#Asia The power of proximity: Singapore launches SGInnovate to foster a culture of collaborative innovation


Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called it a “significant step towards strengthening those networks, especially between researchers, start-ups and VCs”


Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the SGInnovation launch event


Charles Babbage was an English inventor, a man who approached innovation from the perspective of a mathematician. There were certain rules governing technology, and Babbage was excellent at optimising the guidelines of math.

Ava Lovelace was the child of a poet, a mathematician in her own right who was able to see the potential of Babbage’s analytical engine, finding potential Babbage himself could not see.

The two brought different, complimentary, skills to science and technology and together (in the 19th century) they laid the first brick along the road towards modern computing.

This was the anecdote used by Steve Leonard as he officially opened the doors to SGInnovate, a deep-tech focussed collaboration center he will run as Founding CEO.

“Singapore has the capability to do anything it wants, but we need to do be good at working together, and asking ‘what if?’” he said during the launch event.

Also Read: Singapore’s Patsnap that provides IP analytics and visualisation tools to NASA raises Series C

SGInnovate is built on the idea that ‘proximity breeds innovation’ and is wholly owned by the Singapore government – under the purview of the National Research Foundation.

To help explain, some of the partners at SGInnovate are Entrepreneur First (a pre-seed investment programme focussed on technical talent), the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS, a statutory board under the ministry of law) and four of the city’s universities.

The thinking goes as such; let’s say one of the Entrepreneur First companies has built a product and wants to take it public. At SGInnovate, they would have relatively easy access to ensuring their legal paperwork is in order (IPOS) and could visit National University of Singapore to get mentorship — all without leaving the building.

The key focus for SGInnovate will be on ‘deep-tech’ — a term used to describe technology innovations that are truly unique breakthroughs. The industries it will focus on will be digital health, financial services, smart energy, digital manufacturing, transportation, artificial intelligence and robotics.

The opening ceremony was officiated by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister & Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies.

His speech was both optimistic and realistic — pointing to Singapore as a small country that punches above its weight but recognising the city has not reached its full potential and needs energy and interaction to create a spark.

“We cannot ensure success in innovation. We cannot plan it to the last detail, because innovation is an inherently uncertain business,” he said.

“But neither is it a purely random process. We know that there are some things that we can do to make the ground fertile, so that seeds have a better chance of sprouting up and eventually growing into a dense grove of trees”.

Shanmugaratnam pointed to the international recognition Singapore has received as a global leader in research, and highlighted the startup ecosystem that has become one of the best in Southeast Asia.

However, he also pointed out that patent output in Singapore is relatively low, not enough VCs invest in alumni of Singaporean research labs and startups often localise business models that have proven to work elsewhere.

He called SGInnovate a “significant step towards strengthening those networks, especially between researchers, start-ups and VCs”.

One example is a ‘co-working space’ called 32CS, which does not fall into the typical definition of a co-working space. 32CS is a curator, and will bring together people from various domains not just to work in the same building, but to actively interact with one another.

“32CS will be a focal point for interaction between deep-tech scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in various domains and financiers,” said Shanmugaratnam.

After elaborating on some details of 32CS (such as housing engineers from the AI company NVIDIA) Shanmugaratnam added:

“Second, SGInnovate will strengthen the linkages across talented individuals within the ecosystem and develop a local cadre of mentors to promising startups.”

Also Read: Circle of Young Intrapreneurs: A grassroots initiative in Singapore fostering corporate innovation

Understanding the partners and stakeholders in SGInnovate helps provide an idea of the deep-tech focus and how it hopes the melting pot of educators, private sector and government agencies can create that ‘spark’.

The partners are as follows:

  • Entrepreneur First (pre-seed funding programme focussed on technical talent)
  • IPOS (the intellectual property board under the Ministry of Law)
  • McLaren Applied Technologies (technology-focussed private corporation)
  • National University of Singapore
  • National Technological University of Singapore
  • NVIDIA (a NASDAQ-listed AI company)
  • Silicon Solution Partners (eco-infrastructure and mentorship support organisation)
  • Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (a research enterprise partnership between MIT and the NRF)
  • Singapore Institute of Technology
  • Singapore University of Technology and Design

SGInnovate plans to apply lessons learnt from the Infocomm Investments-run co-working space called BASH.

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