In the first of a six-part series on innovative start-ups, Francis Chan talks to tech firm Anacle Systems to find out how it took a concept from lab to market with a little help from Spring Singapore's Start-up Enterprise Development Scheme (Seeds).
ARMY buddies Alex Lau and Charles Ong knew they had a winning idea eight years ago. But like many start-ups, they struggled with funding.
They, however, persevered with their plans to the point where they now have a growing international business.
Their firm, Anacle Systems, has two products to push: Anacle Enterprise Asset Manager (Anacle. EAM), which is already on the market, and MeshSense, now on the verge of going commercial.
Anacle.EAM is a software that helps companies optimise their assets to reduce costs, while MeshSense assists building owners in reducing energy wastage.
When The Straits Times visited their new corporate headquarters at the International Business Park in Jurong last week, both men were all smiles as they contemplated the long-awaited launch of MeshSense this month.
"It's imminent, we're just waiting for the go-ahead from one of our larger investors," said Mr Lau, 36, a former Defence Science Organisation scholarship holder.
The idea for MeshSense started when he and Mr Ong were recalled for in-camp training in 2002. Inspired by the thick foliage during jungle training, the platoon mates wanted to create a system to lower energy consumption to help save the environment.
What could have been just idle chatter between the two old friends turned serious after they became colleagues at a property management consultancy.
While working with building owners, they learnt that the bulk of a building's operational cost went into utility bills.
"What building owners do not realise is that a lot of their power consumption can be reduced if it is more efficiently managed," said Mr Lau.
"One way to help manage energy usage is to identify where the wastage is coming from within the building."
But that would require structural refurbishments that could cost owners millions of dollars to wire up a building to monitor power supply points, he said.
"So we thought of a system using wireless mesh networking technology that would not require any wiring at all. Plus it would be easy to install and still deliver real-time data to profile a building's energy consumption," added Mr Lau, a Cornell and Stanford University graduate.
Broadly, mesh is a type of networking technology that allows connections between devices called radio nodes for data transfers.
Mr Ong, who went to the National University of Singapore on a Public Service Commission scholarship, said getting data on wastage as it happens in real time was critical if building owners were serious about plugging leaks.
"They usually don't know what the problem areas are. So if there's a sudden peak at a certain time of the day, having that real-time data would mean getting a clearer energy profile," said Mr Ong, 36.
The friends aimed to develop a wireless system that could provide a real- time overview of a building's energy consumption, power quality and carbon footprint. But while they never doubted the idea's feasibility, they fast discovered that making money out of it was easier said than done.
For one thing, neither had the cash to fund the research and development needed to commercialise the project. And when their employers turned down the chance to invest in MeshSense in 2006, they decided to have a go at it on their own.
"Once we broke away from the company to form Anacle, we knew we had to find other ways of financing the idea, other ways of making money," said Mr Lau, Anacle's managing director.
He and Mr Ong, the firm's executive director, put their heads together and came up with Anacle.EAM that, among other things, helps companies manage the lifespan and productivity of assets like machinery.
Although developed as a means to fund their dream for MeshSense, Anacle. EAM has been a profitable product used by Singapore Airlines, the Taipei 101 tower, the Shazand Arak oil refinery in Iran and the Qatar Cultural Village.
By the end of its first financial year in 2007, Anacle had generated revenue of about $2 million, of which profits of $300,000 were pumped directly back into R&D for MeshSense.
Revenue continued to grow at a rate of 30 per cent each year ever since, and funding from third-party investors also started to pour in - to the tune of more than $2.65 million - to help take MeshSense from laboratory to market.
Private equity firms BAF Spectrum and iGlobe Partners, and enterprise development agency Spring Singapore under its Start-up Enterprise Development Scheme (Seeds) have stakes in Anacle.
iGlobe Partners general partner Michel Birnbaum said his firm was drawn to Anacle's innovations in energy management. "Anacle as a physical asset life-cycle management and energy efficiency company is well positioned to become an international market leader," he said.
WASTE OF ENERGY
"What building owners do not realise is that a lot of their power consumption can be reduced if it is more efficiently managed."
Mr Alex Lau, Anacle's managing director
Ploughing funds into local start-ups
UNDER the Start-up Enterprise
Development Scheme (Seeds), Spring
Seeds Capital - a wholly owned
subsidiary of Spring Singapore -
co-invests in local start-ups.
To qualify for Seeds, these firms
should have innovative products,
processes, intellectual content and
strong international growth potential.
Under the scheme, Spring will match
a dollar for every dollar invested by
third-party investors with a limit of
$1 million for each company.
To apply, a firm must:
- be located in Singapore.
- have been in operations for less
than five years.
- have a paid-up capital of $50,000
to $1 million.
- have an independent third-party
with at least $75,000 invested in the
The scheme covers various growth
sectors such as information
biomedical and business services.
More information is available at www.spring.gov.sg/seeds
For more information, visit http://www.spring.gov.sg