Singapore’s technology sector glitterati turned up in full force on 22 November 2016 for the official launch of SGInnovate at 32 Carpenter Street, a refurbished six-storey building that will be its official headquarters.
The modern, tech-friendly building — fondly called 32CS by its tenants — was packed with researchers, innovators, venture capitalists and industry mentors, who mingled and talked shop.
Wholly owned by the Singapore government, SGInnovate will focus on commercialisation in the deep technology space, in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, digital health, financial services, smart energy, digital manufacturing and transportation.
It will bring together partners from the private sector, institutes of higher learning and research organisations, and provide aspiring entrepreneurs with support for business plan development, sources of funding, and go-to-market efforts.
Technology with Global Impact
“Our basic premise at SGInnovate is simple: We believe that Singapore has all of the resources that it needs to build globally relevant products and globally relevant companies,” said Mr Steve Leonard, Founding Chief Executive Officer of SGInnovate, in his opening speech.
“We believe that we have the capabilities; we just need to find ways to work together to better use those capabilities.”
The guest-of-honour at the launch event, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, used the analogy of tilling the soil to describe how SGInnovate is helping to develop a deep tech ecosystem in Singapore.
“We cannot ensure success in innovation. We cannot plan it to the last detail, because innovation is an inherently uncertain business,” said DPM Tharman.
“But neither is it a purely random process. We know that there are some things that we can do to make the ground fertile, so that seeds have a better chance of sprouting and eventually growing into a dense grove of trees.”
DPM Tharman highlighted the success of another small country, Sweden, which has a population of ten million and is home to several companies with billion dollar valuations and global impact—‘unicorns’ with familiar names such as Spotify, Skype and Minecraft.
Commenting on Singapore’s research and development efforts to date, he noted that Singapore has gained traction internationally, but more work was needed to translate the research into commercial outputs, such as patents and value creation for a global audience.
A Deep Tech-Focused Community
Announced earlier this year as part of the Budget 2016, SGInnovate falls under the purview of the National Research Foundation. In its previous iteration, SGInnovate was Infocomm Investments Pte Ltd, the venture investment arm of the former Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).
(Since October 2016, part of IDA has been restructured as the Government Technology Agency, or GovTech for short.)
It will be a melting pot of engineers and research scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), McLaren Applied Technologies, NVIDIA and Ethereum, as well as from varsity partners National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
But the location will do more than just play host to startups, said DPM Tharman.
“32CS is not just a generic co-working space, nor is it a specialised technology lab. It is a curator, selecting and bringing together deep tech-focused players in the same space with the aim of bringing about productive interaction,” he said.
Going one step further from being a co-working space, SGInnovate will also develop a local pool of experts to provide mentorship to startup founders. These individuals could be venture capitalists, angel investors, regulatory experts or intellectual property (IP) advisors, and they could even become part of founding teams if there was a right fit
For example, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which is represented at SGInnovate by its subsidiary, IP Value Lab, will help founders protect their innovations and original ideas. It will also help them identify commercialisation opportunities in their respective industries.
And to help novice entrepreneurs, a proper mentorship programme is already ongoing as a result of a partnership between SGInnovate and UK-based Entrepreneur First, the only pre-seed investment programme in the world to accept pre-team, pre-idea candidates purely on the basis of their technical ability or domain expertise.
The inaugural Singapore EF programme, which began in September 2016, is a full-time, six-month-long programme. Nearly half of the 55-member cohort are PhD students and post-doctoral fellows from local universities.
One member is Mr. Rohit Jha, whose fledgling startup, TransCelestial Technologies, is hoping to disrupt space and satellite communication with the help of laser technology. “The 50 people that I met here are so high tech; it is so difficult to find people like these elsewhere,” he quipped.
Young entrepreneurs like Mr. Jha will also benefit from upcoming initiatives such as AI Evenings @ SGInnovate, which will be supported by partners such as NVIDIA and McLaren Applied Technologies, and MIT Hacking Medicine, which will be co-organised with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 10-12 February 2017.
Likening SGInnovate itself to a startup, DPM Tharman urged the budding innovators in the room to fly the Singapore flag globally in the deep technology space.
“I hope the entrepreneurs who pass through these halls, and indeed SGInnovate itself, will learnt to fail fast, learn fast and pivot fast, and in so doing, achieve your ultimate goal—to solve the world’s most difficult problems and improve the lives of people around the world,” he said.
Main photo: (From left) Dr Beh Swan Gin, Chairman, Economic Development Board, Ms Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary (National Research and Development) and Permanent Secretary (Public Service Division), Deputy Prime Minister & Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Mr Steve Leonard, Founding CEO, SGInnovate, Mr Gabriel Lim, 2nd Permanent Secretary ( Ministry of Communications and Information), Chief Executive (Info-comm Media Development Authority of Singapore).