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Uncovering the secrets to Singapore’s digital success

Highlights from OWP
November 2017

The Singapore edition of IMD’s signature program Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) is currently underway. The program has been hosted every November in the Lion City since 2014. The innovative Asian city-state has long been a recognized pioneer in Smart City and Smart Nation initiatives, and therefore provided IMD with an excellent backdrop to take a deeper look at digital Singapore.

This year’s OWP included a full one-day focus on Singapore’s business success – the country took the number one spot on the IMD Digital Competitiveness Ranking in 2017 – where first-hand voices from Singapore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem provided valuable insights to the program’s participants.

Is Singapore a dream destination for start-ups in Asia?

A distinguished panel session at OWP heard from Ramesh Raghavan, Board member of Business Angels Network South-East Asia & Co-founder Tenshi-Peak Adventures; Dustin Jefferson Onghangseng, Co-Founder and CEO, uHoo; and Akshay Chopra, Senior Director, Innovation & Strategic Partnerships (Asia Pacific), VISA.

During the panel, participants learned that most of these business leaders have moved from established corporate backgrounds towards start-ups; rarely the other way around. So how does the idea to even begin a start-up even come about? A start-up’s reason to exist is to provide a solution to an existing business problem, one that needs a fresh solution. This was the case for Dustin, uHoo’s founder who came up with his idea during his studies in Hong Kong as he and his co-founder experienced repeated respiratory illnesses. They then discovered it was due to the air quality inside the building where they were spending a majority of their time. They decided to invent a product that would measure the air quality in order to provide evidence to prove their point – and another Asian start-up was born.

But why Singapore?

There are many reasons Singapore is home to so many start-ups: ease of regulation, a high concentration of networks and fund-raising opportunities; an innovation-friendly ecosystem; an ideal location in South East Asia. But what about beyond these reasons?

“Infrastructure is a given. Also the country’s small and nimble size, foreign talent access, and strong forecasting projection from the government all contribute to its businesses having an edge at a time where the world is going digital and traditional industries like shipping and mining are dying. Corporates have an advantage on scale and finance but it’s the entrepreneurs that have that edge on tech and data capturing,” explains Ramesh Raghavan, Board member of Business Angels Network South-East Asia & Co-founder Tenshi-Peak Adventures, one of Asia’s oldest early-stage investment vehicles.

“The smart nation & smart city government initiatives are drivers which make this city-state a prime destination globally, and one of the most innovation-driven countries. A lot of efforts and funds are directed to this end. Nearly all education institutes and universities have accelerators or incubators. Government agencies like the Economic Development Board and large multi-national companies also have programs and centers that are dedicated to strengthening such an ecosystem, not unlike another innovation-friendly country–Israel. Given that global corporations often have their Asian HQ in Singapore, that has a multiplier effect,” he added.

Recently Singapore hosted one of the world’s largest Fintech conferences with over 22,000 attendees. One could wonder: Why Fintech in Singapore and not Silicon Valley? 

“Although provisions have been made to make this country very conducive to Fintech and innovative business in general, it hasn’t come about organically, one could say. For example, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) built a division focused entirely on innovation, with its goal to make Singapore a destination as a global Fintech hub. So government support has made incredible strides in enabling such growth, coupled with the notion of safety and trust that comes along with Singapore’s brand” explains Akshay Chopra, Senior Director, Innovation & Strategic Partnerships (Asia Pacific), VISA.  His division is in the business of co-creating digital payment partnerships like Apple pay and Samsung pay, building new user experiences in digital commerce and banking.

The panel ended with words of encouragement laced with realism for the business leaders attending OWP from Ramesh Raghavan. “Asia has more process than product innovation – the key to success is to be market-ready as fast as possible. You need to believe in your idea even if a million people don’t believe in you. If you don’t show up to work at 9 am in a normal job you get paid, regardless. As an entrepreneur; you have to hustle every hour, every day. In short, to be an entrepreneur, you need to be a little ‘crazy’!”

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