SINGAPORE - While Singapore's recent entrepreneurial renaissance has focused on issues such as funding, attracting talent and access to markets, much less attention has been paid to the critical role played by education.
Indeed, while financing is the fuel that gets start-ups off the ground, an educational system that promotes innovation and risk-taking is far more important in laying the groundwork for a self-sustaining entrepreneurship eco-system to develop in Singapore.
One institution that has taken the lead in this area is the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which offers a range of programmes to identify, incubate and nurture start-up businesses. These include helping them to attract funding, providing working spaces, as well as linking them up with industry mentors.
NTU is an approved incubator for government agencies such as Spring Singapore. In this role, the university helps them to manage funds that these agencies have channelled to start-ups. Its efforts have resulted in some 75 student companies being funded by private sector players, of which around eight are still thriving, reveals Lim Jui, the CEO of the Nanyang Innovation and Enterprise Office (NIEO).
NIEO helps translate the university's rich body of research into market-ready products and services, and has a central role in promoting a culture of innovation and enterprise throughout the university.
But more than just a nice-to-have, developing an entrepreneurial spirit among its students is a core mission of NTU, says Dr Lim.
"At NTU we want to develop entrepreneurship in the broader sense of solving problems. These skills will be useful for future leaders, whether you're working in government or in the private sector," he points out. "The end-goal is to create an entrepreneurial mindset by embedding an entrepreneurial education into the curriculum."
What the university does not expect is for its students to start a business the moment they graduate, but rather expose them to the possibility of embarking on such a venture so that it remains an option years into their careers.
For those looking for more formal training, NTU offers a Master of Science in Technopreneurship and Innovation. The one-year full-time programme gives candidates the opportunity to take part in corporate study visits and networking sessions such as Spring Singapore BlueSky Festivals and the NTU Entrepreneurship and Innovation Festival.
Inderjit Singh, a prominent entrepreneur and Member of Parliament, believes that education is one of the most important factors in developing Singapore's enterprise scene.
"In the Singapore environment today, we are very happy to see that people are willing to seize the opportunity to make entrepreneurship a career choice. Education has played a big role," says Mr Singh, who chairs the NTU Board of Trustees' Enterprise Committee.
Among many business interests, he is the founder and CEO of Solstar International, a Singapore-based consumer electronics products company. In Parliament he has been a vocal champion for SMEs (small and medium enterprises), frequently urging the government to do more for smaller business owners long before entrepreneurship was in vogue.
Compared to his initial foray into entrepreneurship in the late 1990s, the environment to start a business today is far more conducive, he feels. "I had a very tough time in the beginning because there were many rules and regulations that were very stifling. It has become much easier to start, but fundamental issues such as seeking-out opportunities and getting access to the right markets, these have not changed."
Indeed, more people are setting up businesses in Singapore than in many other parts of the developed world, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2012 Singapore Report, a study carried out by NTU.
Singapore ranks second, just behind the United States, in having the highest level of total entrepreneurial activity among 25 selected economies globally. In terms of financial support and government policies, Singapore also had the highest scores compared to the other 24 economies.
But despite changing attitudes towards entrepreneurship in recent years, students are still pressured to take the safe corporate route of getting a job in a company and working their way up the ladder, notes Dr Lim. "The issue for some students is the opportunity cost, because jobs are so easily available in Singapore."
Going forward, NTU will continue to forge more partnerships with the private sector in order to bring in more real-world expertise that can support its budding student entrepreneurs. "We are exploring a number of private and public ventures in order to increase our interface with industry," adds Dr Lim.
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