How to grow the next great startup

Singapore is on the right track to growing a great tech startup, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology mentors say, as they advise on staying the path.

SINGAPORE--Is Singapore on the right track to growing IT innovation? Two mentors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) think so.

Charles Cooney, faculty director of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT, said Singapore is on the right path to growing its next great technology start up, because it is focusing on its biggest strength--its people.

Cooney said in an interview with ZDNet Asia: "To have innovation, you need to build your human resource by both growing it and attracting high quality people. Singapore has been building a strong capability in that."

Leon Sandler, executive director of the Deshpande Center added: "Asia's basic school education is very strong. There is huge strength in cultures which have a healthy respect for education, versus other cultures which may hero-worship rock stars or football players, for example."

Cooney, who is also a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at MIT, said he has noticed a marked change in Singaporeans' attitudes toward risk.

"Success is not final and failure is not fatal--that's something I always tell my students. What I see here is a positive attitude toward taking risk; I see more people trying and picking themselves up after failure," said Cooney.

Beyond success on our shores, Cooney urged local startups to think about branching out of the region. "The domestic market is small, so you can't just be thinking about Singapore," he said.

Sandler noted that it is easier for startups today to market their products and services out of the country because of communications technology.

"[At Texas Instruments] 10 years ago, we used to have our own satellite to communicate with our developers in India. Today, [communications] is cheap and ubiquitous," said Sandler.

Using the example of Gajah, a local portable media player manufacturer, Sandler said the company has been able to tap overseas markets for manufacturing and sale because of today's communications channels.

"Subcontracting everything allows you to do what only a huge company used to have the scale to do," said Sandler.

Nurture also the venture capitalists
In order to continue growing and managing risk, his advice is to nurture the venture capitalists with training programs on how to better recognize the right time to invest and to grow their willingness to take more risk. "This is something which comes with experience," said Cooney.

Sandler, who also runs programs at MIT for venture capitalists said investing is about being smart with risk. "Like investing in the stock market, you can have a portfolio of funds, with a small percentage of that in 'wild' stuff," which have uncertain promise of success, he said.

"Every now and then you hit a Google," where success is great and unexpected, said Sandler, "But you don't put your family savings in that."

Sandler frequently encounters people searching for the "secret formula" to growing great startups, but he said there is none. Countries which have been successful in that aspect have done so by building an ecosystem of developers and funding, "and things just happen", he said.

"The number one factor for success in the United States is the enormous amount of money the government puts into seeding research and universities," said Sandler.

Singapore too has experience funding startups. For example, the Media Development Authority (MDA) last year put aside S$500 million (US$355 million) to fund the development of a research program for interactive digital media projects.

At MIT, twice a year since it started in 2002, the Deshpande Center awards grants to research projects, which have seen 14 companies spin off to collectively raise over US$100 million from outside investors since, according to the Center's Web site.

The key to Singapore's quest to create a Silicon Valley is really just patience, said Sandler. The startup scene in Boston and Silicon Valley always bounced back in spite of going through their "downs" because of the talent pool, and "Singapore's talent is no different to what I see there," Sandler added.