Helping ideas set sail

When entrepreneurs get lost amid regulations and remits, the PEP is there to connect them with the right authorities.

Miriam Becker, founder of Floating Donut PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN
(L to r) Binjai Brew’s Heetesh Alwani and Rahul Immandira. PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN
Seah Liang Chiang, founder of an upcoming container hotel. PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN

Getting permission for something may be daunting; all the more so for an untested idea. When entrepreneurs get lost amid regulations and remits, the Pro-Enterprise Panel (PEP) is there to connect them with the right authorities and help ideas set sail - literally, in the case of Marina Bay's "doughnut boat" dining cruises.

Floating Donut founder Miriam Becker, who has lived in Singapore for over a decade, saw the boats a few years ago in Frankfurt and immediately thought of bringing them here.

"I thought this would be an amazing five-star experience for Marina Bay," she says. Designed, produced, and certified in Germany, the boats have been in Europe for over a decade but would be a first in Singapore.

In late 2015, Ms Becker began approaching public agencies to find out how to make her idea a reality. "But nobody was really able to help."

"Sometimes these ideas, in this world of innovation, fall through the cracks of the silos of the individual agencies," says Eugene Toh, director of the Ministry of Trade and Industry's Pro-Enterprise Division, which is the secretariat for the PEP.

If a firm has an idea that cuts across agencies, but only approaches the agencies one at a time, it may be hard to get approval, he notes.

"These are ideas that agencies may have never seen before. So if you go to them, at the outset, it may look like it's going to be rejected, just because the current policy doesn't allow."

That could have easily ended up being the case for Floating Donut. Eating and drinking is not allowed on reservoirs, including Marina Bay.

Fortunately, when Ms Becker went to the Singapore Tourism Board, the agency "really liked the idea", decided to provide kick-start funding, and introduced her to the PEP.

The PEP is an "internal advocate" for novel ideas, coordinating across agencies to see how these might be made possible, says Mr Toh. Even if the eventual answer is still "no", at least that will have been reached after a thorough debate, he adds.

In January 2018, the PEP brought Ms Becker and the agencies together for a meeting. "So that was a big step forward, because everyone was sitting at one table and we were able to discuss their concerns," she said.

They agreed on a six-month trial to see if the boats could operate while addressing issues such as safety and pollution, with the compromise that there would be no cooking onboard.

"From that point on, everything went quite smoothly," says Ms Becker, with the PEP handling further inter-agency communication.

The PEP's role was a true boon, she adds: "I was very surprised that this exists. It was really, really helpful."

Floating Donut's offerings include a romantic couple's cruise with sparkling wine, a family cruise, tailored corporate cruises, and even a karaoke cruise with a portable sound system. Food can be ordered in advance from the nearby restaurant Monti.

After the trial ended in May, Floating Donut was able to keep operating under the licence of Singapore River cruise operator Water B, with three boats. Floating Donut's licence ends next May, but Ms Becker is not worried about renewal. Indeed, she hopes to expand with more boats and a wider area - and looks forward to working further with the PEP on this.

Brewing ideas

Binjai Brew did not meet the PEP in the best circumstances. It was early 2018, and the three student founders had just been busted for brewing and selling beer in a university hostel.

Following media coverage, Mr Toh reached out - via Facebook Messenger, "in the spirit of cutting red tape".

"We could barely believe it," recalls co-founder Rahul Immandira. If not for that, Binjai Brew might have dissolved instead of becoming a firm, adds co-founder Heetesh Alwani.

The brewers told the PEP about the challenges faced by a "nanobrewery" like them. Their point: "It needs to be easier for people to start small ideas."

Existing licences did not meet their needs. In 2012, a microbrewery licence was introduced for producers of less than 1.8 million litres of beer or stout a year, with an annual fee of S$8,400, compared to S$43,000 for regular breweries. But Binjai Brew barely makes 10,000 litres a year.

Instead of paying the full fee upfront, perhaps microbreweries could pay it over time, they suggested.

In May, this became reality. New microbreweries can now pay S$2,100 per quarter for the first year, with a refund if they give up the licence early.

Mr Toh notes that it may not be a huge change in the grand scheme of things, but adds: "It's a very good signal - to young people, to entrepreneurs - that the government is here to help you try new ideas."

Ironically, as Binjai Brew now operates by contract brewing - relying on another brewery - it does not benefit from the change. But the aim is to have its own brewery by 2020. Then the pro-rating would help, says Mr Immandira: "We'll probably be one of the first to benefit from that."

The principle of lowering entry barriers to encourage entrepreneurship could be applied elsewhere too, said a PEP spokesperson: "The PEP is considering how this concept can be extended to other licences in sectors with a high number of startups."

Think inside the box

If you're an investor interested in start-ups, why not get up close by staying among them? That's one potential clientele for the upcoming container hotel at startup cluster JTC Launchpad @ one-north, says founder Seah Liang Chiang: "They can stay here and be immersed in the ecosystem."

Previously in the IT industry, he himself was a PEP member from 2002 till 2015: "I never thought I was ever going to be on the other side."

But when he had the hotel idea, he knew where to turn. The PEP suggested applying under the First Mover Framework for use of public assets, which can grant an allocation and/or price advantage to novel ideas. He did, and was awarded it in December.

After the PEP linked him up with agencies, it was JTC that eventually offered him two plots at the Launchpad, with a 2.5-year lease from June 2019. That short lease is perfect for a pop-up "in a place where no normal hotel can operate", says Mr Seah.

The self-contained suites each have two beds, sleeping four. They feature air-conditioning, their own water supply, and toilets with a full sewage system. Says Mr Seah: "When you walk into my hotel, you will have no idea that it's a container."

He is planning a second concept: combining a few containers, with 10 to 20 beds and a common area. For this, he will know again where to turn.

As Mr Toh puts it: "At the end of the day, whether the ideas actually take off or not, it's up to the businesses to make it work. But our job is to make sure nothing hinders them."

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This article was first published in The Business Times on Oct 24, 2019.

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