Cai Jin

Wanted: Venture capitalists not afraid to jump in early

Proposed regulatory changes pave way to groom companies to be world-beaters

When Creative Technology burst onto the corporate scene almost 30 years ago, it fired up the public imagination as never before.

It was a home-grown success headed by a charismatic founder, Mr Sim Wong Hoo, a polytechnic diploma holder who started his business from scratch as a one-man operation with only $10,000.

As its runaway best-selling product Sound Blaster, enabling a computer to play music, made waves in the United States, he won more accolades. This culminated in his clinching the Businessman of the Year award in 1993.

Ten years later, he again made waves as he came out with another blockbuster device - an MP3 digital music player - which gave Apple's iconic iPod a serious run for its money.

Sadly, his wager failed. Apple's iPod won the war and became the forerunner of the US technological giant's success in other electronic gadgets such as the ubiquitous iPhone, which has catapulted it into becoming the most valuable company on the planet.

Creative Technology, a home-grown company, became famous almost 30 years ago for its Sound Blaster which enabled a computer to play music.

Creative Technology, a home-grown company, became famous almost 30 years ago for its Sound Blaster which enabled a computer to play music.ST FILE PHOTO

I have always wondered what would have happened if Mr Sim had bested Apple. I imagine Singapore would have been very different, as his success would surely have spurred entrepreneurship to take off in a big way.

True, there are other local success stories in the technological sector, such as Venture Corporation, but we haven't been able to find another champion who has the capacity to excite the public imagination in quite the same way as Mr Sim and his Creative did all those years ago.

Why is it so tough to produce a world-beater?

It is not because of a lack of talent or, for that matter, a lack of effort.

In terms of talent, we hold our own against the world. Just a case in point, the BBC recently reported that Singaporean teenager Ong Jia Wei was among 34 grand-prize winners in a software contest organised by search engine Google for students aged 13 to 17, beating more than 1,300 other contestants from 62 countries.

Singaporeans also feature among some of the most successful start-ups in the world. One good example is Mr Tan Chade-Meng, one of Google's early employees.

There is even a Singaporean link to some of the most exciting innovations in recent years.

Mr Dennis Hassabis, the brains behind a supercomputer that defeated Mr Lee Se Dol, the South Korean grandmaster of the complex board game Go, last year has a Singaporean mother.

And speaking of effort, the Government has been generous to a fault with its funding.

As A*Star chairman Lim Chuan Poh once observed, Singapore's research and development investments jumped eight times from the first National Technology Plan in 1991 to $16.1 billion for the five years ended 2015. For the five years to 2020, the Government has pledged $19 billion.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) has lowered the bar considerably to encourage promising companies wanting to list in order to raise funds.

In 2008, as the world was rocked by its worst financial crisis in decades, SGX transformed its junior board Sesdaq into Catalist, which has done away with the need for a company to formally demonstrate a business track record before listing.

Catalist-listed companies are also given a freer hand to raise funds.

But entrepreneurs face a long and difficult road before turning their ideas or prototypes into commercially viable businesses that are ready for listing on the SGX, and many of them may not even make it.

In the US, entrepreneurs in need of funds turn to a group of investors known as venture capitalists (VCs) who give them vast sums to grow their operations. More importantly, these investors also offer valuable expertise and connections to enable the entrepreneurs to scale up their business or even to take their business global.

Using the US model as a template, in order for a business idea to bear fruit, we will need a vibrant VC community armed with all kinds of expertise to assist our entrepreneurs. Merely getting grants from the Government, no matter how generous they may turn out to be, is unlikely to accomplish the task.

The data seems to bear out this proposition. A*Star's Mr Lim noted that Silicon Valley attracted 68 US cents (96 Singapore cents) of VC funding for every dollar in federal funding for research.

For Boston, another hotbed of entrepreneurs, the proportion was 42 US cents of venture funding for every US$1 in federal funding.

Yet, in New York, high-tech start-ups have not taken off in a big way, even though the state is second only to California in attracting federal grants for research and has excellent research universities.

Proximity to Wall Street doesn't seem to help either. New York managed to attract only four US cents in venture capital funding for every dollar in federal funding.

It is a dilemma which our own local entrepreneurs would be well acquainted with, located as we are in a great financial centre ourselves.

In Creative's case more than 25 years ago, the company was able to attract VCs into its fold only when it was enjoying exponential growth and well on the road to success, after blazing a trail of glory in the US with Sound Blaster.

The situation has improved somewhat since then but there are still many VCs whose main focus is to get in bed with companies only when they become sure bets.

Sure, they are not wrong in adopting such a risk-averse approach to protect their investments.

But a lot more can be done to encourage earlier-stage VC financing where a lot more hand-holding is needed because of the higher risks involved, but where the returns can correspondingly be much higher too.

In this respect, it is gratifying to find the Monetary Authority of Singapore making the effort to slim down the regulatory regime for VCs.

It is a step in the right direction.

The proposed changes aim to cut red tape and lower compliance costs. They include giving the stamp of approval for VCs to operate here in weeks, and not requiring them to do independent valuations and submitting audited financial statements to the MAS.

Sure, some may gripe that the changes are incremental and are, in any case, long overdue.

But what is important to note is that they represent a giant change in the mindset of the regulators.

And this may pave the way for further changes to grow the VC sector.

One interesting aspect to highlight is that with the proposed reforms, VCs will no longer find themselves regulated like other fund managers.

That will hopefully spur more of those specialising in earlier-stage financing to set up shop here, as VCs are freed from the constraints that bind the traditionally more risk-averse fund managers.

As Mr Ravi Menon, the MAS' managing director, once observed, civil servants can be better at giving money, but you can't tell a start-up how to run a business and you need people who have run a business to do just that.

VCs fill that role admirably. We need a lot more of them around to nurture our promising companies to become world-beaters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Wanted: VCs not afraid to jump in early'. Print Edition | Subscribe