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Business Management

Singapore wants to be a living lab for smart startups

Five-and-a-half million Singaporeans and residents celebrate the 50th anniversary of their remarkable island country and city state’s independence this year. Born in turbulence, its rise has been remarkable and the country is a regular leader in lists of wealth, health and per capita GDP. But today Singapore is pushing forward on a new front: using technology to address some of the biggest challenges the world faces.

One of the leaders of this effort is Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. This Dallas-born ex-EDS, EMC, Veritas and Symantec executive came to love Asia on his many stints there and now his passion is promoting Singapore as a regional hub for technology and other businesses and as a great partner to startups.

“Singapore has always positioned itself as a great base for global companies,” he says when we meet for coffee on his visit to London. “We’re working hard to make it a great base but for startups and we’re talking about companies that have the opportunity to be big because people often comingle ‘SME’ and ‘startup’ and really they’re night and day.”

Leonard says that this is a great time to foster startups: “You can be anywhere in the world and you don’t need to fill it up with infrastructure.” However, he says he’s not interested in building some California clone convoy.

“One thing we’re not trying to do is mimic Silicon Valley. We have some good raw materials such as the intersection of universities and businesses, investment capital and high mobile use, and that gives us nice young talent and companies that want to tap into that.”

Leonard’s answer is to position Singapore as a gateway location for entrepreneurial people who want to do something more than just make money.

“The reality is we’re a small place and we want to use that constraint to our benefit. We can’t necessarily sell to our neighbourhood but there are 600 million people within a three-hour flight radius and in a six-hour radius 4.2 billion people.”

But he’s also looking globally including the UK, having had luminaries like Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman to visit Singapore, and he’s keen to work with other countries so ideas can take flight all over the world.

“In Asia, it’s not like Europe and there is no commonality [across countries] but we can be a great teammate to London and Israel and elsewhere. Partnerships, trade relationships… that’s how Singapore was made.”

So what are these challenges Leonard wants to see addressed? He has a list of them from the aging population (“in  a couple of decades there will be more people over 65 than under five”) to transit systems, driverless cars (“inevitable” and Singapore will run trials), water purification, urban densification and energy.

“We’re not trying to be the next ‘fill in the blank’,” he says. “We want to address societal challenges through what we call the Smart Nation framework. We know the planet generally is thinking about food, water and health. There’s an opportunity for Singapore to be a great ‘living lab’ where companies are attracted by putting their ideas into the wild. Great things happen if we solve important problems and almost every great company in the world started with a need. We’d love to see unicorns [companies with pre-IPO $1bn valuations] but we’re focused on doing well by doing good rather than just wealth creation.”

Singapore has a host of incentives for bright people to come to Singapore and Leonard says the focus on solving problems will attract young people who have hopes to create something meaningful. One local example: water desalination and management company Hyflux.

“Singapore has been a very open community for decades. We’d like to continue that trend where great brains and great builders are welcome. Singapore by nature is one big entrepreneurial startup. When it became independent it had effectively nothing: no natural resources to dig out of the ground or even clean water, so it had to bootstrap all the way along. Singapore is a relatively small island and a lot of times people on the outside say that’s too small a market. We say that view doesn’t take into account the network Singapore has in Asia and elsewhere in the world. We want to be that axle, that centre point around which other things rotate, and we’re open for business.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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