Up until recently, if you were in the tech start-up industry, the best – and possibly only – places to strategically base yourself were the entrepreneurial centres of Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. However, the times have been a-changing in Singapore, with the technopreneurial ecosystem steadily gaining recognition and traction over the past five years. In 2013, venture funding for Singapore’s technology sector soared to US$1.71 billion (S$2.3 billion) from US$27.9 million in 2011, reported The Wall Street Journal.
The island nation has long been known as the home base for Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and has bred serial entrepreneurs such as Ong Peng Tsin, co-founder of online dating giant Match.com. Garena Online, a popular online gaming community founded by Singapore-based Forrest Li, was given a whopping US$1.2-billion-dollar valuation last year. Also making headlines was the sale of Singapore-founded video streaming site Viki. Purchased by Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten for US$200 million, it was reportedly the biggest acquisition of a web and mobile start-up based in South-east Asia.
Indeed, this March, Singapore was one of only four cities in the Asia-Pacific that made it to US research group Startup Genome’s list of world’s best start-up cities. The other three were Sydney, Melbourne and Bangalore. Will Singapore be the next Silicon Valley and groom tech’s next future billion-dollar baby? The answer could lie in these four technopreneurs who were drawn to set up base in Singapore.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk. Philanthropist Melinda Gates. Television doyenne Oprah Winfrey. Asian pop king Jay Chou. Music kingpin Jay-Z. Blockbuster movie director James Cameron. These are illustrious names in their respective industries, and what Dinesh Bhatia has in common with them is being in US-based Fast Company magazine’s annual 100 Most Creative People in Business 2015 list. He is CEO and co-founder of financial-learning and stock-market simulation app Tradehero.
The statistics for Tradehero speak for themselves. A mere two and a half years since its launch, Tradehero is the top finance app in 91 countries, garnering a database of 4.5 million users – 70 per cent of whom are in China. Considering its official Chinese launch was late last year, this means close to 400,000 users from China register to use the app each month. Bhatia says that the app is on track to hit six million users by year-end.
The idea of Tradehero struck him at the end of 2007, after personal losses in the stock market. The 45-year-old says: “I’ve always wanted to invest in something that would be of great use to people. Back then, someone like myself didn’t have access to the amount of resources available to financial institutions for their investments. I thought, what if we could create a community where users could share financial information and advice, helping other users make better decisions?”
The right time came when online user-generated content caught on in 2012, and the evolution of app stores provided a ready and effective mode of distribution. In early 2013, Bhatia and co-founder Dominic Morris launched Tradehero and, within the year, secured US$10 million (S$14 million) in Series A funding from KPCB China and IPV Capital. According to them, this was one of the largest for a consumer start-up in the region at the time.
One of the main reasons behind the success is how the trading process has been simplified and demystified. Bhatia says: “The stock market and financial investments are not fun and games, which is why it needs to be ‘gamified’ and made fun. Tradehero does that by breaking down the perceived barriers to entry via financial literacy with a fantasy trading element.” Another key element is that all trades done on the platform are transparent, which means users are able to view trading choices of those on the app’s leaderboard, and can choose to follow validated top traders for a nominal monthly fee.
Singapore’s reputation as an emerging start-up hotbed has certainly helped too. Says Bhatia: “Singapore is one of the best places in the world for a start-up as the infrastructure for fund-raising is good, and there’s a great ecosystem.” He advises local start-ups to use the city-state as a base, and also to step out and engage in other markets around the region. This year, the app has inked partnerships with the Singapore Exchange and Macquarie Securities Thailand, with activities and competitions to create greater financial awareness. These follow a collaboration inked in March with online forex trader Oanda to bring virtual-currency and precious-metals trading to Tradehero.
With an impending US launch earmarked for later this year, Bhatia hopes to eventually connect the US and China markets. He says: “We want to enable live trading; working with brokers around the world. I see Tradehero becoming an investment tool for the mass affluent.”
At 30, the duo are young by corporate-world standards. Their studio is five years old and has a lean staff strength of 15. Still, their gaming products – Ravenmark: Scourge Of Estellion, Ravenmark: Mercenaries and Romans In My Carpet! – have garnered global and local accolades from leading online games-news and review sites Pocket Gamer, Touch Arcade and Gamezebo, games conference Casual Connect Asia and The Straits Times Digital Life! Awards.
In a gaming market that tends to place more emphasis on tried-and-tested models, such as creating the next Angry Birds or Candy Crush, churning out games and clones are often prized over original ideas and content. But Witching Hour Studios co-founders Brian Kwek and Ian Gregory aim to change that by creating games with a strong narrative and layers of storytelling.
The duo met via a mutual friend in 2009, instantly bonding over a desire to tell stories and, perhaps more importantly, popular game Dungeons & Dragons. Gregory toyed with the idea of creating a board game. But logistically, managing inventory and acquiring international distributors were a challenge. Unless they produced at least 100,000 copies, a board game did not make economic sense. With these issues in mind, the pair decided to take it digital.
The gutsy pair pumped in all their savings, slightly above $100,000, into the venture. At the time, Gregory was just finishing his studies at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Kwek recalls: “We did a lot of bootstrapping those days.” Less than a year after, Ravenmark: Scourge Of Estellion was born.To date, Ravenmark: Scourge Of Estellion has been downloaded over 100,000 times. In 2011, it won the prestigious Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Computer Wargame – putting it in the same league as Mass Effect 2 by Nasdaq-listed Electronic Arts and XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis Games, which is best known for its popular Civilization game series. It is no mean feat, considering both founders had no prior background in the industry, and for a game with a US$9.99 (S$13) price tag.
