Thursday, 24 November 2016

SGInnovate launched to incubate science and deep-tech startups

Singapore digs deep for tech edge
SGInnovate launched to link up start-ups, researchers, investors
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2016

The push to build more start-ups based on science and "deep" technology - technology that is hard to reproduce - picked up pace with the launch of a new organisation yesterday.

Called SGInnovate, it brings together entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, academics and companies to develop technology-based products at a six-storey facility in Carpenter Street.

Chief executive Steve Leonard said the new entity cannot be pigeon-holed as just a start-up accelerator or ecosystem "curator".

"We are going to work hard to resist specific tags - we want to be flexible and nimble. Our goal is to take the great research that's already occurring and the big base of investors that's already here and go create some exciting companies," said Mr Leonard, who was previously executive deputy chairman of the former Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

Infocomm Investments, IDA's venture investment arm, has been subsumed under SGInnovate, which is a private organisation wholly owned by the Government.

SGInnovate's areas of focus include digital health, financial services, smart energy, digital manufacturing and robotics.

It was unveiled as part of Budget 2016, along with a $4.5 billion plan to develop innovation and robotics.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at the launch that Singapore has laid strong foundations over the years to "make the ground fertile" for innovation, such as investing in a strong education system, developing talent in science and technology, and funding research.

However, more can be done to translate these research efforts into commercial output. "Many start- ups in Singapore replicate proven technologies and business models to take advantage of regional growth, rather than deploy new technologies," he noted. "There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it is part of the journey. But to sustain the journey, and create sustainable advantage, we need to create value through innovation."

SGInnovate will do this by boosting links between researchers, start-ups and investors, he added.

Mr Leonard agreed, saying: "Singapore has a great legacy for research in deep tech... (but while) many researchers are comfortable in a research environment, when you start talking about customers and investors, that's less comfortable for them. Our challenge is... helping them be comfortable bringing that (research) out."

One of SGInnovate's partners is London-based Entrepreneur First, which runs a six-month programme bringing individuals with technical skills together to build deep-tech companies from scratch.

It is eight weeks into its inaugural Singapore programme, which is run out of SGInnovate's Carpenter Street facility. The first cohort has 55 people and is expected to yield 12 to 15 companies in March when the programme finishes, said director Anne Marie Droste.

Teams are working on ideas such as communicating with satellites using lasers, and automated vision correction in virtual reality headsets.

Ms Droste said Singapore has "all the ingredients" to build "really good world-class technology companies". However, top technical talent here often aspire to work for Google, Facebook or JP Morgan instead of starting their own company.

"What Entrepreneur First is good at is helping to make starting a company the No. 1 career preference for the very best potential founders in a society," she added.

To innovate, let's get passionate
Departure of Swiss pharma lab prompts hard look at where Singapore could improve to be a Silicon Valley
By Arnoud de Meyer, Published The Straits Times, 26 Nov 2016

A month ago I spent a week visiting the campuses of some top universities in the East Coast of the United States. I was taken a bit by surprise by a question that I was asked several times: Was the closure and transfer from Singapore to California of Novartis' research centre on tropical diseases a symptom of an underlying problem with Singapore as an innovation hub?

The Swiss pharmaceutical giant announced last month that it is moving the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) to Emeryville, California, next year. The move was part of "a broader global strategic plan", Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research president James Bradner had told The Straits Times.

I personally thought it was a pure business decision limited to one company. But it made me reflect whether we could improve on Singapore's position as a place to develop innovations that make a difference for the world.

What makes the success of an innovation hub? All over the world, governments have wondered how to recreate a new "Silicon Valley". In the early 2000s I did research on what made innovation hubs successful. And I concluded that Silicon Valley, as well as hubs like Haifa and Tel Aviv in Israel, the cluster around Cambridge in Britain, and well-known places such as Munich in Germany, Linkoping in Sweden or Sophia Antipolis near Nice in France, performed quite well on six common dimensions.


The first of these dimensions is a robust and performing technical infrastructure. Reliable and sufficient communication bandwidth, and excellent universities with laboratories that can help in the development of new products and systems, as well as a good supply chain and logistics network, all contribute to the quality of that technical infrastructure. This costs lots of money, but it is relatively easy to put in place. Singapore's Government early this year announced it had committed to an investment of $19 billion in the research and technological infrastructure through the Research Innovation Enterprise (RIE) Plan 2016-2020.

The second dimension is the depth of human talent. That does require good universities educating great scientists and engineers. But not everybody can, or should be, a top researcher. You also need technicians who can translate research into real products and systems. You need creative designers who can shape these products into iconic concepts, business specialists who can imagine the business model and salesmen and marketeers who can convince the customer to buy. The education system needs to be performing at all levels, be it technical education, polytechnics, business education, or in the arts and design.

