Startups Venture

Southeast Asia Finds Its San Francisco In Singapore

Earlier this year, Crunchbase News explored the development of the Southeast Asian startup ecosystem with a list of the top 20 early-stage startups in the area. When gathering data, we noted that 12 of the 20 early-stage startups featured were based in Singapore. We also reported that startups based in Singapore accounted for more than half of the 2,151 seed and early-stage rounds from 2008 to 2017, and deals in Singapore-based companies accounted for 49 percent of all venture funding in member countries of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations in 2017.

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In light of this surprising data, we wanted to delve a little bit further into Singapore’s deal growth over time, take a look at how Singapore’s startup ecosystem has developed in recent years, and contemplate where it seems to be headed in the future.

Money Behind The Hub

First, here’s what Singapore’s startup deal volume has looked like since 2008:

In the past ten years, the country’s investment climate has heated up, increasing more than 182 percent from 2012 to 2017.

As the chart implies, deal volume was steady from 2016 to 2017. Meanwhile, the number of seed-stage deals decreased slightly from 63 percent of all venture deals in 2016 to 55 percent in 2017. The proportion of early-stage deals increased somewhat in 2017, accounting for 27 percent of all venture deals. The proportion of late-stage deals increased slightly from 4 to 7 percent of total deals from 2016 to 2017.

According to Crunchbase data, known dollar volume for seed-stage startups decreased only slightly by 6 percent from 2016 to 2017. Total known dollar volume increased by 116 percent to $4.3 billion in 2017 from $2 billion in 2016. That huge increase was primarily a result of a $2 billion funding round for Grab, a Singapore-based Uber rival.

Giant Rounds Attract Big Investors

Grab is one of Singapore’s best-known successes. Founded in Malaysia, the ride hailing startup migrated to Singapore in 2014. Grab’s giant $2 billion Series G round led by Didi Chuxing and Softbank in July 2017 brought its valuation up to a reported $6 billion. According to Techcrunch, Google reported that Grab has tapped into a Southeast Asian market that is predicted to become a $20.1 billion per year industry by 2025.

Grab most recently made headlines in March after Uber announced it was selling its Southeast Asia branch to the company. It will also take over Uber’s operation in eight other Southeast Asian markets. Grab has also reached into other growing industries in developing markets. The startup launched mobile payments and opened up a bike sharing marketplace in its app in March 2018.

One slightly less known giant, Sea Limited (formerly Garena), is a gaming and ecommerce platform native to Singapore. The company boasts the second highest valuation among Southeast Asian startups behind Grab. Founded in 2009, Sea Limited raised a known total of more than $750 million before making the jump to public waters on the NYSE in October 2017. One of its  investors includes China-based social media (and everything else) giant Tencent. According to Techcrunch, the company is unprofitable but hopes to change that with growing internet access and online spending in Southeast Asia.

How did these big deals spring up in such a small country? Well, what Singapore lacks in population and size, it apparently makes up for in a welcoming investment climate.

Government Fosters Investment Growth

According to the U.S. Department of State, Singapore’s government policies regarding foreign investment are favorable. In fact, according to the State Department’s 2017 report, Singapore was ranked as the second easiest country to conduct business in by the World Bank. Its regulatory policies, unlike those in China, do not place a heavy burden on foreign businesses and investors. Foreign companies, for example, are not required to enter into joint ventures with local companies, nor do policies mandate local management.

This approach sometimes draws the operations of previously foreign-based companies like Grab, which are looking to carve a piece out of the opportunity in emerging markets in Southeast Asia, to Singapore’s more developed region.

The government has also set up agencies like the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). The EDB facilitates foreign investment with its various tax incentives for investors and foreign companies and its grants for growing startups.

The government doesn’t just cut red tape and limit barriers to entry. The government has also established organizations like the Singapore National Research Foundation. The organization encourages early-stage investments in tech companies by matching investments in early-stage funds. Other initiatives to increase research and entrepreneurship in technology include the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, among others.

A more direct effort was the government’s establishment of Tamasek Holding, the parent organization of early-stage investment firm Vertex Ventures, a Series A investor in Grab. According to reports, Vertex Ventures closed its third investment fund of $210 million in October 2017.

It’s clear that Singapore-based late-stage companies have brought in the bucks from foreign corporate giants and that early-stage companies have government support. But is there growth in Singapore’s seed-stage support ecosystem?

Startup Incubators Looking To Singapore

According to Crunchbase data, there are a few well-known startup incubators that have invested in seed-stage companies in Singapore.

One of these firms includes Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups. Through its Singapore-based 500 Durians Fund, 32 Singapore-based startups have garnered seed-stage investment. In October 2016, the organization announced a $50 million second fund for 500 Durians, and the fund plans to continue to direct that capital to the primarily neglected seed-stage ecosystem in the country. By 2016, 500 Startups had accounted for a quarter of the seed-stage deals in Southeast Asia.

(500 startups did not respond to our requests for comment by the time of publication. We will update this post if and when we hear back.)

With the research and regulatory support from the government, movement by VIP VC accelerators like 500 Startups, and increased interest by local programs to direct money toward seed programs, Singapore’s startup ecosystem may solidify its standing as the center of Southeast Asia’s growing startup ecosystem.

Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias