HeartWare Singapore

VCs and Angels: Can Singapore’s ecosystem produce unicorns

Singapore has been a hotbed of startup ideas and VC funding, but here’s a question: “with all the available infrastructure and available government grants and funding (additional US$28m announced recently), why haven’t we seen a Singaporean-born entrepreneur (SBE) create a unicorn (US$1 billion exit and above) yet? Are Singaporeans not capable of building high quality startups?”

I posed these questions to 4 VC’s and Angels who have seen their fair share of SBEs and how we could see the next unicorn being born.

Why no Singaporean-born entrepreneur (SBE) unicorns yet?

“Unicorns take time, and eventually it will happen,” says Dr Virginia Cha, an early technopreneur turned Angel. “We are at the infancy of technology entrepreneurship – Silicon Valley had 60 years to develop and is a mature ecosystem whereas we are still teenagers.   If you examine technology history, Silicon Valley had an interesting confluence of factors – hefty defence spending in R&D, champions of technology spin-outs like Stanford’s Professor Terman, and passionate engineers who wanted to change the world with their inventions.  Singapore’s efforts at kick starting this ecosystem has been to create a business friendly environment with an abundance of seed-funding and the de-risking of early stage investments.  These efforts have succeeded in lifting Singapore to be one of the top venture destinations in Asia. This is a necessary but insufficient condition to creating unicorns.

In this regard, our universities have a clear role to play in nurturing the next generation of innovators.  Our universities are moving in this direction – having a more holistic approach towards nurturing talent instead of being isolated to just nurturing knowledge manpower for the economy.  But this process takes time.”

The importance of unicorn SBEs

Singapore operates in a unique way in gaining success: bring in foreign talent first to inspire the local populace to follow suit. In the sporting circle, foreign-born sports talents are given government funding to train and represent Singapore and they win medals. Soon after, we see inspired local-born Singaporeans succeeding in the sporting arena. You will notice the difference in how Joseph Schooling, a local-born swimmer, is celebrated in Singapore when he wins gold as compared to the foreign-born sports talents, because he is ‘one of us’. Joseph is considered a unicorn in his field and that brings inspiration to Singaporeans to follow in his stead.

Taking this analogy to the tech entrepreneurship sector, the ecosystem is moving in a similar fashion to that of the sporting arena. The sector is anecdotally dominated by hungry and driven foreign entrepreneurs who are hitting the top in the charts of best exits and follow-on funding. To move to the next stage, a few SBE unicorns are needed to surface to inspire other SBEs to follow. Unicorn SBEs are also vital to Singapore’s continued economic growth and personal ownership of the nation’s wealth. It makes no sense if taxpayers’ funds are continued to be channelled into areas which Singaporeans are not benefitting sufficiently from it.

Taking stock of Singaporean-born entrepreneurs

Lim Ho Kee, managing partner of Majuven, notes that “SBEs are creative, are competent, and have high ethics. Yet, they sometimes lack tenacity and ability to take bold risks. It is important for them to seek advice and learn from successful business leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Kuo-Yi Lim, managing director of Monk’s Hill Ventures, notes that SBEs are more savvy, more aware of global trends and articulate, but agrees with Ho Kee’s assessment that SBEs are still not thinking big enough.

Benjamin Lee, both an angel investor and serial entrepreneur, agrees with both VCs that SBEs have generally good acumen but execution remains a weakness. This weakness stems from having a ‘get rich quick’ mindset, influenced by anecdotes in the media. SBEs need to be more realistic and realize it takes a lot of sacrifice and emotional hardship. They also tend to be compare themselves with their fellow peers who are working in stable jobs. They need to accept that entrepreneurship is about delayed gratification, where success can happen as long as 10 years or more.

Virginia observes that SBEs are dedicated to be successful, “but perhaps we should mix in more dedication to perfecting the craft – be it digital art, software engineering, hardware sensors, bioengineering – with a deep belief that success and value will come out of creating something innovative and useful.”

Exciting Singaporeans to be entrepreneurs to get that next unicorn

​“We need to develop the ecosystem that includes positive support and encouragement from friends and families,” Ho Kee comments. “It starts from the youth. Promoting entrepreneurship in schools and colleges can inspire budding entrepreneurs. But most importantly, successful business leaders should come forward to support not only with capital but also with guidance and mentorship.”

“More heroes,” Kuo-Yi reflects. “We have some, and it is certainly getting better, but nothing beats more stories of folks like those at Zopim to inspire and encourage more.”

Virginia points out, “One is to consider more tinkerer/maker community development for the young, and to offer more showcase platforms for the young scientist/inventor to share their ideas and to receive peer recognition for their budding talent.”

Advice to Singapore born entrepreneurs

I ended off by asking each VC / Angel to advise the SBEs. Ho Kee says, “Think big and have perseverance to realize the dream. Focus on cash flow and the other key risk factors like people, market and technology. People risk is the most important – the key is to assemble a great team that will build a great venture.”

Kuo-Yi feels it is important to “Make friends in the region​, being humble to listen and learn. And being a regional citizen will serve one well.” For Benjamin, he is more practical. “Ask yourself honestly why you want to do it. If it is for fame, get rich quick or being cool, then you are not ready to be an entrepreneur. Make sacrifices for what you believe in. Good ideas are plenty, but execution will determine the success or failure.”

Virginia ends off with a more soul searching advice. “Pursue passion, not success.  If you succeed in pursuing what drives you, success will find you.  This success may not always be in the form of materialistic gains, but if you deeply believe and love what you do, and you reach the stage where you made a difference with your innovation – this can bring enormous meaning to why you exist, and that, my friend, is the ultimate success.”

Special thanks to Messrs Lim Ho Kee and Kuo-Yi Lim, Dr Virginia Cha and Benjamin Lee for their contributions to this article. This article is part of the Share! Series, exclusive on Tech in Asia, where entrepreneurs share their experiences and best practices to the community.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.