A third dimension is the legal framework in which companies operate: Is it easy to start and stop a business, can one enforce contracts, can intellectual property be protected so that an innovator can reap the rents from his or her investment?

There is no doubt that on these three dimensions Singapore scores very high, probably better than any other region in this world. We are not perfect but do very well. But what about the next three?


The fourth dimension is the degree to which the providers of finance are able to accompany the risk-taking entrepreneurs. Obviously you need to have the business angels, and perhaps government support, to invest in the very early starters. But you need also the venture capitalists who are prepared to invest in second, third, fourth, and other stages of financing.

You need financial engineers who understand business risks, who are willing to guide and support the entrepreneurs in their arduous journey to grow the company. They know where to find capital that is prepared to take risks, and are masters at limiting the cost of capital for the entrepreneur to the minimum possible.

My opinion is that Singapore has sufficient support for start-ups. We have an excellent banking system to support mid-size and larger companies. But I often hear that in between those two financial communities, we miss the sophisticated group of financiers that can help in the growth of a start-up.

The fifth dimension measures the degree to which the society is rewarding creativity and celebrates the role models of innovators and entrepreneurs. This is about creating a culture that appreciates innovation and entrepreneurship.

It also requires large local companies to accept that a small local start-up can be their supplier.

Or that the Government is willing to buy from smaller companies, even though they are not the cheapest or the most reliable.

It is often argued that Hewlett Packard created Silicon Valley through its procurement: it was prepared to buy from small unproven start-ups and work with them to improve their products.

We have made significant strides in Singapore in developing such a culture. Since the late 1990s, I have seen a major change. Parents are prepared to let their children take risks. Not all expect their offspring to take a government job or a job in a multinational corporation upon graduation. And young Singaporeans are considering forgoing well-paid jobs to take risks.

The Government is investing in the supporting infrastructure, such as incubators and innovation fairs. I see a real momentum, though we still lag behind some of the best-performing innovation hubs in the world. Cultures don't change that fast. And our "box-checking" attitude to procurement processes has crippled many an entrepreneurial start-up.

The sixth dimension is the access to markets. In some cases, that means that innovators have large home markets. That is clearly the case in China, Indonesia, India or the US. But smaller countries such as Israel, Finland or the Netherlands have found ways around it. They partner with players in these big markets.

For the bulk of Israeli companies, the real market is in the US. They have developed strong partnerships with friends in the US who can do the marketing and distribution for them. This is the Achilles' heel for Singapore innovators. Our local market is too small, our real knowledge about neighbouring markets is limited, and our networks in large overseas markets are underperforming.

Still, Singapore is doing well on all six dimensions. But will this be enough? A good-to-excellent performance on these six dimensions is probably necessary, but not sufficient to be a great innovation hub.

It is not simply about ticking the boxes. We also need passion for innovation, tolerance for a bit of messiness and creativity, a great openness to the world, and the modesty that we cannot be good at everything.

As a scholar, I do research on how to innovate. I have met many innovators in my life. They share some characteristics - some nice, some not so nice. In fact, some of them have really unpleasant personalities. Whoever has read a book about that great innovator Steve Jobs will know that he had many great strengths. But very few, if any, in his professional environment would have described him as nice.

Innovators are driven, have passion for their concept, and are often ruthless about collaborators or competition. Are we sufficiently passionate here in Singapore to have the ambition to change the world? Do we instill such passion in our young people?

The reality is that innovation is messy. It does not follow strict development paths, it may not happen in the appropriate department, it can be slow and unpredictable. Can our organisations cope with that messiness? Is creative chaos allowed?

All innovation hubs happen to be in places with a good quality of life. It is not difficult to understand why: Creative and entrepreneurial people usually have a choice where to live and can adapt to very different environments. They tend to drift towards places where it is good to live. And all of these places strongly value diversity.

Accepting diversity does not mean that we try to hide our differences. Accepting and managing diversity means that we talk about the differences, and see how we can get synergies out of being different. I hope that we can keep a similar openness for diversity in Singapore, so that we can attract the best talent from the world to our shores.

And we should not expect that such talent will stay here forever. Innovation hubs are dynamic places: talent flows in and out. We should not be surprised that labs like the Novartis one leave us after more than a decade of good work.

But did we optimise their impact on Singapore while they were here? That is, for me, the real question.

Finally, we may have to make choices about which technologies and systems we can excel in. It is a simple strategy of differentiation and focus. As a small nation, Singapore must choose some niche areas in which it wants to be the best.

The writer is president of Singapore Management University.

Journeying with tech start-ups: Steve Leonard

SGInnovate aims to help entrepreneurs build cool things for the world, says CEO
By Chia Yan Min, Economics Correspondent, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2016

Singapore already has everything it needs to build world-changing companies. That is the view of Mr Steve Leonard, who has made it his mission to do just that.

Mr Leonard - a well-known face in the local tech start-up scene - has been appointed chief executive of the newly-launched SGInnovate, an organisation which brings together entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, academics and companies to develop technology-based products.