Their newest product, Masquerada, a PC-to-console game backed by a private investor and publisher, is slated to be launched early next year. The sector of PC-to-console games is a challenge as “gamers expect a higher quality of visuals as compared to mobile games, which are much smaller and limited in scope”, Kwek says. He adds: “People want high-quality trappings to go along with their gameplay, which includes dramatic yet believable voice acting, a stirring narrative worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, more than 10 hours of play time and, most of all, a glitch-free experience.”
The co-founders are proud to be known as a Singaporean games company. One of their goals is to groom the next generation of game developers in Singapore to continue producing games that gain worldwide recognition, yet are entirely conceptualised and crafted locally. Gregory says: “Witching Hour Studios is about making good games with good stories with good people. By succeeding with a model that is against the grain, we’re hoping more attempt the path less taken.”
Friday evening: you’re unwinding over drinks at a cocktail bar or headed to the hottest new restaurant in town. You pick up your smartphone to “check in” at your location and update your status on Facebook, while catching up on your friends’ whereabouts on the social network. Ever wondered who came up with the idea of status updates or virtual check-ins, a technology that’s used by one in three people with a smart device?
In 1999, India-born Neeraj Jhanji found himself standing at a busy road junction in Tokyo on a Saturday afternoon. “As I watched throngs of people streaming by,” the 43-year-old recounts, “it occurred to me that some of my friends could be among the crowd. I wondered, since we all have mobile phones, and cellular technology knows where we are, wouldn’t it make sense for us to be able to find out each other’s locations, based on our mobile device? But who was I? Why would a telco operator want to give that information to me?”
Turns out the telcos would and did, when they saw how such connectivity would increase the usage of their networks, revenues and loyalty. Within a year, he left his job at Accenture in Tokyo and started Imahima Inc, a mobile location-based social networking company. A daring move, and one with great foresight, at a time when the term “social network”, let alone Friendster, Facebook or Foursquare, had yet to exist.
At its peak in 2003, the Imahima mobile social networking service, which means “Are you free now?” in Japanese, had 500,000 users in Japan, a sizable database, considering the global smartphone market at the time numbered an estimated two million handsets. It was the first official site interconnecting all mobile networks in Japan.
Features such as adding friends, mobile check-ins, status updates and location-based advertising were ahead of its time in 1999, and, in a fast-paced technology landscape that renders mobile phones obsolete within a year of their launch, remain functions we continue to rely on today. Little wonder that in 2011, Facebook came knocking, purchasing seven patents and four patent applications pertaining to mobile checkins, status updates and location-based marketing for an undisclosed amount. The deal was finalised in 2013.
After leaving Japan in 2010, Jhanji became a global nomad, travelling to Sweden, Africa, the US, Canada, Hawaii and India. Having always had, at the back of his mind, the thought that Singapore was a good place to start a business due to its favourable taxation rates and IP protection laws, he came to Singapore and set up Tinker in 2013, when an opportunity came to help a friend with his company.
Jhanji, who now lives in Singapore, describes fully self-funded Tinker as a “start-up generator” powered by its own ideas and resources. Pasteasy, Tinker’s first product, is slated to be launched later this year. Instead of using a cable, the Internet or cloud, the app allows one-step, high-speed file transfers across nearby mobile devices and computers via an in-house technology for “proximity sharing”. Other projects he’s involved with include Biobit, a Californian company creating patent technologies for ultra low-power heart-rate sensors used in smartwatches and fitness devices, and Natural Power Concepts, a renewable energy technologies company in Hawaii.
The avid swimmer, traveller and certified glider pilot feels the best part of what he does is “being able to invent and create products that people interact with”. He adds: “The mobile sector is competitive, but I think we’re just getting started.”
To those in the industry, Thomas Zilliacus needs no introduction. The Finn has called Singapore home for the most part of 30 years, and among his many accolades and achievements, was credited with turning around Nokia’s dowdy image from a staid rubber, paper, cable and electronics conglomerate to trendy household name in the early 1980s – fresh out of business school, we might add.
This led to him being posted to Singapore in 1986, when he built Nokia’s telecommunications business in Asia from the ground up. Today, the charismatic 61-year-old is chairman and CEO of Yuuzoo, a mainboard-listed global social media and e-commerce company with access to 42 million registered users in 164 countries. The idea of Yuuzoo was among a few concepts he was toying with at Mobile Futureworks, which he founded in 1998 after leaving Nokia. It invests in and develops companies within the mobile space.
Zilliacus says: “I felt there was a space in the business sector for a company that would combine various elements from a consumer’s point of view that made sense, namely, social network, e-commerce and gaming. I saw the value in creating something that was similar to what we enjoy about going to a shopping mall, not just to shop but also for social reasons, and no one had thought about doing that. In a nutshell, Yuuzoo is a developer of virtual shopping malls, offering exactly what a developer would offer in a brick and mortar space.”
Having lived in Singapore for 22 years then, and with two daughters attending United World College at the time, the choice to incorporate Yuuzoo here in 2008 came naturally to Zilliacus. He also cites a low level of bureaucracy as one of the main reasons that make Singapore an attractive location to build and run an international company.
In June, Yuuzoo gamified its social e-commerce platform, so consumers could earn discounts by playing engaging yet simple games. Not only does this make shopping fun and interactive, it creates brand and site loyalty among online shoppers. The tech industry may be constantly evolving but Zilliacus says one’s ability to stomach risks and handle failure will be the differentiating factor. He says: “We have this saying in Yuuzoo – think big, take risks and move fast. Risk-takers will face failure, and failure is acceptable if you have learnt from it and can come up with a better solution.”