Singapore investor focuses on promoting startups that solve the country’s problems

Singapore already offers many of the building blocks essential to fostering innovation, such as strong protection of intellectual property rights and access to major nearby markets.

And now the city-state is increasing its commitment to solving some of the country’s thorniest problems, such as providing healthcare for an aging population, ensuring efficient transportation on its densely populated roads, and cutting down on energy use.

In November, the country launched SGInnovate to encourage tech-based collaboration and invest in solutions to solve some of these challenges. The new private company, which is wholly owned by the government, aims to promote startups in areas like digital health, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

Since it was founded, the organization has invested in more than a dozen local startups that it hopes will influence global markets.

SGInnovate Chief Executive Steve Leonard was in the Bay Area in early May attending TiECon and spoke with VCJ about the company’s plans for cultivating an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Singapore.

Leonard was previously the executive deputy chairman at the IDA, and served as the president of EMC Asia Pacific and Japan before that. The company’s governing board includes members with backgrounds in government, healthcare, private equity and venture capital.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What do you do at SGInnovate?

A: We’re working to give some of the entrepreneurial efforts in Singapore a focus point. Not that the government is running it, but we represent a team to help those people that would like to do some of that work.

We’re bringing together graduate students, investors, startup talent, corporations and universities. Singapore is already a pretty internationalized place with two highly world-ranked research universities. They already do the hard part, and we have the luxury of being able to work with those folks.

Q: How do you do that?  

A: We ask, “what’s of use to the entrepreneur on his or her journey?” We make equity investments, not government grants. We help with recruiting talent because we know a lot of people in the ecosystem throughout the world.

We help get people with brands on CNBC, NBC and Bloomberg, and we help with selling the ideas to the CEOs of big companies.

Q: What kinds of innovations are you focusing on right now?

A: We focus most on tech-intensive or deep tech or IT-based industries, like industrial wastewater treatment, computer recognition chips, and improving virtual reality content delivery and image stabilization.

Q: How much influence do you have on business and startup-related legislation in Singapore?

A: We’re pretty connected, and that’s partly this idea of what SGInnovate was meant to be: the government investing in the private sector. Although we’re owned by the government, we’re set up as a private limited company, and that matters.

It’s different than being a government agency or government department. We have a degree of flexibility. And we try to represent that hybrid.

From that perspective, we’re teammates or colleagues with a different legislative aspect. We don’t write the laws in Singapore and say this is the right policy, but we give feedback.

Q: Do you know of other countries looking into this hybrid public-private innovation model?

A: There are other versions of the idea in Estonia and Switzerland, and Sweden, the Finns, and other countries are thinking about it. The Russians asked us to give a speech in Moscow. But there’s a difference between awareness and action.

Singapore has this thing up and running now. We’re working with entrepreneurs now. We’ve made more than a dozen investments in startups.

Q: In terms of your international impact, are you trying to replace or compete with other innovation hubs like Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv?   

A: Silicon Valley is a unique place for a whole bunch of reasons, and it’s not our goal to copy anything. We’d like to be a great teammate.

We’d like to others to know that we get the fact that entrepreneurship is important to us, too, but we’re not saying for everybody to do a different version of the same thing.

We’re trying to encourage entrepreneurs who are going to be working on some tough things the world is facing, and we’d like to find a way to be helpful.

What people work on matters. People talk about unicorns, but I often remind people that DeepMind Technologies was acquired by Google for a half-billion dollars, and they are far more impactful than a company that might be valued at several-billion dollars because it offers something in social media.

If we’re going to try to figure out what’s important to humanity, we try not to use valuation when talking about what we’re doing.

Photo of Steve Leonard courtesy of SGInnovate