Tap varsities' reserves to fuel Singapore's start-up ambitions

A sign at the National University of Singapore.
A sign at the National University of Singapore.PHOTO: ST FILE

There seems to be some concern over the vast reserves retained by the local universities (Over 60% of NUS' $9.5b reserves in endowment funds, Aug 28).

I think we should also look at how the reserves are spent.

In his book, Startup Cities - Why Only A Few Cities Dominate The Global Startup Scene And What the Rest Should Do About It, Peter S. Cohan explained that universities play a very important role in a city's aspiration to become a start-up city like Silicon Valley and Boston.

I believe our universities, notably the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore University of Technology and Design can be instrumental in advancing Singapore's aspiration to be a great start-up city.

It is not a shame to have more reserves, but it would be an injustice if the funds were not deployed productively to maximise returns, not just in financial terms but also outsized returns with substantial socio-economic impact.

NUS and NTU should use their vast reserves to acquire talent, develop competencies, intensify research and build themselves up to be the Harvard, Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology of Asia or South-east Asia.

In the past, the elite from our public service or private sector tended to graduate from prestigious universities in the West. If one day we can have more public service scholars graduating from our local universities, at the same time, if our universities can train many overseas students who eventually become leaders in their home countries, we would once again prove Singapore is not just a little red dot.

The universities can also set aside part of their reserves to invest in start-up ventures originated by their teaching faculty, undergraduate students and/or private institutions and entities outside the campus.

Indeed, universities can also be good incubators for start-ups. So long as they have the proper corporate governance set-up and policies in place, the invested funds can be utilised judiciously.

All returns from the ventures, from licensing intellectual property or eventual trade exits can be redeployed into the universities' reserves to finance future and ongoing start-ups.

Ee Teck Siew

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2019, with the headline 'Tap varsities' reserves to fuel Singapore's start-up ambitions'. Print Edition | Subscribe