Entrepreneur First steps up effort to tap Asia's pool of deep-tech talent

The talent incubator finds success reaching global capital from Singapore


LONDON-based talent incubator Entrepreneur First (EF) is stepping up its game in Asia, hoping to tap the region's wealth of research talent and venture capital with a focus on deep-tech startups.

On Thursday, the company announced its first cohort of 50 entrepreneurs from its Bangalore programme, with US$25 million in committed funding.

The announcement followed EF's investor day in Singapore last month, which featured pitches from 22 startups that dabbled in technology such as nanofiltration membranes and microbial diagnostics.

EF launched in Singapore in 2016 with backing from government-owned deep-tech development firm SGInnovate, and is now into its fifth cohort. (see amendment note)

In 2018, EF launched its Hong Kong programme.

EF director of expansion Anne Marie Droste said that EF is a talent investor, and Asia is where the best technical talent is.

"The region houses the best research institutes," she said, adding that EF can help fill the gap in early-stage funding for deep-tech startups here. The company is also looking at running workshops with local laboratories to help researchers become more entrepreneurial.

Unlike typical incubators or accelerators, EF curates talent and grooms them into entrepreneurs by matching co-founders, injecting capital into their startups and linking them up with relevant industry partners, mentors and investors. The firm said it has helped over 1,200 individuals build more than 200 companies, with a total valuation of US$1.5 billion.

The current EF Singapore fund totals S$16 million, raised to cover the first five Singapore cohorts.

Seven of the 22 startups that took part in the recent Singapore investor day hailed from Hong Kong. Alex Crompton, managing director of Asia, told The Business Times: "Singapore is a conduit for the rest of the world. There is a lot of benefit in aggregating the teams here."

For one, Singapore is host to international investors, Mr Crompton pointed out. According to EF, over 300 of the world's top investors attended its latest investor day. EF Singapore startups raised about US$17 million in seed funding in 2018.

With the firm's success in Singapore, the company is now planning to fly their Bangalore cohort to Singapore as well for the next investor day later this year.

Ms Droste said that EF is focusing on deep-tech in Asia because of the greater potential to scale the technology. "With consumer-facing startups like Grab, Gojek or Carousell, the market is very geographically-based. But when it comes to business-to-business (B2B) deep-tech, the distribution model is more globally focused," she said.

As part of its efforts to support deep-tech startups, EF announced during its investor day in January a partnership with Hax, a venture capital-based programme that accelerates startups dealing with hardware. EF and Hax will co-invest in startups spun off from EF and grant them access to Hax's facilities in Shenzhen to build their prototype.

The first teams chosen were from Singapore and Hong Kong. Four startups received US$180,000 in cash and US$75,000 worth of resources for 17.6 per cent equity in their companies.

Under its standard deal, EF normally invests US$55,000 in cash for 10 per cent equity in companies created under its Asia programmes.

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that EF Singapore is into its fourth cohort. It is now into its fifth cohort. The article has been amended to reflect this.