Looking to 2021: Five key trends in the start-up ecosystem

By Professor Freddy Boey |

2020 was dominated by COVID-19, with the pandemic pushing healthcare systems to the brink, contracting the global economy, and ending the lives of more than 1.8 million people around the world.

For the tech start-up ecosystem, fears of a bleak investment climate and mass closures were summarised by The New York Times as the “Great Unwinding,” with Sequoia Capital warning its start-ups that the virus was the “the black swan of 2020”. Twelve months into the pandemic and the outlook is more nuanced: COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, led to the evolution of businesses and industries, and generated numerous innovations applicable to the fight against this and future pandemics. While some start-ups have thrived in the crisis and others have buckled, no other event in recent memory has done a better job at highlighting the disruptive role of technology.

As the reverberations of COVID-19 will continue to be felt into the new year, here are five key takeaways, industries and trends start-ups need to keep an eye on in 2021.

1. Crisis yields opportunity

Where the coronavirus laid bare the weaknesses of societies in managing the pandemic, start-ups are helping to fill the gap. With unprecedented challenges unique in their complexity and urgency, the current climate offers countless opportunities for start-ups to pivot, adapt and innovate to meet the moment.

An example is our former incubatee Biofourmis, which customised its AI-powered remote monitoring technology for COVID-19 in just two weeks, helping to free up hospital space, protect doctors from unnecessary exposure, and enable early medical intervention for better outcomes. To date, close to 100,000 COVID-19 patients around the world have used the Biofourmis platform.

As we look forward, we expect start-ups to be a driving force in charting a post-COVID world. Innovations related to the direct or indirect effects of the pandemic will continue to emerge. Businesses and consumers are also reassessing their priorities and preferences in the wake of the crisis, and start-ups will need to anticipate these shifting trends in order to remain relevant. But by forcing start-ups to focus on worthier problems and solve real needs, the pandemic has also given them the opportunity to emerge stronger and more resilient.

2. Digital transformation is not an option

Importantly, the crisis demonstrated that businesses which have invested in digital transformation were significantly better prepared to meet the challenges wrought by the pandemic than those who have not. Upending entire industries, COVID-19 forced companies to drastically accelerate the adoption of new technologies: schools moved to e-learning platforms; groceries and restaurants shifted to online ordering and delivery; retailers embraced e-commerce; the healthcare industry increased telehealth options; hotels incorporated new contactless and robotic technologies for guest services; and banks are providing more digital services in the wake of physical branch closures. The list goes on.

Summarising the change, a McKinsey survey revealed the crisis had vaulted us “five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks”. In 2021, we expect digital transformation to remain at the top of company priorities, with successful adoption helping to build company agility and strength. Moreover, those that embrace the shift to a “new normal” as an opportunity for fundamental transformation will be better placed to weather future crises. This will require investment in technology, manpower upskilling and training as well as a culture that embraces innovation and change.

3. Physical location will matter less

It took a global pandemic to put to rest the myth that employees could only be productive if working from the office. While we anticipate that more jobholders will return to their workplaces in 2021, we also expect there to be greater flexibility in work arrangements as employers try to balance the efficiency of a virtual workforce with the benefits of face-to-face interaction. The same holds for the education sector, as well as the events industry: the future is hybrid.

For start-ups, this translates into new opportunities to reimagine nearly every aspect of daily life. Demand for virtual work and e-learning technologies, collaboration tools, video conferencing, and online event and meeting platforms are likely to continue. Cybersecurity will also become increasingly important as privacy and security concerns arise with digital transformation.

Moreover, as technologies like Zoom become normalised and big tech conferences move online, investors will grow more comfortable with sourcing deal flow online and start-ups will have increased access to talents and partners beyond their localities. Energy and resources will also be funnelled into growing online communities and innovation and enterprise (I&E) hubs, with physical location seen as less of a barrier to start-up growth.

We are already beginning to see the benefits of this change. More than 400 investors, venture capitalists (VCs), corporates, and industry players attended our recent virtual Lift-Off Day for GRIP Run 4 to hear our deep-tech teams pitch their solutions - a larger number than we could have hosted had the event been held in person.

4. It’s time to get serious about food security

Panic buying and disrupted supply chains during COVID-19 have highlighted how fragile food security can be. For a land-scarce country like Singapore, which imports more than 90 per cent of its food, the situation is even more acute. Because of this, the government has set the ambitious goal of producing 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs by 2030 under its “30 by 30” initiative.

Many of our start-ups are already contributing to this vision: GRIP graduate Polybee is building autonomous solutions for pollination and NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) alum start-up Archisen operates one of the highest yielding indoor farms in Singapore, producing up to 100 tonnes of vegetables a year.

For its part, NUS is also committing more resources toward this space. In 2021, we will open the NUS Agritech Centre, a sandbox for scientists, entrepreneurs and industry to testbed and explore market-based solutions. Complete with precision climate chambers and grow zones, the facility will enable experimentation and acceleration in the agritech and foodtech industries.

5. Universities will play a bigger role in venture creation

Monumental events have the ability to reshape the research landscape, and we expect COVID-19 to be no different. While country lockdowns restricted movement and enforced social isolation, the nature of science became more open and collaborative during this time, with the urgency to develop a vaccine fueling the sharing of information and data. Importantly, the pandemic underscored the importance of investment in both basic and applied research, as well as the university’s role in contributing to the generation of ground-breaking technologies and solutions.

For university innovation and enterprise offices (IEOs), the situation offers a chance to ease the path for technology commercialisation and take a more proactive role in venture creation. In recent years, NUS has built upon its foundational infrastructure of entrepreneurial education and incubation to provide more intensive and structured support for the spin-out of technology-based ventures, notably through GRIP. Iterations of this methodology have been deployed in other programmes, such as GRIP MAKE, which targets recent graduates, and the Venture Building Programme, a partnership with Enterprise Singapore. In 2021, we will further these efforts by launching a first-of-its-kind MSc in Venture Creation programme, as well as a Technology Access Programme (TAP) for professionals, each of which is designed to likewise accelerate the commercialisation of university research into impactful and sustainable deep-tech companies.


About the author

Professor Freddy Boey is the Deputy President for Innovation & Enterprise at NUS. He oversees the University’s initiatives and activities for innovation, as well as entrepreneurship and research translation. An academic and inventor, Prof Boey has pioneered the use of functional biomaterials for medical devices in Singapore, developed 127 patents, founded several companies, and been published in 347 top journals with 23,555 citations. An alumnus of NUS, Prof Boey previously served as the Deputy President and Provost of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) from 2011-2017.



Looking to 2021 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the fourth installment of the series.

Click here to read about Professor Tommy Koh's seven wishes for the year.

Click here to read about Professor Danny Quah's outlook for the global economy.

Click here to read about Dr Kelvin Seah's analysis of the Singapore economy and labour market.