[First appeared on Today Online] – A recent article by AFP noted the appeal of Ho Chi Minh City for start-ups given Vietnam’s young, tech-savvy population and fast-growing economy, which is still expected to expand 2.6 per cent this year despite the global pandemic.
The report cited a report by venture capital firm Cento Ventures which noted that Vietnam-based startups made up 18 per cent — or US$741 million — of capital invested in Southeast Asia in 2019, up from 4 per cent in 2018.
This also meant that the amount pumped into Vietnam startups pipped Singapore for the first time, according to Cento.
Reading the article, I can’t help but notice that little has been said about Singapore’s youth creating new startups in the current crisis. Instead, the focus seems to be youths having difficulties finding jobs and concerns about them being a “lost generation” due to Covid-19.
But I believe it is not all doom and gloom for Singapore’s youth, who hold the key in driving the economy into a new technological age.
They are digital-savvy, upwardly mobile and well-educated. They also mobilise naturally for ethical and worthy causes.
So if they can see how green startups bring about positive changes for sustainability, then there is a good chance we can encourage more of them to join the industry and create better solutions for society.
One such youth entrepreneur is 25-year old Singaporean Daryl Lim, co-founder and chief operating officer of Augmentus, a robot programming software company.
In his previous work, he noticed high technical skills were required to program robots, which meant only multinational corporations with deep pockets could adopt high-end automated productions. The smaller firms were left behind the technology curve.
He wanted to champion a level playing field for small- and medium-sized enterprises to compete against the big boys. Thus, he and his team created a program to simplify the deployment of industrial robotic systems, which made the purchase of such systems affordable and resilient.
What has this got to do with sustainability, you may ask?
Well, sustainable technologies come in various forms and cover economic and health outcomes.
The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) therefore include good health and well-being, industry innovation and infrastructure as well as responsible production and consumption.
For Augmentus, they are working towards UNSDG goal number nine of promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation.
Hoow Foods is another example of a youth-run local company with a sustainable goal.
Founded by 33-year old YP Ow, it uses artificial intelligence technology to produce its own Lapis Sagu, but with 53 per cent less sugar and other unhealthy components.
YP’s mission, inspired by the impact of diabetes in his family, is to contribute to UNSDG goal number three of reducing food-related diseases through products created by his company.
Sesto Robotics, another Singaporean tech company, produces Healthguard, an autonomous 24-hour disinfectant robot that works in areas with high human traffic. It aims to achieve UNSDG goal number eight through reducing the labour intensity of work in the cleaning maintenance industry.
THE OUTSIZED IMPACT OF STARTUPS
To be sure, startups are not typically key drivers of economic growth, given the relatively small impact of employment and economic output they produce.
It is further challenging to create consumer-driven unicorns in Singapore without a significant domestic market (Singapore’s population is just 5.9 per cent of Vietnam’s).
However, Singapore’s startups still play a significant and vital role of being tech enablers.
When adopted by established businesses, their sustainable solutions bring fresh new innovation, increasing the level of tech adoption and economic value-add. One can imagine the impact on productivity should the products of Augmentus and Sesto be adopted by their respective industries.
So what are some challenges these startups face and how can Singapore better support them?
SUPPORTING YOUTH ENTREPRENEURS
Creating a movement of young entrepreneurs to build sustainable technology requires solving three key challenges: Exposure to technical solutions, initial funding and openness of businesses to adopt sustainable technologies.
Anecdotally, I have observed that sustainable technology startups are founded by those with a science and engineering background who are typically above mid-30s.
This is expected as sustainable technologies require some years of industry experience and technical expertise.
Youths unfortunately lack relevant skill sets and experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to start sustainable tech companies.
One possible solution can be found through IPI Singapore, a government unit. It has aggregated numerous intellectual properties (IPs) created by Singapore’s research institutions, awaiting entrepreneurs to commercialise them.
It would be good to create more awareness of such available IPs for youth founders to consider adopting.
For initial funding of ideas, youth founders usually rely on self-funding. Alternatively, they will apply for the government grants such as the S$30,000 SGFounder grant for first-time entrepreneurs.
My company Trive was an accredited mentor partner of the grant until early this year. Trive helped 44 Singapore founders to obtain the grant over four years.
However, the grant amount was insufficient to achieve the necessary development milestones, as sustainable technologies typically require sums greater than S$30,000 to build a complete product.
It is timely to review a higher quantum in the SGFounder grant in line with technological trends.
Lastly, Singapore businesses should be opened to adopt sustainable technologies from these youth-driven startups. This is not only to support local startups and our fellow Singaporeans, but also to benefit from the products and services these startups deliver.
Summing up, it is useful to note that investment into sustainability is a rising trend in Singapore’s startup ecosystem.
According to a global report by Standard Chartered Private Banking, nearly four in 10 investors are keen to place 5 to 15 per cent of their wealth into sustainable investing.
This is an affirmation of a focus shift to sustainability as a main criterion of investment.
By nurturing Singapore’s youths to build on sustainable startup ideas, we can tap into their drive to shift Singapore’s economy into the next tier of the technology curve.
Hopefully one day, we will develop our sustainable tech unicorn right here in Singapore, founded by a Singaporean youth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Christopher Quek is managing partner of Trive, an early-stage venture capitalist that focusses on sustainable technologies for Southeast Asian cities. He has advised over 1,200 startups in the last 10 years. Trive is an investor in both Hoow Foods and Sesto Robotics.
Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/nurturing-green-startups-singapores-youth