By: Zach Tan
I first put together the landscape of the startup ecosystem in Singapore back in May 2014, which was an infographic I called the SINGASCAPE. You can look up the first version on my Slideshare account. Through my daily interactions with startups, entrepreneurs, investors, and overseas friends, I realised that there wasn't an easy way for folks who are interested in Singapore's tech scene to navigate the labyrinth of organisations that dot the island. To be more efficient during meetings (so that I have more time to focus on how to help the other party), I came up with a self-serve infographic which anyone could use intuitively.
Boom of Accelerators
Since then, much has changed and the scene has certainly evolved. One of the most striking trends has been the explosion of accelerators in Singapore as operators all over the world take advantage of the emerging Southeast Asian startup scene to expand their operations, source for talent, and tap into the emerging growth markets of the region. While accelerators are nothing new, globally, we're seeing renewed fervour by governments and large corporates to embrace this relatively new model of company creation. The promises of the accelerator bandwagon are attractive: Startups are the new growth engine for the digital economy, create (high value) jobs, foster faster product innovations within large organisations, and it doesn't hurt that they are hip and trendy.
Back in May 2014 when I first put together Version 1.0 of SINGASCAPE, there were essentially only 2-3 accelerator players in Singapore. Joyful Frog Digital Incubator, or JFDI in short, which takes a page from Techstar's playbook, was arguably the most prominent and successful pioneer in the region. Fast forward 12 months later, it is hard to miss the colourful burst of logos of new accelerators that populate Version 2.0 of SINGASCAPE. Some of these have already set up in Singapore, while others are in the process of doing so. Fintech looks to be a key trend among these accelerators. Here is a list of the new ones which have started:
- Startupbootcamp Fintech, an award-winning accelerator from Europe
- Muru-D, a Telstra-backed accelerator from Australia
- InspirAsia Accelerator, by Moscow-based VC firm, Life.SREDA
- SPH Plug & Play, a joint programme between Singapore Press Holding, Silicon Valley's Plug & Play and Infocomm Investments
- The Co-Foundry, an accelerator founded by a group of industry veterans
- Unframed, backed by Singtel with a focus on social entrepreneurship
- 1337 Alpha Startups, a pre-accelerator acceleration programme from Malaysia
- Rockstart, (still exploring) a leading Amsterdam-based accelerator from Europe
We know that for the early-stage game to work, scale and volume are very important. Look at Y-Combinator, the most successful (if not the only successful programme from a returns perspective) to date. They graduate and support anywhere between 180-200 early-stage teams per year. If you are a strong believer of the Fairchild effect though, the accelerator model may not be your cup of tea. However, while the jury is still out on whether the next big thing could emerge from any of the accelerators above, they do play an important role in sustaining a stream of early-stage tech companies as Singapore's startup ecosystem calibrates itself for the next phase of growth. Plus the growth of accelerators promises founders-to-be a plethora of platforms, events, and networking opportunities. So overall, I would say that it's encouraging that we are attracting some of these players to Singapore.
VC Galore? If you're top of the pack
In 2014, Singapore-based startups also continued to attract investments from local and foreign investors. Do note that the figures below are based on publicly available data, and I make no claims to the accuracy of the information contained herein. Based on my personal tracking, 62 startups raised a total of $604.6m in venture capital across 74 funding rounds in Singapore in 2014. These startups are from the mobile, internet and software sectors (excl. biotech, cleantech, semiconductor etc).
Drilling down further from the "top-of-paper" grade, of the total $604.6m raised in 2014, the majority (around 82%) came from the top five companies which raised a whopping $495.8m. The top five companies in terms of funding raised are:
- Grabtaxi, Southeast Asia's leading taxi booking app raised $340m over 4 rounds: Series A ($10m), B ($15m), C ($65m) & D ($250m)
- iCarsClub, Singapore's largest peer-to-peer car sharing marketplace raised $70m over 2 rounds: Series A ($10m) & B ($60m)
- RedMart, Singapore's leading online grocer raised $28.4m over 2 rounds: Bridge ($5.4m) & Series B ($23m)
- MyRepublic, Singapore's 4th Telco and Internet Service Provider raised $28.4m over 2 rounds: $4.4m in May & $24m in July
- AdNear: Location-based mobile advertising company founded in Bangalore but headquartered in Singapore, raised $19m in Series B
Total Funding Amount (USD mil)
Keeping Momentum: NRF-TIS, Japanese Investors & Emerging VCs
In 2014, 62 (85%) of the 74 funding rounds were for Seed to Series B companies. Early-stage investors under the NRF-TIS programme continue to be active in backing budding entrepreneurs across Seed to Series B. Examples of these include Wavemaker (4 deals), Golden Gate Ventures (3 deals), Jungle Ventures (3 deals), Red Dot Ventures (3 deals), Get2Volume (2 deals), and Innosight Ventures (2 deals). Some of these early-stage investors have also received backing by the National Research Foundation (NRF) under the Early Stage Venture Fund (ESVF).
