Spotlight on Asian innovation

Innovfest unbound 2017 attracted a record crowd of over 10,000 delegates and visitors from more than 50 countries to meet and share ideas, build partnerships and celebrate digital disruption. The annual technology festival is Southeast Asia’s largest, which was held over two days from 3 to 4 May at Marina Bay Sands.

Organised by NUS Enterprise and unbound, in partnership with the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), the event also serves as an anchor event in IMDA’s Smart Nation Innovations Week.

Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim graced the opening of the festival as Guest-of-Honour. In his keynote address, Dr Yaacob outlined the government’s push for artificial intelligence (AI) and data science through the establishment of two national research initiatives, namely AI.SG and the Singapore Data Science Consortium.

“AI and data science are key frontier technologies that the Singapore government will harness and build capabilities in. In the longer run, such investments will enhance the economic opportunities for all Singaporeans,” said Dr Yaacob.


Dr Yaacob taking a look at Snowstorm, a personal flying machine built by NUS students, when he toured the exhibits

At the discussion titled “Why Governments Need Start-ups”, the panel unpacked the relationship between governments and start-ups. Dr Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise and co-chair of innovfest unbound noted that governments are needed to initiate and spur innovation, especially in small countries like Singapore, but a balance is needed as too much intervention may not always be ideal even if the intentions are good.

“We need to have a lot of avenues from the government for start-ups to tap on, but we should not be too prescriptive in how we do things,” she said. The panel also agreed that the current conditions in Singapore’s start-up scene are not mature, and there will be a tension between how much government involvement and venture capital (VC) are needed to take it to the next level.

You’re not building a start-up for VCs or government KPIs; you’re building your start-up to do something truly great.

NUS alumnus Mr Tan Min-Liang and CEO of Razer took centre stage when he spoke about “The Cult of Razer”. Having built the highly successful company that produces cutting edge gaming devices from the ground up, Mr Tan shared his personal insights on how Razer attained a cult following among its customers.

His advice for aspiring start-ups was distilled into three key approaches: focus on a niche one is passionate about, then scale; find talent anywhere in the world; and speak directly to customers. The straight-talking entrepreneur said, “You’re not building a start-up for VCs or government KPIs; you’re building your start-up to do something truly great.”


NUS alumnus and Razer CEO Mr Tan speaking on stage

Professor Wong Poh Kam, Director of NUS Entrepreneurship Centre, gave the audience plenty of food for thought in his talk “Gazelles or Zombies? Growth Dynamics of Tech Start-ups in Singapore”. Drawing from his research on Singapore start-ups, Prof Wong shared his big idea that a truly dynamic tech start-up ecosystem generates great variances in performance — some may not survive; some stay alive but generate little growth and employment, which he termed “zombies”; while a small proportion achieve fast and profitable growth, which he termed “gazelles”.

“We have become more dynamic over the last 10 years, largely because of improvement in the ecosystem support. But the flip side is we are not producing enough gazelles yet, especially deep-tech based start-ups,” Prof Wong concluded. His research showed good news though — there are now more female founders; more first-time entrepreneurs; more young entrepreneurs; more heading overseas earlier; and more have greater amount of intellectual property.

Innovfest unbound 2017 featured over 250 speakers as well as 350 exhibiting start-ups and pioneering technologies.