NUS Enterprise: An 'incubator without walls'

Almost everyone has had dreams of owning their own shop, but most of us know also that it takes a fair amount of resources to open a new business, and even more to keep it going.Needless to say, it requires guts and gumption for someone to decide they're willing to risk potential failure and strike out on their own.
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

Almost everyone has had dreams of owning their own shop, but most of us know also that it takes a fair amount of resources to open a new business, and even more to keep it going.

Needless to say, it requires guts and gumption for someone to decide they're willing to risk potential failure and strike out on their own.

To help startups and aspiring entrepreneurs better equip themselves for the cutthroat business world, the National University of Singapore (NUS) set up a unit to cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and offer incubatory services. NUS Enterprise espouses to be an incubator "without walls", and aims to provide education based on real-life industry experience and initiate engagement between startups and industry players.

Lily Chan heads the enterprise unit as CEO, and oversees NUS Enterprise's strategy and programs to promote business ventures and industry collaboration. Before joining the university, Lily was managing director of investments at Bio*One Capital, which is an investment arm under Singapore's Economic Development Board, where she focused on developing the country's biomedical sciences sector. She also has over 20 years of relevant experience that includes spearheading venture investments and mentoring biomedical entrepreneurs.

She also has a doctorate in microbiology and immunology, and currently holds two U.S. patents in viral detections that have been applied in commercial products.

I asked Lily to contribute a post here to provide some insights on the local entrepreneur scene and what it takes to be a successful startup.


Starting up a company is known to be risky, with the majority of startups ceasing operations within their first five years. What more can be done to help young companies grow and succeed? Can we create the right environment for entrepreneurship to flourish? Why is entrepreneurship so important in the first place?

Let us start with the last question first. Entrepreneurship plays a key role in a young and dynamic economy, like Singapore, where it's responsible for creating more jobs, innovative products and services, and even new markets.

High-tech startup companies help drive technology commercialization, often translating work from research institutes or universities into tangible benefits for the public. Startups also support the growth of local industry clusters. With the buzz surrounding entrepreneurs and startup companies, it is not surprising that many organizations--NUS Enterprise included--have taken a strong interest in supporting these young firms.

In order to create an environment conducive for entrepreneurship and to groom future business leaders, NUS Enterprise established a holistic incubation ecosystem. Known as an "incubator without walls", this not only supports startups but also creates new entrepreneurial companies. This incubation ecosystem involves three key thrusts: experiential education, entrepreneurial support, and industry engagement.

We organize many programs that aim to infuse a spirit of enterprise into our students' overall educational experience. One such program is the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC), where students venture overseas to entrepreneurial and academic hubs around the world. They spend a year taking entrepreneurial-related courses at associated universities and also intern at high-tech startup companies within the area. With six overseas colleges, located at Silicon Valley, Philadelphia, Beijing, Shanghai, Stockholm and Bangalore, our NOC graduates return with a global and entrepreneurial outlook.

Other experiential educational programs include NOC's local equivalent, the Local Enterprise Achiever Development (iLEAD) program, as well as Start-Up@Singapore, an eight-month long business plan competition. While the latter began as solely a business plan competition, it has now evolved into a springboard for entrepreneurs looking to translate ideas into feasible businesses. The recent winner of the 2009 Start-Up@Singapore developed an automatic roti (a form of flat bread) maker, which is positioned to become the Indian version of the rice cooker!

Why startups fail Over the past several years, while at NUS Enterprise and my previous job within the venture capital (VC) industry, I have seen hundreds of startup companies get into problems and close down.

Why do companies fail? There are many reasons and common ones include an inexperienced management team, lack of market research, not addressing market needs, poor product differentiation, underestimating financial needs, excessive market competition…the list goes on! Typically, I group these problems into two key categories: lack of in-depth domain knowledge and experience, and insufficient funding.

To address the first challenge, NUS Enterprise's incubator established a pool of experienced mentors and incubator managers. These include serial entrepreneurs, business angels and industry experts. Mentors help guide and advise startups by shaping their business plans, sharpening their strategies and introducing them to the right contacts. NUS Enterprise's incubator also provides funding support, linking incubatees to an extensive network of VCs and angels, or helping them secure grant funding. Since the start of 2009, we have assisted our incubatees raise over S$8 million in funding.

NUS Enterprise also provides physical incubator facilities and business resources. This allows incubatees to leverage shared services and benefit from close proximity to other technology startups. They can also receive support when applying for intellectual property rights to protect their technologies, or assistance in licensing in or out new technologies to the industry.

This brings me to the third way NUS Enterprise supports its incubatees--through building up partnerships and managing industry relations. We're positioned to identify possible research collaborative partners and assist in negotiations. Furthermore, coming from a traditional university setup, NUS is already recognized as an institution with strong research and technology capabilities. This allows NUS Enterprise to act as a catalyst and translate technologies from the university into beneficial products and services that are developed by young entrepreneurs.

Although these three thrusts remain distinct, the entrepreneurs within them do not. The result is a melting pot of exciting business ideas, innovative talents and dynamic startup companies, all leveraging the NUS Enterprise incubation ecosystem. For example, we are seeing our NOC students and NUS graduates starting up their own companies, entering the NUS Enterprise incubator where they are mentored, before going on to raise external funding. There are also instances of NUS Enterprise helping the university faculty spin off their research into a new startup, which can then tap the iLEAD program to gain access to entrepreneurial interns.

Through our various initiatives, we hope more talented graduates with entrepreneurial mindsets and high tech ventures will emerge from or be facilitated by NUS. At the same time, we want to create the right environment that will attract VCs and angels to NUS, together with other world class R&D investments. These in turn will draw in more top researchers and students to work and study here. The end outcome is that NUS will play a pivotal role in the high-technology economy, both in Singapore and the global arena.

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