Hi Shirley, where are you from and what is your background?
Born and raised in Singapore, I have been in the IT and Technology industry for most of my career. In 1994, I co-founded Frontline Technologies. It grew to have a presence in over 11 countries in Asia Pacific and was subsequently acquired by British Telecom Global Services in 2008. Currently, I am the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Singapore Management University Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SMU IIE), and the Managing Partner of TNF Ventures Pte Ltd, a seed and early stage venture fund that focuses on technology start-ups. In addition to being part of its Steering Committee, I am also the Chairperson of the 10th Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC), which is a global start-up competition that brings together some of the brightest young innovators to develop novel solutions for Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Cities. As you probably can tell, my passion for the start-up ecosystem runs deep. I believe in using the experience and network that I’ve been privileged enough to build over the years, to nurture start-ups to leave their mark on the world.
Please tell me more about SMU Business Innovations Generator (BIG). The SMU Business Innovations Generator (BIG) is a university incubator where visionaries and changemakers passionate about entrepreneurship come together to grow their start-up ideas from ground zero. BIG is a founder-centric programme that has a coaching-heavy curriculum that also plugs participants into an extensive network of world-class advisors and mentors, such as Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Former Minister of Communications and Information; Rosina Howe, Chief Information Officer Group Director Land Transport Authority of Singapore (LTA); Aloysius Lee, Former Director & Group CEO Millennium Copthorne Hotels, and many more.
The programme also offers nine months of access to The Greenhouse @ SMU, a co-working space located at a prime downtown location within SMU’s newest net zero energy building, SMU Connexion. As the Entrepreneur-in-Residence, I work closely with founders; from looking at market validation, to developing their go-to-market strategy and connecting them to mentors who can help them along their entrepreneurial journey.
I am proud to say that the most recent Sep ‘20 cohort of start-ups that entered our programme in September is our largest yet: 27 start-ups across a wide range of verticals from health-tech to logistics to fin-tech. Since its inception in 2009, BIG has incubated over 263 start-ups that have collectively raised over S$134M in funding. Many of our startups have been recognized for their innovations and significant contributions to the startup ecosystem in Singapore. For example, Lin Fengru, Founder of TurtleTree Labs, was one of the awardees for the EDGE 35 under 35 which celebrates the achievements of young, leading entrepreneurs in Singapore.
What is the difference between BIG and other incubators?
What sets BIG apart from other incubators is that we are a founder-centric programme. In addition, as a university-based incubator, BIG takes no equity from our start-ups. BIG strongly believes in investing in the right people: founders that demonstrate tenacity, coachability, integrity, and a willingness to give back to the community-at-large.
This philosophy is reflected throughout the BIG programme. From the way we select start-ups: looking beyond their business plans to the founder’s core motivations and personality. To the way we provide support: – regular check-ins with founders to address their needs and track their progress, – masterclasses and sharing sessions that allow founders to learn both hard and soft skills from our network of industry experts. Topics include fundraising, founders ethics, equity, media management, and more.
How do you select the start-ups you work with?
The first thing that stands out when I meet a start-up is the passion they have for their idea and business. You can tell how invested the team is by the depth of insight that the founders exude. Many of the founders that we work with are young – undergraduates or fresh graduates – but they demonstrate a depth of knowledge and maturity in thought that is beyond their years.
When evaluating a start-up’s suitability for the BIG programme, I tend to look at 3 areas: – has the start-up done sufficient research, due diligence and market validation to formulate a convincing business case – is the team teachable: founders should be driven and ambitious, yes, but we cannot help start-ups that aren’t open to constructive criticism and differing opinions. – is the start-up committed, because only then will they be able to fully leverage the support and resources we have at SMU IIE.
There are also a few red flags that raise an alarm when meeting start-ups.
The biggest one is when founders have a solution that is looking for a problem. As entrepreneurs, we know that the best solutions are ones inspired by addressing real gaps in the market. This requires an intimate understanding of macrotrends, market needs, and emphatically discovering customer pain points. Starting with a solution first is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole: the solution just isn’t made to solve the problem! I’ve come across teams that are so obsessed with creating novel technology that they neglect validating market needs. Although given enough time and options, there will invariably be instances where solutions can find problems to solve, it is far less likely than a problem being met head on by a solution, since the solution was developed to solve that exact problem.
What do you foresee as main trends in the region?
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a fundamental shift in many aspects of our lives and we will probably continue to see widespread disruption in the region. Echoing the sentiments of Mr. Piyush Gupta, CEO, DBS Group at our recent Changemakers Conversation: Our New Normal, two of the biggest trends in our region I see are in Health-Tech and Sustainability.
For obvious reasons, Health-Tech has seen a surge of innovation and investments across the board. The pandemic proved the viability and scalability of tele-health using new and emerging technologies. Moreover, as large swathes of the population start to emerge from isolation and staying-at-home, community care and community wellness are also avenues of opportunity. For example, one of the winners of the LKYGBPC Lite edition is UV-Botics, which has developed a remote-operated UV-robot that can be deployed in a variety of places – from retail stores, to offices and warehouses – to disinfect spaces in a cost-effective manner.
The second trend that will be a game changer are innovations in sustainability. In particular, Covid-19 has exposed the fragilities in our food systems and highlighted the need to build an ecosystem that is sustainable and resilient to shocks. We also see the sustainability agenda pushed to the forefront in the public sector, from Singapore’s “30 by 30” plan to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2020, to the government investing over US$72 billion to establish Singapore as Asia’s food tech R&D hub. There are a bunch of opportunities in this space and there are many start-ups in the BIG programme who are at the cutting edge of sustainable innovations.
One example that comes to mind immediately is TurtleTree Labs, a biotech start-up that uses cell-based methods to make full-composition milk that reduces the carbon footprint of dairy milk production by 98%. Apart from securing US$3.2 million in seed funding recently, they also won the S$1 million prize in the Temasek Foundation’s annual Liveability Challenge. Their success is just one of many in the sustainability space, that we will continue to see in the region.
How do you bring more diversity?
One thing not many people know about me is that I trained in Electrical Engineering, a traditionally male-dominated field back when I was in school. At that time, I was worried about job prospects as well as whether it was the right field for me, since it was an atypical career choice for women. That said, I was subsequently hired by Chartered Electronics Industries (CEI) where my appetite to learn and leverage technology to achieve efficiency led me to eventually co-found Frontline Technologies, my first foray into entrepreneurship.
Taking a step off the beaten path to embark on an entrepreneurial journey is already walking the road less travelled – particularly in Asia. But as we see a rising number of individuals eschewing “conventional” careers to pursue innovation or a start-up idea, my hope is that incubators such as BIG will see greater diversity on all fronts. As an industry agnostic incubator, we welcome start-ups from all verticals, as well as founders with different backgrounds. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or any other demographic, BIG nurtures changemakers and start-ups that demonstrate the grit to succeed. In terms of gender diversity in the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, having more women as anchors in the community, such as myself and my counterpart Ms. Christina Lim who is the Chief Marketing Officer In Residence at SMU IIE, are testament that gender is not a barrier to success. Ultimately, SMU IIE is a convener of a diverse community of changemakers and innovators who are passionate about making a positive impact in the world.
Shirley, thank you! Linkedin Shirley Wong Get in touch with us @ womenfrenchtech at gmail dot com In collaboration with Amel Rigneau — The Business Innovations Generator accepts three cohorts of pre-seed and seed stage startups a year (in January, May and September). Startups interested to join the incubator can fill up the interest form at: https://iie.smu.edu.sg/apply-for-incubation. They will be notified when applications open.