#Asia Singapore needs a startup ‘circle of life’: Kumaran Pillai


The CEO of venture accelerator Apple Seed says established entrepreneurs should give startups better support

singapore gardens final

Singapore, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Berlin. All these cities have built startup ecosystems vibrant enough for them to be classified as hubs.

But, every now and then, a report will remind us that, oh yeah, Silicon Valley has produced over four times as many unicorns as the second most prolific city (which is also in the US — New York City).

Silicon Valley produced nearly 14 times as many billion-dollar companies as Berlin’s five.

And when Silicon Valley veterans are asked why the Bay Area is the startup capital of the world, the most common answer is the ‘circle of life’. A young entrepreneur meets a successful mentor, the veteran mentors and invests in the young gun, the new cat becomes successful, exits, makes cash — and the most important part — reinvests into a different young entrepreneur, giving them the same shot to find success.

Kumaran Pillai is the CEO of a Singaporean venture accelerator called Apple Seed. A company that wants to help companies “stand on the shoulders of giants to propel your start-up business into a roaring success”.

The programme clearly advertises its mentor bank as a perk. So, maybe, if all goes well, Pillai can help Singapore develop a more robust ‘circle of life’.

Pillai is also currently the publisher for The Independent and was kind enough to answer some questions about Singapore’s tech scene, his views on media and what the ecosystem needs to improve.

Here are the edited excerpts:

How did you become a serial entrepreneur? What inspired you to become involved with mentorship?

The startup ecosystem is a lot better developed than what it was in the late 1990s when I started my entrepreneurship journey. I have gone through three recessions, ups and downs, raised substantial cash in the process and have lost some along the way. But I have persevered and have had my own measure of success.

In 2008, the company I founded in 2002 won the Global Itanium Solutions Award for the Enterprise Category – the first Asian company to win it. I’ve had my exits and I hope to create a few outstanding startups under Apple Seed.

As you mentor companies in 2015/16 what has changed? What is the focus of young companies?

There is a lot more liquidity and funds available in the market resulting in an aberration in the valuation of companies, which is unrealistic to say the least. Sometimes, the value of these startups is somewhat overstated.

Having said that, the global and regional markets have reached a certain level of maturity which makes it ripe for early-stage startups to scale quickly into the markets that they are operating in. The startup ecosystem is also a lot more vibrant with many actors making it viable for these businesses to succeed.

What does the Singapore entrepreneurship scene need to improve upon?

I [would] like to see more successful entrepreneurs stepping forward to support young upstarts. Currently, we have a mixed bag of mentors in Singapore. Most of them, I reluctantly admit, lack the entrepreneurial experience to guide young businesses.

The other thing that I would like to see, is more angel investments. Angel investments are virtually non-existent and I’d like to see more participation of private money into early-stage companies.

So is media your true passion?

I picked up media skills when I was running my second startup. I used to write on supercomputing platforms for Itanium Solutions Alliance, a Silicon Valley-based tech forum from 2008 to 2010. So, when I was given the opportunity to be the chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) in 2012, I did not hesitate.

As for me, media was not love at first sight. But over the years, I have become really fond of it.

Do you worry, or care, if something published in The Independent makes entrepreneurship more difficult for you?

Your question seems to suggest that there is political interference in what I do at The Independent or the other businesses. Whatever the political or media climate may be, it does not stop my team at The Independent from expressing our views openly.

Why are you involved with The Independent? Obviously I am sympathetic to media, so what was the motivation?

Having just completed my stint as the Chief Editor of The Online Citizen in February 2013, I felt that the media landscape was polarised between pro- and anti-establishment. There was a void in the centre which I aspired to fill.

So, I sold the vision of setting up a platform without fear or favour to any party in the political spectrum. I approached PN Balji, the former editor of Today Paper to join us as the first editor of the digital newspaper, and Alfred Dodwell, Leon Perera and Edmund Wee to join me as Co-founders.

Apple Seed keeps up a relatively active blog on the website. Why do you do this and what is the value it provides?

Mindshare leads to market share. It is part of Apple Seed’s marketing strategy to have a strong online presence. In fact, we’ll be launching a startup-investor platform in Q1 next year.

In terms of business, what do you consider your biggest success? What is your worst regret?

I have managed several million-dollar projects in the past, but it is not the money that defines me. I measure myself on the impact of my work. The algorithm-based portfolio management systems that I developed a decade ago still give, on the average, 27 per cent above market returns.

Not only that, it was the first time retail banks were able to provide the fidelity of investment advice based on the technology I developed.

My regret? Perhaps I exited too early. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have ventured into media or venture acceleration.

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