SGInnovate Shows Startups How to Make the Leap from Research to Commercial Success

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SGInnovate was created for the sole purpose of nurturing the country’s deep tech startup ecosystem. Formally launched two years ago in November 2016, the private limited company, which is fully government-owned, continues to help startups make the jump from research to commercial success.

The company helps finance these deep tech startups, recruits talented members for their teams, and helps search for customers who are willing to be early adopters for the technology they develop. Springing from the country’s strong academic and scientific research traditions, SGInnovate then goes on to build tech companies with “business-building” capabilities.

The Founding CEO of SGInnovate, Steve Leonard, spoke at EmTech Asia 2018, showing the audience how deep tech developed and how the leap from research to commercialization can be made.

Since its launch, the company has completed equity investments for 15 deep tech startups, generated 400 possible customer leads for companies in their early stages and created a network of more than one thousand men and women who have shown interest in becoming part of companies for early-stage technology.

In November of 2017, SGInnovate took the next step in the support of deep tech with the rollout of  its Deep Tech Nexus Strategy, which is aimed to enhance two specific areas for startups: investment capital and human capital. This strategy also has three main focal areas, which are, AI or artificial intelligence, medtech and blockchain. Mr. Leonard explained how these technologies have an impact on sectors of significance, including energy, transportation and healthcare. The company is focusing on the bigger picture when it comes to these sectors.

He said, “We don’t think so much about solving specific problems. Instead of finding a solution to medical records management using blockchain, we think about what the role of blockchain is in the future of healthcare. Though we are not sure where technology might lead us, part of our job is to bring together ideas forward, just to experiment in each of these domains.”

Additionally, contrary to the concerns of some that possible applications of blockchain and AI might become solutions that are actually looking for problems, Mr. Leonard views the growing interest in these technologies as a positive, believing they will encourage further experimentation and thinking.

SGInnovate relied on the venture capital investors and community in determining what technologies are worth putting money into, so that the deep tech they support will be of actual use to people. He encourages the SGInnovate team to get as many ideas as possible, trusting that what is not as valuable will naturally and eventually be winnowed out.

The company also recognizes that, as they strengthen the deep tech startup ecosystem in the country, they are actually helping other people and companies take more risks. The number of companies that are asking SGInnovate for help in innovation is growing, with Rolls Royce being one example. Rolls Royce’s work with aircraft engines requires the company to seek new materials and to further improve manufacturing, as well as examine the data gathered by the sensors in the engines, and analyze that data to further comprehend the science behind the engines.

SGInnovate makes sure that businesses that look for new ideas work with start-ups, making the relationship beneficial to both. The company then becomes the platform that helps both sides, along with the Economic Development Board of Singapore (EDB) and other partners in order for other corporations to get involved.

The government has indeed been very supportive of innovation and technology, eager to see Singapore become an innovation hub. The way Mr. Leonard sees the startup ecosystem is similar to a huge puzzle with many parts.

He says, “The whole picture requires a lot of parts and SGInnovate only represents one part. The part we try to represent is start-ups and entrepreneurs. We are not the only one representing this community but what differentiates us is that we focus all our time and effort to work with start-ups in deep tech only. When we work with industry partners and research, it is because we are trying to help start-ups. We only have one thing in mind and that is helping increase the start-up or entrepreneurial success.”

He challenges the risk-averse by asking them, “Why is it risky to invest in it, when we have already spent millions into research that made it possible to be something that changes people lives?”

Mr. Leonard also notes that the number of investors for Singaporean start-ups has grown, and more corporations are willing to work with start-ups as well. He sees this as a sign of progress.

SGInnovate itself is likely to become a longterm investor, though there are people who think that since the company uses government funds, there is the risk that some investments are risky. When asked about this, Mr. Leonard made the distinction between “smart risk” and “high risk.”

He explains it this way, “It is not our goal to make sure everyone to understand the processes might take time. We have the support of the Singapore Government to make longer term investment and take good risks. I would not say it is high risk. It is, what we call good risk or smart risk.”

Mr. Leonard realizes the wealth of capabilities and potential that the country has, however, until this is translated to companies that can produce life-changing products, it merely stays in the realm of the potential.

Until then, he and his company will continue to make a difference in helping people to think big and try, and it is this that sets SGInnovate above the rest.