SINGAPORE — For decades, Singapore has been known as a good place for big companies to do business.
Now, this city-state of more than 5 million people is making a name for itself in the startup scene — something it shares with the Dallas area. The entrepreneurial communities in both areas are hotter than a chilli pepper.
Entrepreneurship used to be “a career of last resort,” said Edwin Chow, executive director of SPRING Singapore, a government agency responsible for helping businesses grow.
“Singapore has a very traditional definition of success — being a banker, say,” said Grace Sai, co-founder of The Hub Singapore, a gathering place for entrepreneurs. “In the last six years, that’s shifted as young people look for more meaning.”
The reasons for Singapore’s new-found entrepreneurial spirit are weightier.
After many decades of courting foreign investment by multinational companies, Singapore now also is looking inward, to encourage more startups and help grow existing businesses.
Singapore has 48 startup accelerators or entrepreneurial hubs, up from six in 2012, Sai said.
In Dallas, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has blossomed in the last five years, with dozens of accelerators, startup contests and co-working spaces.
Sai’s entrepreneur hub has about 500 members from Singapore and all over the world who either rent co-working space, belong to a startup accelerator or participate in other programs. Next month, the Hub Singapore will move to a space three times larger than where it is now, she said.
The JTC LaunchPad — a startup hub that opened in 2011 — has grown from 250 startups to 500 in three buildings. It plans to expand to house up to 750 startups in a total of six buildings by 2017.
Last year, The Economist described LaunchPad as “the world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
LaunchPad, with its color-coded buildings and sanctioned graffiti, is a collaboration between SPRING and JTC Corp, a government agency that provides industrial development. SPRING also co-invests dollar for dollar up to $2 million Singapore Dollars with private venture capitalists in high-potential startups in exchange for equity.
There used to be no Singapore entrepreneurs in the tech scene, but now there are more and even second-generation entrepreneurs, said William Klippgen, a partner in Singapore-based Tigris Capital for a decade. More venture capital is entering the scene, too, he said.
Three entrepreneurs I talked with at The Hub Singapore said it’s very easy to register a business in Singapore. Michelle Sun, co-founder of First Code Academy, a computer coding camp for kids, incorporated her company in Singapore online from Hong Kong.
“Singapore is a good place as a base to work in Asia,” said Adrienne Mendenhall, country manager for Access Health International and an American.
Still, it’s not a fast path to entrepreneurial bliss in Singapore. Entrepreneurs noted some difficulty with banks. Singapore parents still are apt not to see entrepreneurship as a career path and there’s a culture of “fear of failure” — something Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also talked about during a recent visit to California as being a hindrance to entrepreneurship in his country.
SPRING works with a private-led group called Action Community for Entrepreneurship that promotes entrepreneurship in the education curriculum starting in hige school.
The National University of Singapore has an overseas internship program for its budding entrepreneurial students.
Student Ian Chen spent all of last year in California’s Silicon Valley and co-founded healthy Green Pea Cookie with American Larissa Russell. He’s back in Singapore this year to finish his degree.
“We have to find a way to go overseas,” Chen said. “Singapore is a very small market. I’m going to start overseas and then come back to Singapore.”
Lim Geok Cheng, principal of the School of the Arts in Singapore, isn’t worried about brain drain in Singapore. She said Singapore parents bring up their children “to be very internationally minded … to broaden Singapore’s network globally and bring what they’ve learned back to Singapore.”
The Hub Singapore’s Sai agrees.
“You’re seeing a cooler side of Singapore,” Sai said. “As a result, we’re seeing reverse brain drain. People who left … are coming back.”