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Asian Ingenuity Garners Global Attention at Singapore Innovation Expo

This year's Innovfest Unbound event saw high-profile entrepreneurs from across the Asia-Pacific region keen to highlight their successes, while 350 eager start-ups listened, learned and pitched for the multi-million-dollar funding on offer.

Photo: Asia: Looking to take a global lead in nurturing start-ups and driving innovation. (Shutterstock.com)
Asia: Looking to take a global lead in nurturing start-ups and driving innovation.
Photo: Asia: Looking to take a global lead in nurturing start-ups and driving innovation. (Shutterstock.com)
Asia: Looking to take a global lead in nurturing start-ups and driving innovation.

The fact that Singapore sees itself as Southeast Asia's preeminent innovation hub was clearly evident at the recent Innovfest Unbound event, the annual centrepiece of the island-state's Smart Nation Innovations, a week-long showcase of innovative developments from across Asia.

Highlighting how the event itself has grown, Innovfest Founder and Chief Executive, Daniel Seal, said: "When we launched in 2015, we had 2,400 participants. Today, we have 14,000, of which 5,000 are from some 100 countries, making this – by far – Southeast Asia's biggest innovation event.

"This year, the event is also the launch pad for several innovation competitions from around the world. On top of that, we have 350 start-ups in attendance, all keen to make their mark in the world's fastest-growing region."

Indeed, the 2018 event boasted a stellar line-up of top executives from Southeast Asia, including Tony Fernandes (the Founder of AirAsia, the Malaysian budget airline), Anthony Tan (Chief Executive of Grab, the Singapore-based taxi-hailing app), Chatri Sityodtong (the Founder of ONE Championship, the Singapore-based company that is now Asia's largest martial-arts promoter) and Piotr Jakubowski (the former Chief Marketing Officer of Go-Jek, the Jakarta-based high-tech group). The event also attracted a variety of government ministers from across the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Prince Andrew, the UK's business-minded royal.

Opening proceedings, S. Iswaran, Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information, detailed some of the steps that the island-nation is taking to ensure that innovation thrives within its borders. Promising that no citizen would be left behind as the country transitions into a smart nation, he said: "As part of this year's Budget, we announced that a further US$109 million will be invested in scaling up our Tech Skills Accelerator [Singapore's high-tech apprenticeship scheme]. In line with that, we are on track to create 20,000 training places by 2020.

"Firstly, though, we must leverage frontier technologies, such as AI. It is a journey that private enterprises, consumers and the government must take together. Secondly, we must harness the value of data and encourage data sharing among businesses with the aim of solving common problems, driving innovation and unlocking the value of complex datasets. Finally, to grow our digital economy, we must enhance our international networks, which is especially important in today's increasingly peer-to-peer and networked world."

Royal Pitch

Taking his turn on the podium, Prince Andrew, formerly the UK's Special Representative for International Trade and Investment, was keen to raise the profile of Pitch@Palace, an initiative he founded to support entrepreneurs and new business ideas. Focusing on the programme's success in Southeast Asia, he said: "People simply fail to realize just how energised this part of the world is. As a clear sign of that, the Pitch@Palace ASEAN contest attracted a huge response.

"In total, we received 22,000 applications for the 42 start-up places we had on offer, even though we had reduced the scope to just mobility and transport solutions. Through this initiative, we believe we are bringing the world's start-ups to Singapore, as well as Singapore's start-ups – and those of the wider region – to the world."

In keeping with the global preoccupation with environmental protection, the winner of the 2018 Pitch@Palace ASEAN contest was KLEAN, a Malaysian waste-recycling start-up. To date, it has installed hundreds of 'reverse vending machines' across Malaysia, all of which reward users for recycling plastic bottles and aluminium cans. The company will now go on to represent the ASEAN region at the Pitch@Palace global competition in December.

Photo: Regally-recognised: KLEAN vending machines.
Regally-recognised: KLEAN vending machines.
Photo: Regally-recognised: KLEAN vending machines.
Regally-recognised: KLEAN vending machines.
Photo: Go-Jek: Regularly reinvented.
Go-Jek: Regularly reinvented.
Photo: Go-Jek: Regularly reinvented.
Go-Jek: Regularly reinvented.

Despite its regal trappings, Pitch@Palace was just one of many initiatives competing for attention at this year's Innovfest. Another came courtesy of JLL, a Singapore-based property company, which launched Proptech Unleashed, a project designed to foster technological innovation in the real-estate sector. For its part, Accenture, the global management consultancy, launched its Unbound50 ASEAN, a showcase of 50 of the best tech start-ups from across the Asia-Pacific region.

Understandably focusing more on the financial sector, HSBC, the global banking giant, was in Singapore to push Hex Hive, a networking space for fintech start-ups, while Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods conglomerate, was touting its Foundry Start-up Battle, which primarily focuses on the marketing, e-commerce and retail sectors. Switching back to matters more high-tech, Bayer, the German pharmaceuticals giant, debuted its From Molecules to Medicine tournament, which will see teams offered cash incentives to solve global healthcare issues. Finally, not to be outdone, a number of the host country's companies and organisations jointly launched PIER71, an incubator for the logistics and maritime industries.

Vibrant Eco-system

The talking point on PIER71 is NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore, which also manages Launchpad, the entrepreneurial education programme for researchers that claims to be behind a quarter of the country's start-ups.

Outlining some of the organisation's past successes, Professor Wong Poh Kam, a Director of NUS Enterprise, said: "In 2010, we took over a number of factories that had been scheduled for demolition. Sensing an opportunity, we used these facilities to consolidate and incubate the start-up community, consequently generating synergies and allowing for economies of scale.

"It is now a vibrant ecosystem comprising start-ups, VCs, accelerators, commercial and legal services and incubators. This has enabled start-ups to venture regionally and internationally and made them, on average, twice as likely to attract investment as start-ups that were not part of the initiative. Now, Launchpad has premises in Suzhou, San Francisco and Jakarta, with the latter a partnership with Indonesia's Salim Group."

Keep Re-Writing

Beyond incentive schemes, there was also plenty of advice on offer for start-ups at the event. During his presentation, Go-Jek's Jakubowski emphasised just how important it was for start-ups to keep reinventing themselves.

Citing Go-Jek itself as an example, Jakubowski outlined just how the ride-hailing company had grown rapidly, despite its relatively humble beginnings, saying: "We just kept rewriting ourselves. At least 50% of the technology we currently use hadn't even been invented when we first set up.

"When Go-Jek went live in January 2015, it offered only three services and only accepted cash payments, but still secured 12,000 bookings a month. By December, we had expanded to 10 services, we accepted cash and Go-Jek credit transactions and were servicing 13 million bookings. By April the following year, we had 14 services, accepted cash and Go-Pay and managed 18 million bookings.

"In January last year, Go-Pay had the facility to accept transfers and withdrawals, Go-Points was launched and we had 30 million monthly bookings. Today, we have yet another app interface, a new homepage, and 40 million bookings.

"Based on our experience, I have three bits of advice for start-ups. First. don't ask why you should do something, ask why not. Second, roll up your sleeves, get to work, and develop your own playbook. Finally, as I said, rewrite often – if you don't your competitors will."

Photo: Innovfest Unbound 2018: The perfect location to source innovation.
Innovfest Unbound 2018: The perfect location to source innovation.
Photo: Innovfest Unbound 2018: The perfect location to source innovation.
Innovfest Unbound 2018: The perfect location to source innovation.

Innovfest Unbound 2018 took place from 5-6 June in Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre.

Ronald Hee, Special Correspondent, Singapore

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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