"Singapore is a good place to have a regional HQ," Shirley Wong, Managing Partner of TNF Ventures
TNF Ventures is an approved Incubator under the Technology Incubation Scheme by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of the Singapore Government. Managing Partner Shirley Wong, who has also been the founder of Frontline Technologies Corporation Ltd in 1994 (listed on the Singapore Exchange in March 2001) brings to TNF her own experience of being an entrepreneur for over 20 years.
We caught up with Shirley to understand what drives their investment decision and the general startup buzz in Singapore.
Tell us a little about TNF Ventures.
TNF started as a passion project between a few of us, who are entrepreneurs and well-connected industry veterans, over many wine sessions where we shared our thoughts of wanting to help local startups succeed in their ventures. We feel that there is a lot of talent locally, but few have succeeded because they did not have the right connections to help them to go-to-market, they did not have people whom they can discuss their business challenges with and they did not have guidance in business model development.And most of the time, they were not having fun because the challenges of starting up totally overwhelmed them.
At the same time, NRF had announced the invitation to participate in Phase 2 of their Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS). We thought that it was a good challenge for us to take up, and we formed TNF Ventures to apply for it, where we were selected.
What drives your investment decision? Does NRF mandate anything on investments?
Our investment focus is telecommunications, media, medical and eco-related sectors. The key drivers in our decision are:
- A strong team in the startup – know their space inside out, passionate
- Highly defensible and disruptive technology/approach
- Solving a big problem to a large addressable market
Currently, our portfolio includes Flocations, a travel discovery platform, TribeHired, a Social HR Recruitment Platform, Mobile Media Creations, a Mobile Wallet, Ohanae, a Cloud Storage Security among others.
NRF had mandated that our startups must be high tech companies, incorporated in Singapore, which carry out core value added activities in Singapore. While we typically invest only in Singapore-based startups, we are open if we find a very compelling investment opportunities, where the startups are willing to base their HQ out of Singapore.
We also co-invest, typically in scenarios where the startups we are investing into need more money than our funding quantum or with angels who are able to bring more value than just money to the startup.
Tell us a little about your team.
Our team is made up of 16 Investor Mentors. We call ourselves Investor Mentors because we both invest in the companies and provide active mentorship to guide them along their entrepreneurial journey.
We have backgrounds very relevant to startups. Some of us lead IT enterprises; some of us are serial entrepreneurs; and some of us run other Series A, B, C funds.
What qualities in an entrepreneur do you see as valuable, before making an investment decision?
Tenacity to succeed and the ability to learn from failure are very important, as the entrepreneurial journey is mostly down and seldom up. They need to go the full journey before reaching their pot of gold in the end. Besides that, knowledge and passion for their industry vertical is also very important.
What are the typical challenges for Singaporen startups?
There is a nice buzz around startups in Singapore. One of the main challenge is that not many startups are mature in their business model and go-to-market strategies. Cost of operations (hiring, rental) is also higher than the other countries in the region. On the funding side, while there is enough seed money and government support, the higher quantum funders are lacking, or not as adventurous.
Singapore is a good hub to test the idea and get funded before going out to the region. It is a good place to have your regional HQ. So I would say, it is generally heading in the right direction, and will probably need a few more good years to run its course.
Tell us a little something about your own transition from being an entrepreneur to an investor.
If you look at it from the other angle, TNF as an investment firm is really another startup, and I am the entrepreneur once again!
Being an entrepreneur, I know and understand how hard the journey is, and also how rewarding the satisfaction of having accomplished so much with so little is. As an investor, I can relive this feeling with the startups we invest into. This is very exciting for me.
Singapore's National Research Foundation, set up in January 2006 as a department under the Prime Minister's Office to strengthen Singapore’s R&D capabilities, encourage greater innovation and nurture the growth of technology-based enterprises in Singapore.
Follow our conversation with the Managing Partner of Jungle Ventures, another NRF incubated fund in Singapore here.