Helping start-ups grow and flourish

Their numbers have soared but founders face many challenges

The number of start-ups has mushroomed over the past few years, but experts and company founders say they still face many challenges and that more needs to be done to support young enterprises.

Start-up numbers doubled from 22,000 to 40,000 between 2003 and 2017, according to Enterprise Singapore, with tech-based newbies increasing from 2,800 to 4,000. There are also around 100 incubators, accelerators and venture builders here now and 150 or more venture capital investors.

Last year, about US$4.17 billion (S$5.7 billion) was invested in start-ups here across 229 deals - more than 30 times the amount put in six years ago.

Dr Lim Jui, chief executive of Nanyang Technological University's innovation and enterprise arm NTUitive, said: "NTUitive starts an average of 40 to 45 companies a year. The start-up scene in Singapore today is pretty vibrant. Just look at what is happening in the universities and JTC Launchpad @ Ayer Rajah - it is plain to see that activity levels are high today."

Hurdles for fledgling firms

However, new firms also confront difficulties that hinder their survival. Ms Lim Seow Hui, director of start-up development at Enterprise Singapore, said: "Start-ups face challenges such as getting the right connections to gain access to funding and, also, talent to support their growth."

To meet these needs, the Startup SG portal under Enterprise Singapore helps firms gain access to mentors and connect with potential partners or investors. The agency also organises globally oriented events like the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology and Slingshot to let start-ups meet international participants.

Apart from Enterprise Singapore's initiatives, other accelerator programmes also help start-ups grow. One programme launched earlier this year targets early-stage enterprises, even those run by students. This pre-accelerator programme was launched by StartupX, an innovation company that aims to grow the early-stage ecosystem in partnership with Temasek. The first cohort saw 10 start-ups go through 12 weeks of masterclasses, workshops and meetings to turn their prototypes into market-ready solutions.

But more needs to be done, experts say. Mr Hau Koh Foo, director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Singapore Management University, said: "(There should be) high-quality start-up training programmes to help the founders better identify the right opportunities to pursue (and) also, innovative talent support programmes to help the start-ups recruit or have access to quality engineers to build their product."

Dr Lim from NTUitive said that there is support but insufficient funding and manpower for deep-tech start-ups. "We need to see how we can beef up support for these companies dealing with 3D printing, water, membranes, drugs, robotics, materials and chemicals."

Dr Lily Chan, chief executive of NUS Enterprise, said another missing link is the connectivity between start-ups here and opportunities in the region. "Connectivity is key to success, and by creating global networks Singapore can help entrepreneurs and start-ups leverage overseas opportunities, expand to new markets and connect to potential talent, partners and investors."

HomeyDays founder Scofield Li, 27, said: "There can be more initiatives to take care of very early-stage start-ups, like the StartupX programme. There should also be more accessible funding for such start-ups." His firm is an apartment rental service that offers a co-living environment with stylish furnishing and household services. It is part of the first cohort for the pre-accelerator programme.

Mr Li added: "We are able to continuously improve our company standards and operations (because) of all the top-notch mentoring."