InnovFest 2021: Impacting the region’s innovation and enterprise landscape

Exciting new technologies and ideas from across Asia and the globe intersected with society at InnovFest. Organised by NUS Enterprise, the conference is the official start-up event of Asia Tech x Singapore (ATxSG).

Held virtually from 14 to 16 July, it showcased 100 start-ups, spinoffs and technologies from the NUS ecosystem. Some 50 thought leaders also shared their experience and expertise over 17 curated sessions.

Welcoming participants including innovators, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and industry experts, Professor Freddy Boey, NUS Deputy President (Innovation & Enterprise), emphasised the importance of speedily bringing innovation from lab to market -- especially in this day and age. “More than ever, companies need to innovate rapidly. Speed in adopting and exploiting new technologies is critical for success and survival. The ability to take new technologies out of the lab and launch them at start-up speed will set apart the winners,” he said.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Communications and Information as well as Ministry of Health, said in her opening remarks that Singapore has long recognised that innovation is instrumental in strengthening the growth and resilience of its economy and society.

“In adopting an ecosystem approach, we are able to take a multi-faceted lens, to spur innovation, in support of economic and social goals. Start-ups are a key source of innovation in any economy, as they experiment with new ideas and solve problems with new technologies,” she said.

Collaboration is key

Two MOUS were signed by NUS at InnovFest to promote greater collaboration among start-ups, industry, government, academia and regional players.

The first MOU was with Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), where the parties agreed to jointly groom the next generation of entrepreneurial talents and build momentum in innovation and enterprise activities.

“For entrepreneurs to realise their full potential, it is essential for universities to provide support for a dynamic ecosystem, and help these budding entrepreneurs to catalyse ideas and bring them to fruition,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.

The second MOU was between NUS and two of Indonesia’s top universities, Universitas Gadjah Madah and Universitas Indonesia, fostering greater innovation between Singapore and Indonesia. Scholarships and support will be offered to Indonesian students to attend NUS’ Master of Science in Venture Creation. The universities will also jointly establish a venture creation programme in Indonesia.

Key stats and figures 

  • > 13,000 registrations for ATxSG
  • > 8,000 live attendees on ATxSG’s virtual platform over 3 days
  • 17 curated sessions at InnovFest, with 50 thought leaders sharing their experience and expertise
  • InnovFest exhibition showcase of ~100 start-ups/ spinoffs/ technologies from NUS ecosystem

Challenges of commercialisation

At a panel discussion, three leading NUS scientists discussed issues faced when commercialising their research on 2D materials.

“Singapore has grown not only as a leading research centre for graphene, but more importantly as a strong innovation centre. We see scientists working alongside engineers to develop their research into applications. Exciting research and ideas can be generated at universities, but to develop these ideas, you need the entrepreneurial talents. So these must be nurtured too,” said Professor Konstantin Novoselov, Tan Chin Tuan Centennial Professor at NUS.

Researcher and entrepreneur Professor Oezyilmaz Barbaros, who heads the Department of Materials Science & Engineering at NUS, added that an entire ecosystem is required to bring innovation to market. The founder of GrapheneScale Pte Ltd, an NUS spin-off company commercialising graphene for various applications, also pointed out that a whole range of people is needed to translate scientific discoveries into something of value for the economy.

“This is currently lacking in Singapore. Other countries have a broader base to draw upon, in terms of manufacturing industry, start-up companies that are already fairly successful and SMEs in advanced materials or who are component makers. Building this up in Singapore will require consistent support over the next decade,” said Prof Barbaros.

The panel also discussed the conservative risk appetite of Singapore investors in deeptech areas where it is difficult to get support for early-stage spin-offs. Typically, investors here want to see a demo or product, while this was not necessarily the case in the US.

The panel’s moderator, Dr Ricardo Oliveira, is also an NUS researcher and entrepreneur, having spun off his unique graphene production technology into 2D Materials Pte Ltd. He agreed that there were difficulties when starting their deeptech journey.

“When we were still within NUS, there was funding for our work. However, once we transitioned to the start-up, the support received got less. While we did receive significant help from NUS Enterprise and Enterprise SG to spin-off the company and grow, the funding to get to the next level and become an industrial deeptech player, came from abroad – investors from Japan and Brazil,” he recounted.

“Deeptech innovators should talk to industry early, build a network, create good relationships with key players and socialise with entrepreneurs. There are huge opportunities if researchers interact closer with industry. It leads to designing better research programmes, as well as writing stronger patents and proposals,” said Prof Barbaros.

Making impact

Prof Boey shared that NUS contributes one of the largest numbers of deeptech start-ups in Singapore via programmes such as the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP).

“We have a proven model for commercialising technologies developed within our research laboratories. Our programmes are designed to transform mindsets and accelerate ideas into solutions, targeting aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to launch new ventures successfully. They provide mentorship, business development, networking opportunities and access to NUS’ library of IP and technologies,” said Prof Boey.

Such initiatives are already seeing impact. One of NUS Enterprise’s earlier ‘experiments’ is BLOCK71, which is celebrating its 10th year anniversary later this year – and hailed by The Economist in 2014 as the “world’s most tightly-packed entrepreneurial ecosystem”.

In 2011, NUS Enterprise, together with Media Development Authority and Singtel Innov8 proposed to redevelop Blk 71 (previously slated for demolition) into a start-up hub. The ‘experiment’ took off and Blk71 filled quickly. Start-ups also took up space nearby – in five more blocks. With the success of Blk71 here, NUS Enterprise spearheaded an initiative known as BLOCK71 to launch more hubs overseas, which takes on the name from its birthplace here.

Professor Chee Yeow Meng, Associate Vice-President Innovation & Enterprise, shared highlights of start-ups supported by NUS Enterprise at BLOCK71 over the past 10 years. Their key achievements include:

  • A total of S$3 billion raised (11 per cent of all equity funding raised by Singapore-based start-ups since 2011)
  • Total valuation of these companies exceeds S$7 billion (25 per cent share of the total start-up valuation in Singapore)
  • Generated revenue exceeding S$1 billion (4.7 per cent of Singapore’s info service sector)
  • Start-ups with the highest valuation – PatSnap (S$1.35billion), Carousell (S$1.1billion) and ShopBack (S$487 million)

As InnovFest 2021 drew to a close, the hope – and indeed, the expectation – was that there will be further success stories in the years to come.


By NUS Enterprise