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21 October 2012

Singapore's siren call

There is perhaps no place on Earth like Singapore for its drive to attract and retain the world’s most talented people and have them apply their skills and drive in probably the most elegantly designed capitalist system anywhere.

Author: James Mawson

The standard answer to any innovation, corporate venturing or entrepreneurial challenge is usually the same: it is about the people (and a slice of luck).

Given this, it can be helpful to pick the right location. There is perhaps no place on Earth like Singapore for its drive to attract and retain the world’s most talented people and have them apply their skills and drive in probably the most elegantly designed capitalist system anywhere.

Singapore, therefore, has become the exemplar for consistent application of best practices with gross domestic product growth rates of 8% per year from 1960 to 1999 and only slightly lower in the following decade. Or, at 2005 market prices, from nearly $7bn in 1960 to $300bn by 2011, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics.

At the state’s National Research Foundation-organised TechVenture conference for entrepreneurs and venture investors last week, Singapore’s concierge-type of service in promoting talent showed up in a range of examples:

- The interns working for free during their studies at the National University of Singapore included Chinese nationals identified as academically excellent and with grants to study in Singapore and then wor kfor at least six years after graduation.

- Tax breaks to general partners at overseas venture capital firms in order for the state’s investment vehicles to become a limited partner in their funds;

- Targeting elite entrepreneurs and scientists around the world in order for them to move at least part of their research and development (not just the sales and marketing teams) to Singapore, including Abhijit Shanbhag, executive president of Graymatics and winner of this year’s Techventure Asiasons Innovation Award for Rising Star Innovator – Technopreneur (for the other winners see below*).

As Derrick Tan, founder of the Origen Consultancy and organizer of TechVenture for the past three years, said: “There is a focus on the individual here.”

But, as with Shanbhag – a panellist on my panel on the role of university and corporate venturing to create an Asian Silicon Valley – this focus is on a move to co-locate in the US and Singapore, not just any individual but the sources and capital providers of innovation.

Paul Stein, chief scientific officer at industrial group Rolls-Royce, which has built a large research and development facility on the island, said in a keynote speech at TechVenture, Singapore’s government has been good at picking winning sectors and joining up the dots with incentives for a skilled supply of university graduates, entrepreneurs and workers and access to growth capital.

Singapore’s state-backed GIC and Temasek investment companies are some of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with active private equity programmes and at the Singapore Venture Capital and Private Equity Association’s 20th anniversary of its founding in 1992, Eugene Wong, its chairman, said: “From a humble beginning with just two founding members, SVCA’s membership has grown to 115 with 57 full members [which] are active investors.”

And while some locally-born Singaporeans slightly bemoan the relentless focus on being first in everything, the drive to develop and improve is inspiring.

*This year’s winners are:

·      Most Disruptive Innovation: Clearbridge Nanomedics

·      Best of Show: EndoMaster – Most captivating exhibitor at Techventure

·      Most Eco-Friendly Start-up: Intraix

·      Coolest Innovation: Creative Finder

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