Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tech Start-ups in Singapore: The Role of Venture Capital and Angel Investors

High-technology entrepreneurship has been identified as an important driver of Singapore’s knowledge-based economy, and increased policy attention has been given to encouraging the formation and nurturing of high-tech start-ups, especially those with significant intellectual property (IP).  To this end, in 2010 the National Research Foundation (NRF) engaged me, as director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre, to conduct a study of high-tech start-ups in Singapore.  While the survey covers many aspects of the high tech start-up dynamics, including characteristics of the founders, their sources of technology and funding, growth strategies, performance and challenges, this blog highlights some salient findings on only one aspect of the survey: the performance of start-ups that have received funding from venture capitalists or angel investors versus those that did not.

The survey focused on young ventures that started-up or began operations no earlier than 2004 (i.e. companies that were at most five years old in 2009), and that fall within sectors classified as high-technology using a definition adopted by the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), which includes all sectors with proportion of employment in R&D exceeding the average for all sectors. Based on this definition, nine manufacturing sectors and three service sectors categorized at the 2-digit Singapore Standard Industry Classification (SSIC) level are included as high-tech sectors in Singapore.

Based on over 300 responding firms covered by the survey, we estimated that less than 10% of high-tech start-ups in Singapore have received investment from VCs or business angel investors (VCA).  The majority of high tech start-ups that did not receive VCA funding reported that they faced two hurdles when attempting to raise funding from VCA.  Firstly,  they reported that VCA investors tend to impose harsh terms or offer valuations that are too low. Secondly, they reported difficulties in attracting the interest of such investors.   

While firms receiving VC/Angel (VCA) investment represent only a small share of tech start-ups in Singapore, the survey results show that VCA-funded firms outperform other start-ups on a number of key indicators.

a) High-tech start-ups that have received VCA investment tend to be more innovative and IP-intensive

 Start-ups that have received VCA investment are more likely to conduct in-house R&D (83.3% vs 51.7% for other firms). Correspondingly, they have a higher propensity to develop their own core technologies (88.9% vs 70.5%).  They are also more likely to have introduced significant product or process innovations over the preceding three years[1] (76.5% vs 62.5%) and have a greater tendency to possess Intellectual Property (IP) assets (52.9% own/have applied for IP assets vs 11.5% for other firms). 

b) High-tech start-ups that have received VCA investment have higher employment growth…

Start-ups that have received VCA investment experienced much higher employment growth rates since their first year of founding (329.8% p.a.) as compared to other start-ups (175.0% p.a.).[2]

c) High-tech start-ups that have received VCA investment had greater growth ambitions

High-tech start-ups receiving VCA investment have a higher propensity to expand their operations to overseas locations (52.9% have overseas-based operations, as compared to 27% of other firms). They also have more ambitious growth targets for the future. Almost three-quarters of VCA-funded firms project growth rates in excess of 20% per annum over the next three years (versus 61.3% of other start-ups).

In summary, our survey of young high tech firms in Singapore show that while less than one in ten of them received VCA investment, those that did get funded by VCA showed higher average employment growth, greater growth ambitions, and tend to be more innovative and IP-intensive.  This difference is likely to be due to a combination of the selectivity of VCA investors who chose to invest in more scalable ventures, as well as possibly the value add provided by the VCA investors to the start-ups, enabling them to invest more in technological innovation and to accelerate their path to growth.   

(Note: A more detailed version of this will be published in the Annual SVCA Directory 2011/12)


Vincent said...

Great finds professor, I look forward to reading the full study.

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