[First appeared on The Straits Times] – Enough with the “It’s like Uber, but for…” pitches. That is local entrepreneur Christopher Quek’s message to start-up hopefuls.
And there is more advice where that came from, as Mr Quek rolls out a new pro bono mentorship initiative that will help would-be whizz-kids get going.
The Next50 Initiative – so called because “it’s about Singapore’s economic prosperity in the next 50 years” – is part of an effort to make the start-up community more vibrant and self-sufficient, Mr Quek, 38, told The Straits Times.
He is the managing director of venture capital fund Tri5 Ventures, which has previously partnered the Government in serving as an accredited mentor to early-stage start-ups and helping them get off the ground with grants.
But he is now billing Next50 as the first non-government-affiliated programme for new firms. While public-sector initiatives can jump-start an innovative entrepreneurial culture here, “the ecosystem is evolving and the community is starting to take ownership”, he said.
After advising fledgling companies over the past five years, Mr Quek said it is time for start-ups to lean on Singapore’s strengths rather than try to import business models that cannot work here.
“Singapore founders tend to follow all the big ideas out there,” he said, noting that some ideas may work better in emerging economies where “there is no government intervention, their societies are much larger… there is a lot of fragmentation and a lot of opportunity in terms of problem-solving gaps”.
Concepts like using apps to arrange for order pick-ups at hawker centres, he pointed out, cannot scale up into countries where governments did not usher street vendors into purpose-built facilities.
Instead, Mr Quek believes start-ups should “do deep technology”, especially in areas such as healthcare, finance or transport.
“It is my hope to support start-ups in these fields to capitalise on what Singapore is already strong in,” he said. “Don’t do marketplaces, which other people can do in the region.”
To thrive, scrappy new entrants could do with careful grooming: “When you study other start-up ecosystems like Silicon Valley, it is the pay-it-forward movement that catalyses activity and creates a vibrant community.
“In a lot of mentorship programmes that I seen, mentors had an executive background – they lacked on-the-ground expertise.”
So far, more than 50 mentors, with start-up experience in both business and technology, have signed on to the Next50 scheme, which Mr Quek said is taking aim at the problem of “not much quality deal flow in Singapore start-ups”.
These mentors will offer their services free and are in for the long haul – in contrast with how traditional accelerators may operate.
“Larger funding rounds in Singapore are often led by non-Singaporeans,” said Mr Quek, who hopes that his project will yield “at least 10 Singapore-based unicorns”, or start-ups worth more than $1 billion.
Even as big global players like Amazon and Alibaba join the fray here, he predicted that innovative new companies will stick around. “It’s not the start-ups that are facing the threat, it’s the big stalwarts of the Singapore economy that are facing the threat.”
Mr Quek suggested that one way for local enterprise to survive would be through partnerships between the little fish and listed companies.
He cited Singapore Press Holdings’ $60 million acquisition of motoring website sgCarMart in 2013 as one successful example.