Or, as Mr Leonard describes it, "working with people here to see if we can build some cool things from Singapore for the world".

"This is a little contrarian and not everyone agrees, but my view is that Singapore doesn't lack anything to build globally relevant products and companies," says the affable 54-year-old, who has lived and worked here for almost 16 years and is originally from Texas in the United States.

"People say we don't have enough engineers or don't have enough investment. It would be great to get more, but those are not obstacles.

"If you speak to the Israelis, for instance, they'll say they wish they had more engineers, even though they seem like they have it all figured out. Sometimes we use these as excuses. We just need to have the mindset, determination and commitment to go do it."

Mr Leonard is a veteran of the tech industry and has held various private sector roles, including Singapore-based senior executive positions at IT services firm EMC and software company Symantec.

His first full-time government role followed a stint serving on the board of the former Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) as a private sector representative.

"The chairman of the board... asked if I ever thought about joining full time. I'd be working in a government environment, which would be new to me, and working with an entirely Singaporean team as one of the only foreigners.

"I thought - sounds like a good challenge, let's give it my best shot," says Mr Leonard, who became IDA's executive deputy chairman in 2013.

At IDA, Mr Leonard made community engagement a priority, setting up the Lab On Wheels programme to bring tech on buses to schools and also pushing for more involvement in the start-up scene.

He also travelled extensively - "five days a week" - to build networks abroad on behalf of the Singapore tech ecosystem.

"What I tried to bring to IDA was some sense that we need to engage with the market - we have to go out instead of asking people to come see us," says Mr Leonard.

In addition, he tried to encourage a culture "of being okay to experiment". "It doesn't mean being careless, it means "try first" - that was our approach at IDA.

"Many people were uncomfortable with that. They asked: 'If it doesn't work out, will I be scolded?' The answer is, if you're doing it with the right intent, and you learn from it, that's how it goes."

Mr Leonard is bringing that same can-do spirit to SGInnovate, though he emphasises that its goal is not to launch programmes or give out grants to encourage more start-ups to sprout.

"We are laser-focused on the journey of the entrepreneur.

"It's not our goal to try and help the entire start-up ecosystem. It's not our goal to try and launch a long list of programmes, or offer a rich set of grants. There are already lots of other things in the ecosystem to address these needs."

Instead, SGInnovate aims to help a small, niche group of start-up founders with deep technical expertise increase their chances of success. These include scientists, researchers and engineers.

"Our goal isn't necessarily to start companies. Once something is started, its chance of success is relatively small. What we're trying to do is increase those odds," Mr Leonard says. "We want to work with the 2 to 3 per cent of the community who want to build things that are globally relevant."

Referring to SGInnovate as "the tiniest point of light that burns brightly", he adds: "We're trying to be very specific and focus on things with a high barrier to entry, not things that are easily copied by others... That is where the intellectual property value for Singapore comes from."

Singapore already has a strong foundation of world-class research and talent, Mr Leonard notes, which means it already has all the ingredients for world-changing technologies to develop here and grow into successful businesses. The next step would be to bring the right people and resources together.

Mr Leonard says SGInnovate will focus on sectors which play to Singapore's unique, untapped strengths - as a start, key areas include artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality.

"We shouldn't look at (ecosystems like) San Francisco and say, they do those things so let's also do that. There's no other Silicon Valley. London is doing cool things (in artificial intelligence) but they're not Silicon Valley.

"Everyone has their own thing. We want to work on those things that we would consider, over time, to be our specialities."

Other sectors of interest include healthcare, security and food and water resources.

"These things matter not just to Singapore but (also) to every country in the world," adds Mr Leonard.

Though he does not expect to travel as much as he did before in this new role, Mr Leonard says SGInnovate will continue building extensive links with ecosystems elsewhere in the world, to serve entrepreneurs here.

"I've tried to put myself in positions where I can travel and learn, which is part of why I've stayed in Singapore for such a long time," says the father who has "three kids on three continents".

His two older children live abroad in the US and Britain, while his youngest daughter - who was born here - remains in Singapore and has been taking Mandarin lessons since the age of four.

The family considers Singapore home, says Mr Leonard, whose wife is British.

"(The kids) went through their formative years here, mixed with kids from different cultures, went on trips to Nepal and Bhutan and all over the place.

"Now that (the older ones) are making their own way in the world, their level of confidence and capability is higher because of their chance to grow up in a place like Singapore."

Throughout the interview he continuously reiterates his belief that the country "has everything that it needs".

"Singapore doesn't lack anything, it just needs to believe that it can build globally relevant products and companies. The number of people I speak with who say, let's just focus on being successful in Malaysia and expand over time... Why is that our aspiration?

"Why did Spotify come out of Sweden? Why did Skype come out of Estonia? We should be able to do that too."

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