The role of NUS in the startup ecosystem of Singapore- With Director of NEC, Prof. Wong Poh Kam
In the last few weeks, I have met several entrepreneurs in Singapore with one common thread binding them - National University of Singapore (NUS). Most of them said their entrepreneurial journey began while they were at the University. In the recent past, we have also discussed the role played by Universities in fostering the right environment for entrepreneurship. The bits of information I collected on the ‘NUS-entrepreneurship puzzle’ finally brought me to NUS Entrepreneurship Centre (NEC), which falls under NUS Enterprise that was established by NUS in its endeavour to infuse entrepreneurial spirit and provide an enterprise dimension to its student community.
In conversation here with Prof Wong Poh Kam, Director of NEC on their initiatives and it’s impact on entrepreneurship in Singapore.
YS: Prof Wong, tell us about NUS Entrepreneurship Center.
The NUS Entrepreneurship Centre (NEC) was originally established in 1988 as the Centre for Management of Innovation and Technopreneurship. It was renamed NEC in 2001, and became a division of NUS Enterprise. The key objective of NEC is to inject an innovative and enterprising dimension to the University’s core research and educational activities. NEC does this by nurturing entrepreneurial learning and venture creation amongst the NUS community.
YS: What are the NEC initiatives?
NEC’s initiatives are organised into 4 key areas:
- Experiential Education – Various programmes aim to encourage NUS students to develop their innovative ideas further and bring them closer to market, through action-based learning. Programmes include the Extra Chapter Challenge, a fellowship for PhD students who intend to commercialize their thesis inventions and discoveries and Innovation & Entrepreneurship Practicum Seed Grant, a grant of up to S$10,000 by the National Research Foundation’s University Innovation Fund.
- Entrepreneurship Development – This aims to expose the NUS community to real world entrepreneurship practices. Activities includes the Start-up@Singapore business plan competition, monthly Techno-Venture Forums, which supports development and growth of entrepreneurial technology start-ups in Singapore and Social Business Week, an annual event organized by the Grameen Creative Lab@NUS.
- NUS Enterprise Incubator – This provides the hard and soft infrastructure support to start-ups and entrepreneurs, to help them grow their business, including access to experienced mentors, fund raising support, business clinics, corporate shared services and physical facilities. (More information can be found here.
- Entrepreneurship & Innovation Research – NEC conducts research on high tech innovation and entrepreneurship topics to advance knowledge in this area like the Global Entrepreneurship University Students’ Survey.
YS: Who are the programmes/initiatives directed at? Are any of these available to non NUS students/alumni?
The majority of NEC’s programmes are directed at helping aspiring and existing entrepreneurs within the NUS community, which includes students, faculty and alumni. However, we are organising/ supporting more initiatives that open to non NUS students/ alumni. These include:
Start-up@Singapore Business Plan Competition, where teams from around the world can pitch their business plan and the winning team is accorded cash funds.
Plug-In@Blk71, an extension of our incubation programme beyond the NUS community. This provides start-ups and entrepreneurs in Singapore with a one stop access location to the resources they need to develop and market interactive digital media (IDM) solutions. NUS Enterprise manages Plug-In@Blk71, in collaboration with SingTel Innov8 and with support from the Media Development Authority. Plug-In@Blk71 encourages like-minded individuals to come together, interact and exchange ideas on IDM issues.
YS: What kind of changes has NEC brought to the entrepreneurial community of Singapore?
Changing Singapore’s entrepreneurial community is a long term process, as this requires a mind set change, which can be difficult to measure. For example, the GUESS survey released last year shows that the level of entrepreneurship interest has remained steady over the past 10 years.
However, we are seeing some changes in the right direction. There are a number of vibrant entrepreneurial communities in Singapore, where ideas and discussions flow freely. We are also witnessing the emergence of a number of serial entrepreneurs in Singapore - those who have exited from their first profitable start-up company, and gone on to form another start-up. The success of these entrepreneurs acts as both a motivational factor for existing entrepreneurs, as well as helps to make entrepreneurship a more attractive career prospect. This can be important for those that provide emotional support to the entrepreneurs, such as friends and family.
YS: What is the vision for NEC?
The vision of NEC to build up a dynamic NUS community, with a pervasive entrepreneurial and innovative culture, and a global reputation for entrepreneurial education leadership. The ideal situation would be when we have created a vibrant, self-sustaining community, where entrepreneurs and start-ups thrive, as they build the next generation of products and services that will benefit society.
YS: What are the current challenges of the start-up ecosystem of Singapore?
Most start-ups around the world (and not just Singapore) face two main challenges - the lack of funding and the lack of experience. While the Singapore government has helped to plug the early stage funding gap, through a range of grants and support schemes, the funding gap still exists when start-ups move into their growth phase, typically at the Series A and B stage. And a lack of business experience is common as many of our start-ups are founded by young entrepreneurs, either fresh out of University or with only a couple of years of experience.
The NUS Enterprise Incubator offers a range of assistance to help address these two challenges. Funding support is offered, such as assistance in obtaining government grants, investment related business clinics and introductions to business angels and VCs. We also have a team of mentors and incubator managers on hand to help guide and advice young entrepreneurs.
YS. Tell us something about some NEC incubated startups.
Currently, we have some 100 incubatee companies that are supported by NEC. Many of these have achieved good progress, such as having raised investments, launched new products/ services or expanded overseas. Here are few companies incubated by NEC:
Zimplistic – This company won the 2009 Start-up@Singapore business plan competition. Their product is the Rotimatic - the world’s first fully automatic roti making appliance, which they plan to release later this year (tentative launch date is by July 2013). The CEO of Zimplistic is Rishi Kumar, who is a serial entrepreneur. His first start-up company was tenCube, which was acquired by McAfee in 2010.
Milaap - This is a social enterprise that encourages crowd funding, for India’s working poor. Through Milaap’s online platform, the public can make micro-loans (as low as $25) to support projects in a range of areas, such as education, clean water, or sustainable farming. Milaap is co-founded by Sourabh Sharma and Anoj Viswanathan, who received the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practicum grant to start the business.
T-Ware – This company is developing the T-Jacket, a wearable jacket using haptic technologies, designed to provide sensory stimulation to help and calm down autistic children. The technology for the T-Jacket was developed when the founder (James Teh) was doing his PhD at NUS, and he is amongst the first of the Extra Chapter Challenge recipients. The T-Jacket will be launched in the third quarter of 2013.
YS: Lastly, does NEC stay connected with alumni startups/ entrepreneurs?
Each of the incubatee companies supported by NEC has an incubator manager, who stays in regular connection with the entrepreneurs. Many of our entrepreneurs choose to remain in close contact with NEC by attending business clinics, arranging meetings with our mentors or networking at events.