S'pore digs deep for tech edge

DPM Tharman with Dr Wong Poh Kam, director for NUS Entrepreneurship Centre and professor at NUS Business School, and other SGInnovate partners at the launch yesterday. Mr Tharman spoke about the need to create value through innovation.
DPM Tharman with Dr Wong Poh Kam, director for NUS Entrepreneurship Centre and professor at NUS Business School, and other SGInnovate partners at the launch yesterday. Mr Tharman spoke about the need to create value through innovation.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SGInnovate launched to link up start-ups, researchers, investors

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore digs deep for tech edge'. Print Edition | Subscribe