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EXCLUSIVE - One year later: SGInnovate continues to nurture deep tech startup ecosystem in Singapore

EXCLUSIVE – One year later: SGInnovate continues to nurture deep tech startup ecosystem in Singapore

SGInnovate
was launched in November 2016 as a private limited company wholly owned by the
Singapore Government to support and develop the deep tech startup ecosystem in
Singapore.

As reported
earlier
, SGInnovate does so by investing in deep tech startups, helping
them source talent and finding early adopter customers for them. It aims to
leverage off Singapore’s strengths in academia and scientific research and
create globally relevant companies by filling a gap in “business-building”
capabilities.

At
the recent EmTech Asia 2018, Founding CEO of SGInnovate Steve Leonard gave a
presentation on the development of deep tech and how to bridge the gap from
research to commercialisation.

To
learn about the journey of SGInnovate and its role in the Singapore startup
ecosystem, OpenGov had a conversation with Mr Steve Leonard at EmTech Asia.

In
its first year of establishment since late 2016, SGInnovate had achieved
several milestones including the completion of equity investments in 15 deep
tech startups, generation of 400 potential customer leads for early-stage
companies and built a network of more than 1,000 technical individuals
interested in joining early-stage tech companies.

In
last November, SGInnovate unveiled its Deep
Tech Nexus Strategy
to further strengthen deep tech startup ecosystem in
Singapore through adding tangible value in the two key areas of human capital
and investment
capital
for startups. Artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and, medtech
have been selected as key areas of focus. During the interview, Mr Leonard also
touched on SGInnovate’s interest in these technologies.

According
to Mr Leonard, SGInnovate is interested in how these emerging technologies can
affect important markets such as healthcare, transportation and energy sectors.

“For
example, in healthcare, AI, blockchain, and medtech can develop in various
directions.” Said Mr Leonard.

Mr
Leonard also shared that SGInnovate is focusing more on the bigger picture,
rather than specific applications of these emerging technologies of AI,
blockchain, and medtech.

“We
(referring to SGInnovate) don’t think so much about solving specific problems.
Instead of finding a solution to medical records management using blockchain,
we think about what the role of blockchain is in the future of healthcare,” he
said.

 “Though we are not sure where technology might
lead us, part of our job is to bring together ideas forward, just to experiment
in each of these domains,” he added.

As
more people realise the potential applications of AI and blockchain, some worry
that the hype around emerging technologies will lead these technologies to
become solutions in search of a problem.

However,
Mr Leonard saw the increased attention and discussion positively, as part of
SGInnovate’s goal is to encourage thinking and experimenting.

“If we
worry too much about hype or protecting against hype, or making sure that it is
something more practical, we might miss something,” he commented.

To
ensure that innovations are valuable solutions to real problems, SGInnovate looks
to the venture capital community and investors to help decide what technology
is worth investing into.

“What
the team wants to focus on is getting ideas, as many as possible, out in the
open and then the natural processes will decide what will survive and what will
not,” he explained.

Innovation
and breakthroughs would not be possible without some degree of risk-taking. As
such, part of SGInnovate’s role in building a deep tech startup ecosystem in
Singapore is to inspire and encourage more risk-taking among individuals and
corporates.

Mr
Leonard noted that more corporates are reaching out to SGInnovate to share
their priorities and seek for innovative solutions. He cited the example of
Rolls Royce and their work in aircraft engines, how the company is interested
in using sensors to gather data and using data analytics to better understand
the science behind the use of the engines. The company is also interested in
new materials and ways to optimise the manufacturing processes.

“Like
Rolls Royce, corporates now come to our space to both share their priorities,
speak to start-ups, and learn about new ideas,” he said.

The
role of SGInnovate is to ensure that the exchange goes both ways. It helps corporates
in search for new ideas or solutions work with much smaller innovative
companies or start-ups, and vice versa.

Mr
Leonard said SGInnovate aims to be a platform and help both sides to find their
conversation, sometimes with the help from partners like the Economic
Development Board of Singapore (EDB) to engage large corporates.

Singapore
Government has been proactively rolling out initiatives to make Singapore a hub
for innovation. Mr Leonard likens the startup ecosystem in Singapore to a giant
jigsaw puzzle.

“The
whole picture requires a lot of parts and SGInnovate only represents one part.
The part we try to represent is start-ups and entrepreneurs. We are not the
only one representing this community but what differentiates us is that we
focus all our time and effort to work with start-ups in deep tech only. When we
work with industry partners and research, it is because we are trying to help
start-ups. We only have one thing in mind and that is helping increase the
start-up or entrepreneurial success,” he emphasised.

When
people say it sounds risky to invest in this med tech company, my question for
them would be, “why is it risky to invest in it, when we have already spent
millions into research that made it possible to be something that changes
people lives?”

In
our interview
in 2017, Mr Leonard said SGInnovate “really want(s) to build an outstanding
global company and I (he) think Singapore is a great place from which to do
that.” Following up on that, OpenGov asked Mr Leonard about Singapore’s
progress and major development towards that objective during the past year.

He
shared that the startup community has seen more investors to come forward and
show interest in learning more about, or even invest in, start-ups in
Singapore.

“More
people are interested in being part of the community to build businesses. More
corporates are also interested in working with start-ups. I don’t worry if we
have achieved the objective, we are making good progress,” he said.

Within
the Singapore startup ecosystem, SGInnovate also play an important role as a
long-term investor. However, there could be concerns that SGInnovate is making
risky investments with government funds through the Startup SG Equity Fund.

When
asked if SGInnovate is worried about such perception, Mr Leonard pointed out
the difference between “high risk” and “smart risk”.

“It
is not our goal to make sure everyone to understand the processes might take
time. We have the support of the Singapore Government to make longer term
investment and take good risks. I would not say it is high risk. It is, what we
call good risk or smart risk,” he said.

According
to Mr Leonard, Singapore has built a lot of potential and capabilities, but
until a company is formed and products developed that change people’s lives, this
potential is not realised.

To him, the challenge lies in having people to
think big and try, and that is where SGInnovate aspires to make a difference
in. 

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