Singapore must support overseas entrepreneurs to drive local startup ecosystem

To develop an ecosystem like Silicon Valley, where most tech vendors hail from outside the US, Singapore needs to make it easier for technopreneurs from other parts of the region to set up shop and work in the country.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

If it wants to emulate the thriving startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley, Singapore needs to make it easier for technopreneurs from other parts of the region to set up shop and work in the country.

Some 60 percent of technology vendors in the flourishing US environment are not from America, hailing instead from a myriad of different nations including India, Estonia, Russia, and China, according Jamie Camidge, head of strategic partnerships and alliances at Telstra's accelerator programme, muru-D.

Pointing to the ease of setting up base in Silicon Valley, he noted that it was not as easy to do so in Singapore, particularly for entrepreneurs from the region such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines who might need to bootstrapped their startups. It could prove challenging for these technopreneurs to obtain visas and have to pay themselves a minimum sum to qualify for an employment pass, Camidge explained.

Speaking to ZDNet a year after muru-D launched its Southeast Asian programme in Singapore, he said its first graduate cohort itself comprised about 25 founders from a dozen countries in the region and across the globe, including Indonesia, Russia, and both South and North America.

It would be unfair, though, to draw parallels between the local startup system and Silicon Valley, which had been nurturing tech startups for the past five decades, he said. Furthermore, the US market was one of the world's largest and home to the most developed technology hub, on which 80 percent of tech venture capitalists were based.

Citing 500 Startups managing partner and founder Dave McClure, Camidge said: "You have to build your own valley."

He noted that the Singapore government had done well to kickstart the ecosystem with various initiatives, such as providing easy access to low-cost workspaces at its Block 71 startup complex and making it easy to set up a business here, and cost effectively. He also pointed to government support in terms of tax reliefs and startup grants.

On muru-D's first graduating team of of nine startups, which graduated just last month, he said: "We're really excited about the quality of talent and skillsets as well as their absolute hunger to succeed, particularly the startups from the Philippines and Vietnam."

Two from the cohort had raised more than S$300,000 (US$218,791) prior to demo day, and one was close to completing their seed round of almost S$850,000 (US$619,909). Together, the nine startups raised more than S$1 million (US$729,304) in funding during their six-month stint with muru-D's accelerator programme, which included a three-week bootcamp with mentors, investors, and experienced entrepreneurs.

The startups were selected from a pool of 350 applicants, which were later trimmed to a shortlist of 25 teams that pitched their ideas to judges. Asked why the eventual graduate cohort was one short of muru-D's initial target of 10 startups, Camidge said it boiled down to the startup's "fit" for an accelerator and "our confidence in being able to help them".

The nine startups would now continue to build their business and customer base and, for many of them, closing their seed round would be critical, he noted. He added that muru-D would still assist in their fund raising strategy and to maintain connections with investors.

This continuing support would be important, especially since there was a high dropout rate among startups, he said.

"I will be surprised if none of the teams decide this isn't for them in the next year. That's usually expected," Camidge said. "Starting up is really tough and being put through the accelerator programme is extremely difficult. It requires a lot of tenacity to keep the momentum going, and that's part of the startup life."

He added that there was a common misconception that building startups was far easier than it really was. "They have no idea how tough it is and it's a rude shock to many of them," he said. "People need to realise it requires multiple failures before you get any success, and that means the first two or three times, you're going to fall into a heap. You have to get back up and do it again."

At the moment, though, all of the nine graduate startups were still operating and involved in fund raising, he said.

Startup analyses images for marketing insights

One of them is PrecisionBit, which aims to build digital marketing platform that uses visual analytics. Co-founder Hadi Tanzil told ZDNet his startup analysed images from various social media sites including Instagram and YouTube to provide insights into consumer trends and audience affinity.

Currently seed raising, the startup was aiming to secure US$500,000 and already in discussions with some venture capitalists and angles in Singapore, Tanzil said. He added that he was confident of reaching the seed target and planned to close the funding exercise over the next couple of months.

He noted that there were plans for PrecisionBit to enter a partnership with the National University of Singapore's data science team, as well as to bring its visual analytics tool to Japan and US. This, however, would come only after the startup gained sufficient traction in the Singapore market, he said. He added that its software algorithm would need to be localised for each market, as consumers from different countries would respond differently to the same image due to cultural and behavioural nuances.

Tanzil revealed that the company had already built a proof-of-concept for a potential client in Singapore and was currently running a product trial, which should be completed in a month.

The 28-year-old university dropout had moved to Singapore from Indonesia after securing a place on the muru-D programme, and was in the process of applying for his employment pass to run his startup here. He planned to stay in Singapore for two years to focus on his startup, should he succeed to securing his employment pass.

During the accelerator programme, his team had worked alongside Telstra's software group to run trials on PrecisionBit's image analytics tool, which led to tweaks in the startup's tool and business model.

"At the start, we were running the software more like a marketplace for social ads," Tanzil explained. "After working with muru-D, we refined the product and came up with a solution for social listening tools that focused on visuals, because available social analytics were typically based on text."

And rather than build ads for marketers, which was its initial business model, the startup decided to instead provide its analytics tool to help marketers better understand their audience and enable agencies to build the right ads.

Comparing his government to Singapore's, Tanzil said the latter had built a conducive startup ecosystem and established basic and transparent rules that allowed businesses to operate, as long as they followed these rules.

There also were more industry experts and skillsets available in the city-state, especially in the field of analytics, deep learning, and neuroscience, which were key to PrecisionBit's growth.

Asked for his advice for other aspiring startups, he said: "You must be open-minded. One of the biggest mistakes I've seen in startups is that the founders think they can simply work on their solutions [and succeed]. You need to be humble because when you join the accelerator programme, you'll have industry folks criticising your product and company.

"If you're not humble enough to learn, then you can't evolve and improve your product. The technical bit is easy and there are a lot of talent here, but to find a use case [for your startup], that's the most important part," he noted.

muru-D is currently seeking applicants for its second batch of startups and will begin its evaluation process in June, with bootcamp and judging day slated for August and demo day in March.

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