SINGAPORE - Local entrepreneur Harsh Dalal claimed to run a US$25 million (S$33 million) tech start-up and was one of the honorees of Forbes' annual 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2021.
But less than a month after being named on the list of 300 entrepreneurs, the 19-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Singapore-based Team Labs has been removed amid reports that some of his previous claims cannot be verified.
On Wednesday (May 12), Forbes Asia editor Justin Doebele said in an article that the publication was removing Mr Dalal from its 30 Under 30 Asia list for 2021.
"His removal comes after a careful consideration of the findings of a comprehensive review of the information that was used to qualify him for the list, as well as new information that has come to light in recent days," he wrote, adding that Forbes has also taken significant steps to tighten its evaluation process.
Mr Dalal, a Singapore permanent resident who recently graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with a diploma in business administration, was featured on the cover of the April/May issue of Forbes Asia, among other honorees on the list.
His video interview with Channel News Asia (CNA) for its On The Red Dot series published in January has garnered over 900,000 views as of Friday (May 14).
However, a detailed investigation by Singapore-based online tech media publication Tech in Asia found inconsistencies in several of his claims, including his US$9.8 million Series A round raised from venture capital (VC) firm Grand Canyon Capital.
Mr Dalal told Tech in Asia after several conversations that Team Labs' numbers were "conveyed by" Grand Canyon Capital and cannot be attributed to him. The investor was also responsible for incorporating the company and managing the firm day to day, he added.
However, several links on Grand Canyon Capital's website are not working, and the site's claims that it is an investor in prominent tech-enabled companies Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb cannot be corroborated.
The VC firm has also little presence online, with the only online mentions traced to Team Labs.
Checks by The Straits Times found that there are no local companies registered to either Team Labs or its predecessor Codexia Studios.
Most of the links on Team Labs' website redirect to a link to create an account, which does not register.
Its website states that its products are used by several large players globally, such as Coca-Cola, Hilton Worldwide Holdings and Spotify. However, an editor's note on CNA's original article notes that these references were removed following clarifications from Mr Dalal.
The note also said that CNA is investigating the story and will take all appropriate steps once its editorial review is complete.
CNA's original article included details of how Mr Dalal had first got into software development through developer forums and how he secured investment from VC firms through virtual calls.
He developed his first app with other teenagers he had met on a forum when he was a Secondary 1 student, Mr Dalal said in the interview then. The broadcaster also spoke to his mother, Ms Manju Dalal, a financial journalist. One of the videos of Mr Dalal's interview has since been taken down.
Attempts by ST to contact him through e-mail and phone have both been unsuccessful. Mr Dalal's LinkedIn profile has also since been taken down.
In addition, the number of employees Team Labs said it had in its CNA interview - 120 - also seems to be inflated, with just five employees currently listed on the company's LinkedIn page. The 120 employees also included contractors and independent agencies, Mr Dalal later clarified with Tech in Asia.
Room for greater due diligence
Amid the chatter online, netizens and those active in the tech ecosystem have noted that more stringent due diligence by media outlets could have been done to verify the claims made by Mr Dalal.
Tech in Asia's editor-in-chief Terence Lee, in a LinkedIn post, pointed to how the Singapore Reddit community had been key in raising questions about the entrepreneur.
Quest Ventures partner Jeffrey Seah noted that Mr Dalal has demonstrated intelligence and eloquence beyond most peers his age, and perhaps these skills could have been used for more purposeful endeavours.
Forbes perhaps did not have sufficient resources to do full due diligence checks on each of the 30 Under 30 Asia submissions, but Mr Seah acknowledged that there are many strong entrepreneurs among the list's alumni.
For early-stage VCs, the due diligence process tends to be more focused on the founders than businesses, he said, and added that he would focus on signs of grit, fund-raising charisma and the individual's networks as part of his assessment.
Founder of angel network AngelCentral Huang Shao-ning said that most of the VC firms have rather stringent due diligence workflows and spend a good amount of time getting to know founders before investing in start-ups.
"Within the ecosystem, we check around for feedback as well," she said, but noted that there could be greater checks done by the media, even if the information is not publicly available.
National University of Singapore's (NUS) Associate Professor Lawrence Loh said that the ball currently sits in Forbes' court, adding that while Forbes has withdrawn Mr Dalal from their list, their reasons for doing so have been opaque.
Media outlets that have reported on the Team Labs co-founder's claims could also take action against him if Mr Dalal is found to have misrepresented information, the director of NUS's Centre for Governance and Sustainability added.