Singapore is home to fewer than six million people, making it one of the smallest ASEAN countries, in terms of population. It is a young country as well — having gained independence in 1963 — and resides in a neighborhood with far larger economies, including China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. When the country first became independent, its mandate was to simply survive rather than thrive.
So how does a country evolve from a position of relative uncertainty, with comparatively few resources, to one that leads the ASEAN region in venture capital investment and has been home to 10 unicorns?
Countries around the world examine Singapore’s ecosystem from a distance, hoping to learn from, and emulate, its story. The World Bank Group recently published a report, The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem, documenting the country’s experience in building its startup ecosystem and the challenges facing it.
This article presents an overview of the report’s key findings and offers a few key recommendations on what other countries can learn from Singapore’s experience, as well as what Singapore itself can do to maintain progress.
A glimpse into Singapore’s current startup ecosystem
As of 2019, Singapore had over $19 billion in PE and VC assets under management, more than twice that of neighboring Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand combined. In that same year, the country was home to an estimated 3,600 tech startups and nearly 200 different intermediary and supporting organizations (accelerators, co-working spaces, coding academies, etc.) – some which have a multinational presence, such as Blk71, whose Singapore headquarters has been referred to as “the world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
While assessing the size and strength of startup ecosystems is an evolving method, Start-up Genome priced Singapore’s ecosystem at over $25 billion, five times the global median.
Arguably, the most eye-catching hallmark of this ecosystem is its population of current and former unicorns. Collectively, Singapore has been home to ten unicorns, three of which have offered an IPO (Nanofilm, Razer and Sea) and two of which have been acquired – one by giant Alibaba (Lazada) and one by Chinese streaming powerhouse YY (Bigo Live). The remaining five are Trax, Acronis, JustCo, PatSnap, and Grab – the ASEAN region’s largest unicorn to date.
The education sector is also prominent in Singapore’s ecosystem. Universities like the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are deeply embedded into this ecosystem, helping with R&D commercialization linkages, incubation, talent/knowledge transfer, and other areas.
So, how did Singapore’s startup ecosystem come to be?
Numerous factors have contributed to building Singapore’s startup ecosystem, with government intervention and leadership being the dominant driving forces. The government has spent more than USD60 billion over the past several decades to enhance the country’s R&D infrastructure, create VC funds, and launch accelerators and other support organizations.