For the Coursera MOOC I’m following on “Beyond Silicon Valley”, I had to interview a local entrepreneur to better understand the concept of a startup ecosystem.
Living and working in Singapore for two years now, I chose to interview Florian Cornu, whose experience started with corporate innovation finance industry beforehand in London for AXA. He then came to Singapore to build a team around a project during a Startup Weekend, got accelerated at JFDI, South-East Asia most reputed accelerator, and is now entrepreneur-in-residence at one of the biggest VC in Singapore. He is also running a consulting activity with We are CxO, “helping entrepreneurs execute and scale”.
He has been in Singapore for about three years, and has seen the growth of the ecosystem, while experiencing each step of it, from the “base” of the ecosystem to the “top” of it.
Singapore startup ecosystem from the bottom to the top
Flocations, the company Florian created, was initially a new way to browse for travels online, based on the combination of Visualisation (choose your destinations on a map, not a list) and Data (say us how much you want to spend, and we show you where you can go). The company started in 2011, got accelerated during the Q1 of 2012 at JFDI for 3 months. They raised $700k in December 2012, and Florian eventually stepped down from the company in Q3 2013 after a business pivot and with a team ready to take it to the next stage.
Interestingly, Florian inaugurated almost all the components of the Singaporean startup ecosystem.
- He pitched his idea with a team during the #2 Startup Weekend happening in this small city-state in South-East Asia.
- The Startup Weekend itself was organised by the two people, Meng Weng and Hugh Mason, who would build later on the Joyful Frog Digital Incubator, better known as JFDI.
- Meng Weng was also the founder of Singapore’s first hackerspace, called HackerSpace SG, still in operation today. It really shows how people within the ecosystem and with a strong capability for professional mobility help to build it from the inside.
- The first class of JFDI which Flocations was a member of was sponsored by Singtel Innov8, the startup/innovation department of Singapore’s main telco Singtel (also one of the biggest telco in Asia).
For the fundraising, Flocations convinced TNF Ventures. The funding was made possible under the Technology Incubator Scheme by the National Research Foundation. This scheme matches every $1 spent by accredited investors into startups by $6 by this research arm of the government, up to $500k. The company was able to raise $700k, with Singtel Innov8 also joining the round.
The fundraising happened at a time where it was the beginning of the ecosystem on a VC side. There were less funds than there are now, and Flocations was among the first companies to raise funds from the “second wave” of the Technology Incubator Scheme, it was also one of the first company to raise money after JFDI. So far, 60% of the startups of JFDI have been able to raise money, partly through the matching schemes.
One challenge entrepreneurs such as Florian face in Singapore is the sheer market size. The island has 5m population, and if the South-East Asian region is 600m big, markets such as Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand all have their own challenges, from language barrier to different payment or logistics infrastructure.
Ecosystem building trough mapping, analysis and data
Now that Florian is out of Flocations, he is acting as both another role within the Singapore startup ecosystem in his position of entrepreneur in residence at Majuven VC fund, and as an ecosystem builder himself. Two of his side activities involve:
- grow from Seed to Series A, in other words from their first fund raising (usually less than $1m) to their next one (usually 2-10m), based on his experience and his new position. He has published an online data-based tool call “MAVA” (for “Map of Active VC in Asia”) where anyone can check check available sources of funding based on investment size and on the strength of the VCs.
- building from scratch the SaaS ecosystem in Asia, as the region has many SMEs who will soon turn into a giant market of growing businesses who need these kind of tools. He’s doing so both by mapping out and analysing the different players of South-East Asian markets when it comes to SaaS startups, and is planning a first conference on the topic within the next few months.
To conclude, we can see how the Singapore tech ecosystem, highly readable as it’s still at human size and with key people building bits of it at every new position within it, is growing with a high diversity of actors.
It’s not an easy path though, as shows a recent article from Tech in Asia justly titled “Singapore’s startup scene is overrated. But that’s the only way it can succeed”. Large funding rounds have recently happened out of Singapore, despite its media and government activism to claim the first spot among South-East Asia tech scenes. Entrepreneurs from Singapore too rarely conquer the surrounding markets.
But there’s a strategy for Singapore anyway, as the article author’s makes clear: “On the surface, Singapore is marketing itself as an oasis. Its relatively corruption-free governance attracts investors into the region, creating the wide availability of venture capital funding you now see. But what Singapore is, or is trying to be, is an aircraft carrier. It’s projecting influence beyond its tiny shores. It’s trying to achieve what Israel now has, but the reverse way. Instead of collecting a global diaspora, it’s letting people go out hoping they’ll maintain ties here, and bringing people in hoping they’ll develop roots in the country. The influx of talent adds to the local knowledge pool, creating a virtuous cycle of wealth and knowhow”
For another journey into Singapore startup ecosystem, do check the story of Wong Hoong An, a co-founder of Hungry Go Where.