Number of funding deals by stage:
- Angel - 6
- Seed - 27 (13 involving NRF-TIS backed investors)
- Series A - 21 (6 involving NRF-TIS backed investors)
- Series B - 9 (6 involving NRF-TIS backed investors)
- Series C - 1
- Series D -2
- Others - 8
Japanese investors also continued to make their presence felt in Singapore in 2014 as they sought out investment opportunities in Singapore and Southeast Asia. The 6 most active Japanese investors in Singapore participated in a total of 10 deals (5 Series A & 5 Series B). These 6 Japanese investment firms (in alphabetical order) are: CyberAgent Ventures, Global Brain, GMO Venture Partners, GREE Ventures, Rakuten Ventures, and JAFCO.
Noteworthy is also the emergence of two new VCs focusing on South East Asia, Monk's Hill Ventures and NSI Ventures. Both are backed by serial entrepreneurs from Singapore. Monk's Hill Ventures is founded by highly respected rainmaker in the tech world, Ong Peng Tsin, and former CEO of Infocomm Investments, Lim Kuo-Yi, while NSI Ventures is started by Hian Goh, founder of Asian Food Channel.
Overall, it does feel that funding availability for startups in Singapore has improved compared to before. This is evident in the growing depth and breadth of venture capital firms present and active on the island state. However, as the figures above suggest, a rising tide does not lift all boats equally, and the market likely still has some way to go before reaching its full potential.
Love Affair: Corporates and Startups
Large organisations in Singapore are also taking lessons from the startup world and challenging the conventional wisdom that they are too large to be agile, too bureaucratic to support young companies, and too corporate to embrace a startup mindset. Some noteworthy examples from the past 12 months include Singapore's DBS Bank which partnered Startupbootcamp to run Singapore's first ever Blockchain Hackathon in May 2015. The bank has also incorporated hackathons into its internal talent development programme. DBS's website states that these are a
"New breed of hackathons to encourage further collaboration between organisations and startups; help build the startup ecosystem in Singapore".
Another example is Unilever which expanded its Unilever Foundry programme to Singapore in January 2015. Unilever said that it intends to seek deeper engagement with startups from Singapore and the region through this platform and offer startups access to experts, potential funding, and the opportunity to collaborate on global projects.
One of the common complaints among young companies has been the lack of internal champions among large firms for the products which startups offer. Looking to the example of US companies, many key decision makers are in their leadership positions because they successfully led acquisitions into, or have procured technology from young companies previously. They subsequently go on to become internal champions for startups within these large organisations. While it will probably take some time for Singapore firms to develop a base of internal champions for startups, the examples above seem to be steps in the right direction.
Birth of Smart Nation and Entrepreneurial Mindset
An update to SINGASCAPE will be incomplete without mentioning Smart Nation. In November 2014, Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, launched Singapore's Smart Nation vision. As stated on IDA's website, while technology is a critical component of Smart Nation, the initiative is really about the ability of the city state to:
"...harness ICT, networks and data to support better living, create more opportunities, and to support stronger communities."
There are several useful online resources that further expound on the topic of Smart Nation (e.g. here, here & here). PM Lee also added that having an entrepreneurial culture and startups who dare to dream, dare to fail, dare to take on big challenges, are critical for the Smart Nation initiative to succeed.
This article from Tech in Asia touches on the challenges which need to be overcome. Personally, I feel that changing mindset is one of the most important challenges to address. People like to maintain or take control of their destiny, and if they follow the rules, they feel entitled to a guaranteed outcome. This is perhaps where the startup world could offer a valuable tip. According to Eric Ries, tech entrepreneur, and author of "The Lean Startup" book:
"Startups are organisations that operate in extreme uncertainty. Everything is an experiment," he says. And this is how you survive.
And in an environment like the one above, perhaps the greatest risk that Smart Nation would face is the risk of not taking one. And by the looks of it, this would probably not be the case.
Writer's Note: Singascape is a personal project of mine and the opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of the company I work for, Infocomm Investments, an investor in JFDI, Startupbootcamp, and also BASH. Comments are more than welcome :)
Erratum to the article dated 25 May 2014:
1) The total VC funding stated was $573.8m across 73 deals. The amount should be $604.6m across 74 deals instead
2) Added MyRepublic to the top five companies in terms of fund raising. Together the top 5 companies raised a total of $495.8m in VC funding.