Singapore is without a doubt a hotspot for startups. According to a Business Times article, the small island nation has “over 3,000 startups, nine unicorns, and over 400 accelerators, incubators and VC firms”. There are plenty of resources and case studies to take inspiration from, guiding you towards building your start-up in Singapore. After all, especially if you’re entering the tech industry, wouldn’t you want to be in Asia’s Silicon Valley - a term mentioned by TechCrunch?
Further praise for Singapore’s startup scene is echoed by Yield Lab Asia Pacific’s Claire Pribula, giving some reasons as to why the country is favourable for many to start their own businesses in: “Strong Intellectual Property (IP) Protection laws, financial stability and tax structure which fosters a place where start-ups, venture funds, and family funds across the region feel comfortable investing and locating.”
When asked by Enterprise Singapore what he thinks is in store for the startup scene in Singapore, founder of Singapore property marketplace 99.co Darius Cheung states “[he thinks] it’s a rocket ship that will continue to rise relentlessly”.
In the span of just 10 years - from 2010 to 2020 - investments in Singapore-based startups grew massively, from a humble US$0.1 billion in 2010 (38 deals) to a whopping US$3.8 billion in 2020 (257 deals), according to data provided by Preqin to Enterprise Singapore. This is a huge improvement, showing increasing business confidence in the country’s startup scene.
Take for example DeepTech startups, cited from a study by PwC, which totaled S$1.11 billion funding in 2019, and took that a step further with another S$571 million in H1 2020. The study recognises that despite COVID-19 disruptions, investments are expected to bounce back once the pandemic’s effects have cooled off.
This startup guide aims to provide a lowdown of what the tech startup ecosystem looks like in Singapore, from the accelerators/incubators to co-working spaces for you to house your business.
With the thousands of tech startups that exist in Singapore, some bigger than others, there would be too many to list here. However, a few Singaporean tech startups are worth noting, in terms of their software creations and tech solutions.
What do startup founders themselves think of the Singapore startup ecosystem? The co-founder of Carousell Quek Siu Rui has some thoughts. In an interview with Epoch Times, he observes that “there’s been increasing support for entrepreneurs from the government and private sector, which has encouraged the growth of more innovative start-ups here” - more on that in the later sections.
However, the Singapore scene doesn’t go without its flaws, as he mentions that compared to startups in Silicon Valley, those in Singapore tend to be less risk-taking because of the fear of failure - something he thinks should be changed so that even more entrepreneurs in the country can have the chance to start their own companies.
There are many accelerator and incubation programmes to help with supporting your startup’s development, and here are just a few.
Under the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s entrepreneurial branch NUS Enterprise - which is also a useful source in its entirety for startups - it has the BLOCK71 Incubation programme welcome to startups at any stage. Apart from the incubation programme, BLOCK71’s building in Singapore functions as a hotbed for startup stakeholders. It also has locations in other major cities like Jakarta and San Francisco.
Other Singapore-based incubators include Spaze Ventures and Ravel Innovation. Spaze Ventures is primarily a seed capital firm, providing seed funding from S$50k to S$500k, while also offering an incubation programme for accepted startups. They deal with startups from a wide range of industries, including e-commerce and artificial intelligence.
Similar to Spaze, Ravel Innovation has their 12-month Accredited Mentor Partner (Ravel AMP) Programme for local founders aiming for the Startup SG Founder Grant, providing a multitude of support in several aspects. More details on the programme can be found here.
As for accelerator programs, there are three notable ones - IoT Tribe, SAP.iO, and Singapore Tourism Accelerator. IoT Tribe has a biannual deeptech accelerator programme, with several cohorts being recruited each year. For cohort #3 this year, from early September till late November, they are looking for startups focusing on a variety of technologies, for example “Smarter cities and industrial operations”, relating to AR/VR and robotics among others.
SAP.iO has accelerator programs worldwide, with Singapore included, held by each SAP.iO foundry. For 2021 in Singapore, the programs are “Future Of Work Program” and “5G Technology Challenge”. Lastly, the Singapore Tourism Accelerator has a focus on none other than travel and tourism, spanning 4 months. Interestingly, it is organised by the aforementioned Ravel Innovation alongside the Singapore Tourism Board.
In a small country like Singapore, there is actually great government interest in startups, leading to the development of government agency Enterprise Singapore and more-startup focused Startup SG. These two provide support and resources to startups, in terms of funding and programmes.
In 2017, the government established Startup SG to provide many facets of support to startups - many accelerator/incubation programmes like some of those mentioned in the previous section are supported by Startup SG. In more recent times, notable is the Startup SG Equity scheme, aimed at providing equity investments to tech startups. Ex-finance minister Heng Swee Keat announced in 2020 that through the scheme, S$300 million would be put through to deep-tech startups - a support focus chosen because of its higher risk and hesitance among investors.
Under a bigger umbrella, there is the government agency Enterprise Singapore, aimed at helping local businesses in general achieve growth - not exclusive to startups. On their website, you can find the many industries of interest to the agency and Singapore as a whole.
As for the policies by the government regarding startups and businesses as a whole, do read the “Local Regulations” section later in this guide.
With Singapore being a tech hub, there are bound to be several tech-focused events and other networking opportunities. Some events are locally founded, and some are part of larger international organisations.
