The Singapore Startup Scene

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Introduction

Singapore is a city-state of about 5.5 million people in Southeast Asia, located near the equator at the southern tip of Malaysia. A former British Colony, it became an independent country in 1965 and celebrates its 50th birthday in 2015.

Singapore has become a showcase for economic growth and harmonious intercultural relations. While ethnic Chinese are the majority, there are significant minority communities of Malays and Indians. Indeed, Singapore has 4 official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. GDP per capita in 2013 exceeded US$55,000 (outpacing the US, Japan, UK and all other G7 members). Singapore regularly appears at the top of global rankings in ease of doing business and competitiveness. In StartupBlink’s 2019 report, Singapore ranks 21st globally. 

This brief history is necessary to understand why Singapore is considered as one of the most attractive locations in Asia to base a startup with global ambitions. Most Singaporeans are fluent in English in addition to their mother tongue. With no natural resources, the Singapore success story is one of determination and focus on human capital. The IT infrastructure is world class — there are more mobile and broadband accounts than people!

Success stories

Some notable startups:

99.co (real estate)
Carousell (P2P e-commerce)
Clozette (fashion social network / e-commerce)
Crayon (big data)
Glints (marketplace for internships)
GrabTaxi (taxi and private car transport)
HungryGoWhere (restaurant reviews and ratings)
Luxola (beauty e-commerce)
PropertyGuru (real estate portal)
RedMart (online grocery delivery and associated infrastructure)
Reebonz (luxury fashion e-commerce)
TradeGecko (supply chain management)
TradeHero (virtual stock market simulator)
ViSenze (visual search)
WeGo (travel)

Exits

e-Cop (acquired by Temasek Holdings)
SGCarmart (acquired by Singapore Press Holdings)
Viki (acquired by Rakuten)
Zopim (acquired by Zendesk)

Local heavyweights

Avago Technologies (semiconductors)
Creative Technology (personal entertainment hardware)
Flextronics (contract manufacturing)
Razer (gaming accessories)
SingTel (telecoms carrier with a regional footprint)
Trek 2000 (flash drives, wireless comms, IoT)

Why is Singapore such an attractive place for startups?

The great strength of Singapore lies in the “Singapore Inc.” approach to developing world-class capabilities. The government works in partnership with the private sector to promote certain sectors of the economy, and the startup ecosystem is one of its priorities.

They take a holistic approach — encouraging business migration, enabling skilled foreign talent to relocate to Singapore, facilitating financing, creating a geographical focal point for certain industry clusters within Singapore, and even assisting with housing.

The Info-communications Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) is the principal coordinating body encouraging the development of IT and startups in Singapore, and administers a variety of support mechanisms including a new US$200 million fund aimed at attracting US startups to move to Singapore.

Singapore’s IT success did not start with the Internet and mobile boom. It has been a favourite regional outpost for global IT companies such as Intel, Apple, Nokia, Siemens, Flextronics and Microsoft although many high-tech manufacturers have relocated their factories to neighboring Malaysia or to China.

Singapore is also the regional centre for PayPal, Facebook, Google, and Amazon Web Services.

Challenges for the Singapore startup ecosystem

One major constraint with Singapore is that the domestic market is limited. Moreover, due to its high level of development in relation to most of its ASEAN neighbours, projects which are successful in Singapore do not necessarily translate into regional successes.

Singapore is also a high-cost locale. The costs of private housing and car ownership are amongst the highest in the world. While most Singaporeans live in government-subsidized housing, expats will experience “sticker shock” for comfortable apartments in popular, central areas. Even outlying areas are fairly expensive for international standards.

There can also be a shortage of available labour in certain high-skill engineering disciplines. Job hopping is fairly common.

Major players in the Singapore startup ecosystem

Some of the main players include:

Accelerators

Founder Institute
JFDI
NUS Enterprise
Plug and Play
Startup Bootcamp (FinTech)
The Co-Foundry (FinTech)
TNF Ventures

Coworking

BASH (government supported)
Collective Works
HackerSpace
MakeSpace
Plugin@Blk71 (supported by NUS Enterprise)
The Co
The HUB (focused on social entrepreneurship)
The OutPost (focused on foreign companies setting up in Singapore)
Woolf Works (for women)
Working Capitol

Investors

Golden Gate Ventures
Jungle Ventures
Rakuten Ventures
Red Dot Ventures
Sequoia Capital
SoftBank
Tencent

Government agencies

Info-communications Development Authority (IDA)
Jurong Town Council (JTC)
Media Development Authority (MDA)

The Singapore startup community

Within Singapore, the main focal point for startups is called “Block 71” in the island’s Western region close to the NUS, INSEAD and ESSEC campuses. Block 71 is actually a complex of three separate buildings hosting various startups, accelerators and investors, and has been described by The Economist as the “world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.” There are also emerging startup areas in other parts of Singapore, including the Ubi area.

There are frequent startup events in Singapore — in fact, there are multiple events every day. One can get started with platforms like Meetup.com, Peatix, Eventbrite and NUS Enterprise.

Singapore is a small place and it’s not difficult to make connections.

About the author

Leighton Peter Prabhu is a Co-founder of The OutPost, a Singapore-based coworking facility focused on assisting foreign entrepreneurs to establish themselves in Singapore. He is also a partner in Interstice Consulting LLP, an international consultancy focused on emerging market business expansion.

The city StartupBlink community leader is Meng Wee Tan.

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