building local unicorns is definitely apparent. Are we close to making this a consistent reality?

In an opinion piece, I wrote about how non-Singaporean entrepreneurs are vastly gaining higher valuations than Singaporean-born ones. And whether we will one day have a Singapore-born-and-bred entrepreneur reaching unicorn status out of Singapore (Min Liang Tan’s Razer was born out of US, not from Singapore), is whether we can instill the support and nurturing of such entrepreneurs by the community.

From my regular engagements with millennial Singapore entrepreneurs, I am proud to share we have many intelligent, driven and dynamic Singaporeans. But resistant mindsets of their fellow Singaporeans around them have to change. Loved ones need to encourage and support, rather than frowning upon entrepreneurs for taking the high-risk path. Government officials need to accept and offer startups contracts instead of always offering to big names tech firms. Successful entrepreneurs need to return to the ecosystem and offer mentoring and connections.

I feel the reality to see Singaporean-led unicorns is likely more in the next 10 years, rather than 5. But it doesn’t mean we stop working towards these goals, while breaking negative mindsets along the way.

We have a few adopted unicorns like Grab and Lazada (sort of), but do you think Singapore can become the Southeast Asian hub for the billion-dollar brand club?

From my conversations with top-level government officials, it is always Singapore’s economic strategy to invite and include all high-valued companies to be based out of Singapore. On the flip side, potential unicorns will definitely consider basing out of Singapore, given the bulk of ASEAN investment activity is in Singapore.

So yes, Singapore will become SEA’s hub for the unicorns.

Read more about Unicorns in Southeast Asia.

Let’s take a step back and look at the positive. Where do you think Singapore is leading the charge in the startup space – specific industries, talent sectors, infrastructural support or something else?

Singapore’s startup ecosystem has evolved faster than its regional peers. Right now, Singapore-based marketplaces are no longer viable. Rather, Singapore has been pushing into deep technologies of engineering and sciences to be developed.

You have seen our Smart Nation initiatives like the rise of electric transportation (nuTonomy was sold for US$450m), energy solutions, blockchain, AI, cybersecurity, IOT, digital healthcare and life sciences being the focus of development. Singapore has also poured in US$12b into its RIE2020 initiative, which shows the seriousness of where the nation is going in innovation.

We are going well on this path, but it is more challenging than before, as the time required for commercialization of IP technologies are longer and VC investments have not yet fully aligned with this wave.

On a broader scale, what is the startup industry getting right in Southeast Asia?

For the rest of SEA, the markets are disparately different from Singapore. The SEA is still focused on marketplaces, ecommerce, and logistics, where the markets are fragmented and ripe for disruption. There are less deep-tech companies, with the exception of blockchain companies in the areas of finance and energy, where blockchain is becoming a dominant platform to help the unbanked and un-powered populations.

These markets are still very complex due to social, economic, political, technological setups in every country. But I see very vibrant entrepreneurs, especially in Vietnam and Malaysia who are making progress despite difficult odds.

Trive - Yale-NUS.jpg
Chris representing TRIVE at a panel in Yale-NUS

What place do you think TRIVE has in the startup industry here and what’s your vision for the next five years?

Our vision remains the same, which is to help great people build greater companies. TRIVE is an entrepreneur-founded VC, which means our strength is our years of experience of building companies from scratch in SEA. This is essential for startups who are in early-stages that required experienced mentors and connections to move past Series A.

We know that a startup ecosystem needs its community to grow. Thus, TRIVE has also done many community involvements, from our NEXT50.sg initiative and Life without Regrets program, and now offering free administration of the S$40k Startup SG Founder Grant. We remain committed to building SEA’s startup ecosystem, via Singapore, with our activities.

For me personally, my passion lies in mentoring and nurturing young Singapore entrepreneurs. With over 30 mentees under my wing, I have seen many made their own successes and exits. I hope for the privilege to nurture more such millennial entrepreneurs until we see a generation of Singaporeans leading Singapore’s economy into the future.

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This article first appeared on Tech Collective SEA.