Rising from successful runs in 2019 and 2020, SG:Digital Wonderland is an exciting way for members of the public to discover the latest technology - AR/VR included. Organised by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), the 2020 online version included a wealth of VR watch parties in participants’ own homes (free Cardboard headsets were provided) and emerging tech workshops, some of which had VR as its focus. It is a great platform for startups to showcase their products not only to specialists in the industry, but also to members of the public which can be useful in gaining traction for products.
Another tech event to keep a watchful eye out for is Techspo Singapore - an event showcasing new tech and innovation. It’s a perfect opportunity to network and promote your startup to investors, press and others interested in tech. Exposure and potential growth can be gained from the event, so it is not one to be missed.
Another two relevant events would be student-led Slush and Innovfest Unbound, which is held in partnership with IMDA. While the former is not solely Singapore-based, they have held events in the country in the past, and do have a beta online founder community which can help provide an existing global network for your startup.
As for Innovfest Unbound, it is a large-scale event of various tech stakeholders in the startup scene, similar to Techspo Singapore’s approach.
One last event worth considering would be the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology, which had its first launch in 2015. With more of a focus on Asia as a whole, it’s safe to say the event is going to be a colossal one. Look out for conferences, showcases, networking activities, and SLINGSHOT - a deep tech pitching competition where startups have the chance to win over S$1.1M (US$800,000) in prizes.
For a more focused tech networking platform, check out the Singapore Chapter of the Global Association For AR and VR. Want to know more about the AR/VR landscape in Singapore and the people part of it? Here’s your chance to meet them all. Apart from the Singapore Chapter, you’ll be gaining access to an association with chapters worldwide, from the USA to Turkey.
There are many co-working spaces on the island, some specifically dedicated to those in the tech field. Providing conducive, well-furnished spaces, they are ideal for startups looking for a space to work and connect with others.
PIXEL is an innovation space set up by IMDA, located in one-north, an area full of tech companies. The space is decked out with facilities to help you every step of the way (about 14 as can be seen on their site), from ideating to prototyping to testing. They even have masterclasses and workshops in several user-centric topics, so not only will you get to be immersed in a like-minded community, you’ll also be given opportunities to learn in the process.
Another two spaces that could be even more suited for startups would be Found8, with three locations in Singapore, and besides being a co-working space, they have a venture capitalist fund Aurum Investments within their same corporate family. Aurum Investment’s website states that they are on an annual lookout for 2-3 “human centric protech startups”.
In similar fashion, The Hive is a space located in the CBD, also connected to a venture capital firm Honey Capital that has a focus on long-term investment in startups, so it would be useful to have them on the radar.
Lastly, The Working Capitol offers workspaces of many sizes, to suit various companies’ needs. The companies that work in-house include financial services company Stripe and digital marketing company Kepler, among other fairly well-known brands - meaning you’ll be surrounded by an established group.
There are many venture capitalists around, but here are two with portfolios relevant to those in the tech industry. Golden Gate Ventures describes themselves as a “global venture capital team powering tech & innovation from Southeast Asia”, with areas covered among their startups including deeptech, edtech, and fintech. Not only this, but many of their startups are well-known brands in Singapore themselves (e.g Ninja Van, Carousell, HipVan), so you are in good company.
500 Southeast Asia is another firm with an esteemed portfolio - at the top of their ranks are their unicorns, transport giant Grab being the most familiar to Singaporeans. 500’s experience with helping startups is unparalleled, having divisions in several countries worldwide. Like Golden Gate Ventures, they do have experience in supporting tech startups in areas such as biotech and fintech, and smart cities.
Other VCs to check out in the region:
Apart from the resources available, Singapore is a fairly business-friendly city state, which explains why it’s preferable for many entrepreneurs and business owners alike. In the latest ranking by the World Bank of ease of doing business worldwide, Singapore came in 2nd, just behind New Zealand.
Much of Singapore’s appeal can be seen on the Economic Development Board’s (EDB) website outlining how easy it is to set up a business in Singapore - one of which being that it takes a mere 15 minutes to register a company online (the fastest in Southeast Asia!). They also have pro-business policies, in terms of economic and manpower sectors. As outlined on the website, these are some ways in which the government provides support:
Regarding tax rates, corporate tax is at 17%, and there is a <22% personal income tax rate for residents. Singapore’s corporate tax rate is comparable to the USA, where it currently stands at a higher 21%. For eligible R&D activities in Singapore, you can even get a 100% tax deduction should it be qualifying expenditure.
Finally, Singapore’s IP protection is hard to beat. Following the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2019, Singapore was ranked 2nd worldwide for IP protection. It also boasts “the world’s fastest patent application-to-grant for AI inventions”, quoted from local newspaper The Straits Times - it can take a short duration of 6 months, an immense decrease from the typical 2-4 years.
As we can see from the guide, Singapore is a haven for businesses, and startups specifically. It is not hard to understand why plenty of international companies, as well as entrepreneurs, start a journey in the country. Its infrastructure, its funding, its resources - all available for you to take advantage of.
COVID-19 has impacted businesses in Singapore, just like in other countries. As ex-Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing stated in a 2020 press conference, “Singapore will not return to a pre-Covid-19 world, and must chart a new path by building a new economy now.” Thankfully, Singapore has maintained a solid foundation through its many offerings thus far, and perhaps what is needed is an alteration in business models and greater entrepreneurial perspective, foreseen by a NUS blog post.