Techworld met up with Anne Marie Droste in her new home in Singapore last week to discuss how Entrepreneur First (EF) is exporting its “talent first” approach to building tech startups and how the south-east Asian nation state compares to London in terms of culture, talent and tech.

Droste is a director at EF and is getting the first cohort of future tech entrepreneurs up and running in the city.

iStock. Photo: Leontura
iStock. Photo: Leontura

“I am excited to be here because there are tons of people doing really groundbreaking stuff who up until now have had very few role models for building companies with hardcore technology,” says Droste.

“We create value by showing them that startups and tech are separate things. London has been a great example of that, with the likes of SwiftKey and DeepMind as companies that are based purely on tech and research.”

Entrepreneur First differs from other tech incubators and accelerators by attracting highly technical people who don’t necessarily have an idea for a business and throwing them together in a mentoring and support programme. EF pays your rent, gives each cohort of candidates a desk and provides funding for a six-month period. In return, it takes an eight percent equity stake in any businesses that graduate from the programme.

Breeding innovation

When Droste moved to Singapore six months ago she was wary of the hype the city-state has been peddling about becoming a tech hub for Asia. “When you ask Singaporeans they say: ‘that’s because we are good at acing rankings.’ There is a national complex around appearing good at something rather than actually being good, but from my experience that hasn’t been true.”

London and Singapore both have an established reputation for top tech talent being poached by the financial services industry, something EF is working to change.

As Droste explains: “EF works in places where it really matters what the smartest people want to do with their lives and Singapore has exceptional research taking place in its universities but they all go to work for banks, government, maybe Google or DeepMind but that is about it. EF works in places where we can effectively act as a headhunter.”

Bringing Singapore’s research out of academia is something the government is also keen to promote. Foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced last week at the InnovFest unBound conference that: “The research innovation and enterprise 2020 plan sets aside $19 billion Singapore dollars on translating research into applications in real life.”

EF Singapore

For Droste the main difference between London and Singapore comes down to the options highly technical candidates have for applying their expertise.

“Realistically, if you work on neural nets in London, for example, you can work for a range of super exciting startups like DeepMind, or the big engineering centres of tech corporates and lots of of interesting academic positions. However in Singapore, if you work on neural nets as a postdoctoral, what are you going to do? There aren’t that many exciting options right now, so they tend to get those jobs elsewhere, or go into academia.”

This is exactly what Dr Janil Puthucheary, minister for communications and information, told the audience at the inaugural Forbes 30 under 30 event in Asia last week.

“When the talent does come here it’s important that they find the opportunity to work with exciting, driven people,” says Puthucheary.

“For people to come from around the world to locate their enterprise here first it needs to be a good place to live: the trees need to be green, the water needs to be clean. At the same time they also need an idea that if they dream it and think it they can use the infrastructure and opportunity provided and that we won't interfere.”

Current cohort

Droste says EF has selected roughly ninety percent of its first Singapore cohort of fifty budding entrepeneurs. “Nearly 80 percent of the current cohort studied at either the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) or Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).”

That is three of the biggest six national universities. “We are seeing a spike in tech expertise working on deep learning for robotics or electric cars or augmented reality, with years of research and industry experience on niche topics.”

via @AnneMarieDroste

The average age of the cohort as it stands is 29 and the cohort isn’t just made up of recent graduates. “Roughly 50 percent are Singaporean permanent residents. They are really smart people leaving Facebook, JP Morgan, hedge funds and local startups. There is a nice mix coming from research labs and larger startups and tech corporates.”

A subject close to Droste’s heart is getting more women involved in the cohort, with just ten percent at the moment, “which is bad and I’m trying really hard to improve that. We run these female founder breakfasts and the key priority is to build a female team, but it remains hard.”

Doug Parker, the chief operating officer at Singapore-based autonomous vehicles startup nuTonomy also sees a great deal of untapped talent in the country. He told Techworld: “Our founders Emilio [Frazzoli] and Karl [Iagnemma] flew here to set up our research and development team. That’s really why we’re here: it’s the talent.”

“We have been amazed by the talent we have seen over here. At the moment, we are the only people in town doing this, in a few years it’s going to be different. Right now we feel like Singapore is our secret place. We’ve got a great team, the government supports it, the roads are good.”

From London to Singapore

Droste says she has been surprised by how similar it is to work and recruit in Singapore and London, with just a few cultural hurdles to get over, such as salary.

“I think we pay a higher stipend in Singapore than London,” she says, “which is £1100 in London to $5000 SGD (£2,500) a month. The reason is not because it is lots more expensive to live. Money has more of a signalling effect in Singapore, it is less means to an end but EF has to position itself as the number one career option, with prestigious connotations. No one in London would ask about your salary, but in Singapore they would.”

Overall though Droste is hugely optimistic: “I think it’s very similar and I think this cohort will build companies with the raw material qualities that are just as good, if not better than EF London.”