Build talent, ecosystem in tandem

“Six to seven years ago, we did not have any start-up scene in Singapore, but today it is totally transformed,” said Dr Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise, as she kicked off the final panel discussion titled “Fostering entrepreneurial inventors and innovators: what works?” at the Times Higher Education (THE) Asia Universities Summit on 16 March. Sharing her secret to NUS' success, she said, "It's not just about nurturing entrepreneurs; you have to 'architect' the whole entrepreneurship space around the campus."

Held over three days at the University of Ulsan in South Korea, the second edition of the THE Asia Summit saw a gathering of more than 220 participants from 24 nations. Dr Chan spoke alongside Professor Jaeho Yeom, President of Korea University; Professor Jaesung Lee, Vice-President of Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology; Professor Christophe Germain, Dean of Shenzhen Audencia Business School; as well as moderator Mr Brian Baillie, who manages student business and incubation at the University of Leeds, UK.

Dr Chan recounted that when the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme first began 15 years ago, students went abroad to intern and study at entrepreneurial hubs such as Silicon Valley but that a similar ecosystem did not exist in Singapore for them to dive into upon their return. “When they come back they are all fired up. They want to do things, so we have to provide the space for them to do so,” said Dr Chan. With Dr Chan’s leadership, the University began developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem by creating incubation spaces on and around the campus, and providing support in the form of mentorship, funding and seed grants.

“It is not just about driving the [talent] pipeline. You need to look at providing the vehicle too,” she added, emphasising that talent development needs to move in tandem with creating an ecosystem to support them.

It’s not just about nurturing entrepreneurs; you have to ‘architect’ the whole entrepreneurship space around the campus.

Dr Chan also highlighted the power of the proverbial “word of mouth” in getting the NOC programme off the ground while located so far away from home. “We have managers on the ground in Silicon Valley, Israel, Shanghai, Beijing, who know the respective ecosystems very well,” Dr Chan shared. “[The NOC at] Israel and New York were tough to start off. We put our students there, and they saw the positive attitude of our students. People started enquiring and the word spread.”

The diverse panel’s sharing of best practices laid clear how universities across Asia are gradually shifting their focus so that they can help students not only attain mastery of skills and knowledge, but also become innovators and entrepreneurs who can forge their own paths and careers.

Prof Yeom underscored the importance of such efforts, noting that while university education has been the key driver behind South Korea’s economic success in the last half a century, within two to three decades, only a fraction of the 20th century jobs will remain. “We need to change our attitude, prepare students to solve problems. We cannot only focus on academic research, we need to push innovation to spill over into other realms,” he said. “In the 21st century, we should produce social innovators.”


The panel discussion included a lively question-and-answer segment

The audience also got the chance to pick the panel’s brains on questions such as overcoming the stigma of failure and the importance of creating entrepreneurship-specific spaces.

In response, Dr Chan acknowledged the difficulty in tackling the perception of failure, especially in Asian societies, but things are changing. “In the last five to six years, our students have learnt how to accept failure. And if students come to us to ask for a small sum for a seed fund, if they have tried it out [being an entrepreneur] once or twice, without hesitation, we will support them,” she shared. “It is tough but [the mindset] is slowly permeating throughout the start-up community in Singapore.”