Monday, August 25, 2008

What's Wrong (or Right) about Singapore's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, Part II

I would like to thank the dozen or so of you who sent me emails to share your views on Singapore's entrepreneurial ecosystem (also the five who left comments on my blog). While many of you have (rightly) highlighted the lack of early stage finance (angel investors, early-stage venture capitalists) as a major impediment in Singapore, I would like to highlight another factor that may be just as important, if not more so -- the lack of advanced firms that provide the seed-bed for the development of advanced skills and knowledge, and that are willing to try adopting new, advanced but unproven technology from small start-ups, i.e. serving as lead-users to other start-ups. Indeed, in certain business sectors where such advanced firms were present, Singapore had actually witnessed sizable emergence and growth of start-ups, contrary to the perception that Singapore's entrepreneurial ecosystem has been uniformly weak for start-ups in general.

From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, Singapore had actually experienced significant start-up growth in one sector -- the supporting industry to the hard-disk drive (HDD) industry. If you examine the number of companies that IPOed in the 1990s, you will find a sizable number came from this sector -- ranging from precision engineering firms like MMI, Brilliant and Seksun to contract manufacturing firms like Natsteel Electronics and JIT (both had since been acquired by others). Others like facility engineering services firms Perdana Consulting had also done well, even though they did not go public. These firms were arguably technology-intensive, and some of them were able to compete globally, although nearly all of them started by serving the major HDD assemblers located in Singapore from the mid-1980s -- Seagate, Conner, Maxtor, Western Digital, etc. Indeed, quite a few of these firms were started by ex-employees of these HDD assemblers, who accumulated deep business or manufacturing process technology domain knowledge of the industry, before coming out to become component suppliers or service providers to the same or related industry. (For those of you who want to know more about this dynamic process of new firm formation in the HDD sector in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s, you can consult the chapter I wrote on Singapore for a book on the globalization of the data storage industry published by Stanford Business Press in 2000 -- the book actually bears the title "From Silicon Valley to Singapore: Location and Competitive Advantage in the Hard Disk Drive Industry". )

This new firm spawning process is actually not that much different from the ways in which advanced firms in successive high tech industries in Silicon Valley have spawn the subsequent creation of new start-ups through the process fo employees leaving to become entrepreneurs -- whether it is Fairchild in Semiconductor, HP in electronic instrumentation, or Apple in personal computers. The one difference between what happened in Silicon Valley and Singapore's hdd industry is that, while the advanced firms in Silicon Valley were engaged in product innovation, those in Singapore's hdd industry were engaged primarily in manufacturing operations, albeit with some involvement in manufactruing process innovation. The employees in Singapore hdd industry thus learned primarily about manufacturing operations and process innovation, and the start-ups they created naturally drew on what they learned -- hence it is no surprise that their start-ups were concentrated in component production and assembly, process automation and contract assembly services, etc.

It is interesting to note that early stage financing has NOT been a major limiting factor to the creation of many of these hdd-related start-ups -- the main reasons being that there existed a critical mass of people who understood the industry, and the fact that there was a ready market for the products and services of these start-ups, which reduced the perceived risk of investing in such companies. Some of these start-ups were self-funded by the entrepreneurs themsevles and their friends who had accumulated savings as employees in the hdd firms; some of the funding came from former industry senior executives, other investment came from other business executives and professionals in related industries, and later, private equity funds and investment bankers who were familiar with the industry. The key point is that such investment were forthcoming from people who knew the industry, who knew the entrepreneurs, and who could assessed the risk because of their domain knowledge and people knowledge.

Fast forward to the 1990s and 2000's, we can witness a similar burst of Singapore-based start-ups in the offshore and marine services sectors -- with Keppel FELS and Sembawang Corp serving as the advanced firms that have become globally competitive (collectively they controlled more than 2/3 of the world's market for offshore platform construction), many such offshore and marine services firms were spawn, including quite a few that have IPOed in recent year, e.g. KS Energy, Swiber and Ezra. Again, the same process can be discerned -- knowledge gained from the advanced firms emboldened some of their employees and distributors to become entrepreneurs, and the ready market provided by these advanced firms for a wide range of services reduced the risks for such entrepreneurial entries.

The point is that, where there exists advanced firms, Singapore has been able to support healthy new firm formation and growth. It is only when entrepreneurs in Singapore try to start new ventures in sectors where Singapore does NOT already have some advanced firms and lead-users as anchors that they encounter difficulty in getting funded. It is NOT that Singapore has no high net-worth angel investors, or that such people are inherently risk adverse. It is because the entrepreneurs are trying to start companies in sectors that the existing angel investors do not understand, do not know the entrepreneurs, and cannot assess the risk competently.

In this sense, entrepreneurs in Singapore who are trying to do what Silicon Valley is best at -- starting new companies that pioneer new product innovation using cutting edge technology and targetting at lead-users -- are doing it in the wrong place. Singapore had produced some successful manufacturing firms because we were a major manufacturing base for some rather advanced manufacturing operations by global MNCs. But because Singapore had NOT been a base for advanced global MNCs to perform their product innovation activities, we had not been able to acquire much advanced know-how in product innovation. Unless and until a szable base of advanced firms and lead-users are carrying out their product innovation activities in Singapore, thereby enabling a sizable number of Singaporean engineers and managers to acquire such advanced know-how to become entrepreneurs and investors, it would continue to be difficult for product-innovation-based entrepreneurial start-ups to get started and funded in Singapore.

I would highlight two implications from the above observation. First, Singapore's entrepreneurial ecosystem is not uniformly weak or backward; there are sectors where Singapore's ecosystem may arguably be better than what can be found even in Silicon Valley. Just as Silicon Valley has a great ecosystem for, say, web 2.0 start-ups now because it already has advanced firms in web 2.0 and hence lots of people, including VCs and angel investors and entrepreneurs, who understand web2.0, Singapore has a great ecosystem for marine services start-ups for the same reasons. The key is to pick the right type of business to start in Singapore -- businesses that best leverage on the strength of Singapore's existing (and emerging) ecosystem. Some of my own recent angel investments have been guided by this perspective (more on this in future blogs...).

Second, entrepreneurial ecosystem is not static, but can evolve over time. In particular, public policy can play an important role in stimulating or accelerating the pace of change in certain directions. Thus, notwithstanding the difficulties in starting product-innovation-based new ventures in Singapore that I highlighted above, specific policy interventions, e.g. public co-funding schemes to reduce risk of angel investors, bringing in experienced mentors that have the relevant industry, business and technology knowledge, and public support scheme for early internationalization and cross-border fund-raising, can help nurture the beginning of some limited successes, which in turn will spawn more start-ups over time, in a virtuous cycle. This is something that my centre (NUS Entrepreneurship Centre) in NUS is trying to do for NUS-related spin-offs; again, more on this in some future blogs...

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