Exclusive: Inside the startup for startups
Steve Leonard, Founding CEO of SGInnovate, on Singapore's plan to boost deep tech.
The SGInnovate headquarters sits just by the river, on a quaint little street lined with shophouses along the outskirts of Chinatown. As charming and quirky as the setting is, inside the six-storey premises is a collection of entrepreneurs and startups that are working on some cutting-edge projects.
The man at the helm is Founding CEO Steve Leonard. He has spent a lot of time in government, and was in technology sales before that. In this time, he’s shaken up Singapore’s govtech scene, and allowed startups to sell directly to government.
SGInnovate, launched last November, is an attempt - in layman’s terms - to ensure that Singapore has some innovative startups to call its own. He sat down with GovInsider to set out his vision, and explain how his unit has found a gap in Singapore’s startup scene that the government is really getting behind.
The commercial guys
Singapore has a reputation for research and educational excellence - one that is “rightfully-earned”, says Leonard. Now, what remains is to translate this research into “something that could be impactful to people around the world”.
“During my time at IMDA [Info-communications Media Development Authority], I’ve been able to meet a lot of interesting people and companies of different sizes in the universities,” he says. Leonard and his team at the state-owned SGInnovate agency act as “the commercial guys”, helping these people and startups with great ideas to get funding; build prototypes; market to customers; find distributors; and scale up.
There are “a lot of amazing talents and potential products in Singapore”, Leonard believes, and these “potential products” may not yet exist beyond the lab bench. SGInnovate plans to help bring them to market.
Part of the agency’s role is to act as an “early, early stage investor”. While there is no shortage of investors that are interested in financing e-commerce or fintech startups, there are fewer who take the punt on cutting-edge technologies.
“We come in with the first money,” he says. “We want to give those amazing people an opportunity to pursue what we think is the potential.”
But beyond the cool factor, SGInnovate hopes to work with startups on products and ideas “not because of the valuation we seek to achieve, or the return when we sell that equity, but if it is something that will address important problems that Singapore, and the world, face”, Leonard shares.
And there have been quite a few innovative, meaningful and just plain cool ideas coming out of SGInnovate’s efforts. Among the first crop of 12 companies, there is a team that has developed a way to treat industrial wastewater faster and cheaper. Another team is using smartphones to assess chronic wounds. Yet another is working on a solution to make buildings more energy-efficient. All of these startups are partly funded by the Singapore government.
Singapore’s got talent
With their focus on deep tech, SGInnovate hopes to both retain talent, and attract entrepreneurs that may be swayed by the allure of Silicon Valley. “We don’t want people to feel that they have to leave, and that there are cool opportunities here too,” he says.
Leonard’s team actively heads out to universities, polytechnics and startups within Singapore and beyond to make the right introductions and connections - as he puts it, “bring those people into a relationship that needs to be in place”. It can mean linking up professors, postdoctoral researchers, and PhD students with investors and corporate entities.
This is a first step for startups to meet like-minded individuals, build deeper connections, and work together on meaningful projects. “We say to these cool startups, here is a pool of a hundred cool people that you might like to know,” Leonard says.
The process of bringing research out of the lab is challenging enough - researchers may lack of business acumen or funding, or perhaps have an application for their technology in mind that may not be “the proverbial runaway success”, so to speak. SGInnovate provides resources to help startups with bookkeeping and other such nitty-gritty details, to “make it as frictionless as possible so they can stay focused on their core mission”, Leonard explains.
For the entrepreneurs operating out of SGInnovate, accountants and legal advisors are on hand, and there are also staff from the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore that advise them on what to copyright, trademark, and patent. “We also have an external panel of intellectual property agents that we make available to our entrepreneurs; they get ‘first cut’ advice,” Leonard adds.
He emphasises that “we are not here to serve investors, corporates or the government - we’re here to serve the entrepreneur”. There is less of a focus on “programmes and schemes”; rather, it’s more about ideas, people and opportunities: “We see an opportunity we love, we invest in it,” Leonard declares.
There is an abundance of ideas brewing within Singapore, ready to spring out of the research labs. With a little help from SGInnovate - a handshake here, an introduction there - these ideas may soon be impacting all our lives.
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