Clean Tech Investments in Asia: Frank Levinson of Small World Group

By Vallabh Rao|13th Sep 2011
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Small World Group Incubator operates out of Singapore in partnership with the Singaporean government to fund, mentor and grow companies in the clean tech, optic and materials spaces. Frank Levinson is the founder and Managing Director of Small World Group,

which invests in start up companies and non-profit ventures as well. He serves on a number of corporate boards and is an active venture investor. Frank was the inventor on more than 40 patents in the areas of networking, optical communications and optical components.Before this, he founded Finisar Corporation, which today is the largest fiber optic component and subsystem supplier in the world. Frank talks to YourStory about Small World Group and clean tech investment in Asia.

YourStory: Tell us more about SWG.   

Frank: Small World Incubator and Ventures represent 2 arms of Small World Group. The Incubator invests in very early stage companies, primarily in the Clean Tech and optical spaces. We work with entrepreneurs from before the potential company is even formed through the seed funding round. Small World Ventures invests in companies that have a good base including filed patents and other intellectual property, working early products, some customer feedback and some sales. Finisar was founded using no venture capital. The company had revenue from the first month and was profitable every year through its IPO 11 years after the founding. This experience and previous negative ones colours the type and approach to venture capital that Small World Capital takes.

YS: Which are the startups the incubator has invested in?

Green Koncepts , Thirdwave Power, Optiras, Rapsodo and Green Line Innovations. SWGx is also a Venture investor in YouNoodle, Vixar and Daylight Solutions all of which have normal websites under their names. But these are not part of the incubator; I am on their boards and a significant investor.

YS: What was the motivation behind starting an incubator in Asia? What are your focus areas of investment and why?

Small World Group began investing in companies in the USA in 2006 but it was clear to me then that Asia was a place of increasing activity and opportunity. In 2009, Singapore announced a RFP for groups that wanted to operate incubators in Singapore, they called this program the Technology Incubation Scheme. see (1)(2)(3)

We focus on clean tech, optical systems, unique materials. These are areas where we can add technical value, where we have extensive contacts and where we believe we can help the companies we start later with follow on funding.

That said, we have invested outside this space when the opportunity was particularly attractive in terms of team and technology.

YS: Please share your insights on the emerging clean tech industry in Asia

We like Asia as a place to develop, manufacture, market and sell clean tech products. These are green field in many cases - for example a solar power device need not compete against existing highly developed infrastructure like the USA has in order to be competitive - so we can leap frog technology generations in some cases like Cell phones did in India over wired telephony.

Investment in Asia is strong compared to USA and Europe. The growth is here and the willingness to take risks.

We like the areas of solar, waste processing, biology (mainly agriculture and such, not human biology)

We like having partners, like the Singapore government, so that we gain leverage as well as standing in the countries where we contribute.

YS: Are you looking at investments in India?

We will look at investments anywhere in this part of the world.

But ...

Our value add is not just money so if we invested in a company, an idea or team from India we would want to know how it works in terms of the people side of things. we don't just send checks and attend quarterly board meetings. That's not us.

So it would have to be something special for now as it would involve quite a bit of travel for both the team and for us.

We are seeing a lot of innovations in the clean tech sector in India and Asia. Investors are yet to warm up to the idea of these green startups. An incubator dedicated to clean tech ventures is definitely a welcome move. What do you think of this story? Do you know of any clean tech startups doing innovative work? Write to us at contact@yourstory.in

Read more about Small World Group on their website – http://incubator.smallworldgroup.com

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