London-based Entrepreneur First (EF) - not your usual startup accelerator - may prove to be a bright spark for Singapore as the latter steps up efforts to groom the next generation of tech creators and transform into a value-creating economy.
Backed by Infocomm Investments (IIPL, the venture arm of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore), EF seeks to assemble and fund the best technical talent - not ideas - to build startups from scratch. EF is considering expanding to Singapore, believed to be as early as this year.
Co-founder Alice Bentinck told BT: "We're the earliest-stage investor you can find: pre-idea, pre-team. We believe that really good and ambitious technical people, from computer scientists to engineers, can be groomed into world-class founders."
Even as challenges abound, observers are optimistic about EF's potential here. Said Zach Tan, director of IIPL's London office: "Being an investor of EF, we believe there are strong causes for Singapore. As Singapore recalibrates its economy, the focus will be on value creation and innovation-driven enterprises. The startup community is an important part of that."
And talent, alongside funding and market access, will be pivotal to the community's growth, Mr Tan noted. "We need to create a conducive environment where entrepreneurial talent can thrive."
Since 2013, EF has worked with 300 individuals (mostly in their twenties) and built 45 startups (from machine learning to augmented reality) that have raised over US$60 million (S$85 million) in venture capital. Collectively, these startups are now worth more than US$250 million, never mind the fact that the co-founders had not known one another or had a business idea to speak of at the start of each six-month training programme.
"We invest in people," pointed out Ms Bentinck, especially promising individuals who might have chosen to work in finance or Google over entrepreneurship, many of whom are software engineers, "hardware guys" or mathematicians, and mostly graduates of the UK's top five universities.
Said Markus Gnirck, co-founder of Startupbootcamp FinTech: "EF will have success in Singapore if it manages to attract diverse talents from all over Asia. The advantage of the programme lies in its diversity of founders and the opportunity to unlock raw potential based on serendipity."
At the same time, more needs to be done locally to develop a critical mass of technical talent, and to entice them to start up or accept technical jobs instead of positions in finance or sales, observers urged.
"The problem is providing viable career options for them. It's not simply a question of continuing in the field one majors in but to commit to applying and developing (one's) technical expertise as a vocation, rather than seeing it as a prelude to a management role," said Joshua Wong, business development associate at HR learning platform GlobalHRU.
For instance, technical engineering jobs such as systems integration work and round-the-clock technical support are aplenty here but perceived by many engineers as "boring" and value-adding instead of value-creating. What EF can do is to unearth these technical talent and demonstrate there can be challenging and meaningful jobs that draw on their expertise, observers said.
It wants to be the best place for technical founders to start their careers, Ms Bentinck said. In the first three months of each programme, EF participants will each be paid £1,100 (S$2,300) a month. In the next three months, when teams and businesses are formed, EF will invest £10,000 into each startup for an 8 per cent stake.
"All things considered, the same monthly stipend and follow-on investment amounts will work in Singapore as these are competitive with that of accelerators here, and attract the right people - graduates or mid-career professionals," said Leslie Loh, investor and chairman of adult learning tech institute Lithan Academy.
Homegrown accelerator JFDI, as part of its 100-day accelerator programme, will invest in startups (with an idea and team) S$50,000 for an 8.88 per cent stake. At EF, for a team of three for instance (with no idea to begin with), it would have invested a total of £19,900 (S$41,664) at the end of its six-month programme.
About 30 per cent of EF participants in each cohort drop out before creating a company. Said IIPL's Mr Tan: "This is ok, since the individuals would have acquired important entrepreneurial traits which make them great candidates for other innovation-driven enterprises and multinational corporations."
Asked if entrepreneurs can really be cultivated, Darius Cheung, serial entrepreneur and most lately founder of property site 99.co, said it's fifty-fifty. "Half the traits that make a good entrepreneur - ambition, commitment, resilience and resourcefulness - are pretty much intrinsic. The other half - team-building, product management, marketing and finance - are tough but can be learned."
Mr Cheung also acknowledged the seemingly-increasing occurrence of government scholars breaking their bonds to launch startups. "I can't say they make good candidates for EF just because they broke their bonds, but if you were to do that for a startup, it is a self-selecting test and the commitment would be much higher."
Meanwhile, this increased focus on talent development suggests funding may have become less of a challenge in recent days, said Ben Chew, founder of HR consulting firm Startup Jobs Asia. "Funded startups face a bigger challenge in hiring the right talents - those with the right aptitude, skillsets and risk appetite - to help them scale. We hear of similar hiring challenges from well-funded startups in the region, not just Singapore."
Last July, EF said it has raised £8.5 million to finance its programme for the next three years. Investors included IIPL, Encore Capital and Alex Chesterman, founder of UK property site Zoopla.
This article was first published on January 4, 2016.
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