Internet hitmaker Ong Peng Tsin proud of non-elite school roots

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 15, 2014

Singapore's future hinges on its ability to create the next Google, says Mr Ong. He has helped with high-level planning in Singapore.
Singapore's future hinges on its ability to create the next Google, says Mr Ong. He has helped with high-level planning in Singapore. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

He is the man credited with creating or funding Internet hits like dating site and the Chinese gaming outfit that came up with a popular local version of FarmVille.

But chances are, serial entrepreneur and investor Ong Peng Tsin, 50, won't mention these when he meets young aspiring entrepreneurs. Instead, he makes it a point to mention that he hails from Monk's Hill Secondary School, after which his venture capital firm Monk's Hill Ventures is named.

Mr Ong, who was formerly based in the United States and China funding tech start-ups, said it helps to break the ice with these young people. "When talking to kids, you must always mention where you are from. So they know you are not from a top school," said Mr Ong, who is now based here.

His observation of the scene in Silicon Valley and Singapore over the last two decades is that not everyone can become successful, but a hit can come from anyone.

Asked whether graduates or college dropouts are more likely to succeed in Singapore, he replied: "Who knows?"

But out-of-the-ballpark successes were all school dropouts, he added. Take Google co-founder Larry Page and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, who were Stanford University doctoral programme dropouts. Harvard University dropout Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.

Mr Ong, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas Austin, enrolled in a doctorate course in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but dropped out when he got busy. Instead, he went on to start California-based content management software firm Interwoven in 1995.

The firm was listed on the Nasdaq in 1999, one of the few Nasdaq-listed businesses founded by a Singaporean. They include PC sound card maker Creative Technology and Internet service provider PacNet.

Interwoven was sold in 2009 for an estimated US$775 million (S$979 million) to British software firm Autonomy, which was in turn acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2011.

Before Interwoven, Mr Ong was credited with creating the software for, the site that popularised online dating. It went live in 1995 and now has a presence in 25 countries.

In 2010, feeling restless in the US, Mr Ong went to Beijing to reconnect with his extended family there. He declined to disclose his family details. In any case, what was intended as a short trip lasted three years when a friend got him involved in matchmaking of a different kind.

He became a venture capitalist, identifying and nurturing start-ups to make them attractive targets for acquisitions or ready for listing on stock exchanges.

His company, Beijing-based venture capital firm GSR Ventures, funded China mobile gaming sensation FunPlus and sold last month for a whopping $960 million to Shanghai-based conglomerate Zhongji Holding.

FunPlus has an online game called Family Farm, which is similar to popular online social game FarmVille and lets players buy and plant crops and raise animals.

Mr Ong has also been matching Singapore-based start-ups with venture capitalists.

As chairman of the Singapore government's key investment engine Infocomm Investments from 2006 to last year, he invested alongside venture capitalists in growth-stage start-ups. He also helped foreign start-ups expand to Asia using Singapore as a base.

"Strategically, we pushed for building Singapore as an IP-generating tech hub," said Mr Ong.

As a result, many companies were basing some or all of their intellectual property (IP) development here. This in turn got many venture capital firms involved in the start-up scene here.

For instance, in May last year, Singapore-based luxury goods e-commerce store Reebonz secured US$40 million (S$50 million) in financing led by local broadcaster MediaCorp.

Several venture capitalist firms, including Vertex Asia Investments and Intel Capital as well as Infocomm Investments, also participated in the funding.

Mr Ong is not only an angel for start-ups, but has also helped with high-level planning: He was on the Economic Review Committee that reviewed Singapore's future economic plans.

Singapore's future hinges on its ability to create the next Google, he said. "If you want to improve your lot in life, at some point you have to start using your brains more than your hands," he said, referring to the creation of IP as opposed to manufacturing.

"You should look at the valuation of some of these (software) companies. It is not a bubble. People actually pay real money to use (the software)," he added.

"In Singapore, what value are we creating with our brains?"

Among his greatest fears is the cultural bias against risk-taking, which takes talents away from entrepreneurship.

While the idea has not been adopted, Mr Ong once suggested an open-ended scholarship system, where government scholarship holders commit to serve six years in the public sector some time before age 60. The private sector can thus get a bigger share of talents here.

People in the industry often describe Mr Ong as a tireless engine. So what keeps him going?

"Making a difference," he said. "The mission hasn't changed."

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