This story was first published in Issue 029 of Enterprise SPARKS, our quarterly newsletter, here (pages 10–12).
NUS’ entrepreneurial reputation has been established by pioneering initiatives such as the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme and BLOCK71. But with incubators and accelerators now ubiquitous in the landscape, Professor Freddy Boey, NUS Deputy President (Innovation & Enterprise), recognises the need to do more. “NUS has done amazing things, but looking at its next phase, we need to innovate ourselves. We need to innovate innovation.”
The strategy: focus on venture creation.
The term, coined by Professor Chee Yeow Meng, NUS Associate Vice President (Innovation & Enterprise), connotes the increasingly active and deliberate role that the university is playing in transforming innovation into sustainable and successful start-ups. “We’re not providing the facility, aggregating the resources and then leaving the start-up to figure it out alone,” Prof Chee states. “We’re taking a hands-on approach where NUS is the co-partner in the development and generation of new companies.”
In the past few years, a slate of new programmes has emerged from NUS to support this concept, adding to the “complete suite” of the university’s entrepreneurial offerings.
This includes the Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP), which has already led to the realisation of more than 50 deep-tech spin-offs since its launch in 2018. More recent initiatives include the Venture Building (VB) programme, formed in partnership with Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to provide training to aspiring and first-time entrepreneurs, and the MSc Venture Creation programme, which provides an experiential and immersive entrepreneurial education at the graduate level.
Come September, a new programme will join the line-up. The Technology Access Programme (TAP), helmed by Deputy Director Eugene Noh, will target international working professionals and corporate innovators keen to understand technology trends and identify potential business opportunities. Through a three-step Discover, Engage and Train process, participants will gain exposure to NUS’ intellectual property (IP) while learning how to take an invention from the lab to the market.
To increase the viability of the companies emerging from these initiatives, new support structures are also being put into place. NUS is developing software that can match co-founders and business ideas; recruiting master engineers to aid in prototyping via NUS’ Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Studio; employing business mentors and commercial champions to provide specific domain knowledge; and establishing an external early-stage venture fund to provide start-ups with access to financing. Significantly, NUS is also creating a start-up CEO list to help companies tap on senior management talent that can parachute in and bring their ventures to the next level.
“In one sense, a small revolution is happening in NUS. We’re showing people how to do [venture creation] in a very sustainable and complete way,” emphasises Prof Boey. “We are the architect. We are bringing together the building blocks that can complete the whole start-up, one that is healthy and has a higher probability of success.”
And while NUS’ various venture creation programmes may target different audiences and industries, they share a commonality in addressing one of the biggest pain points in the Singapore start-up ecosystem today: the lack of entrepreneurial talent. In line with the university’s primary educational objective, venture creation is also at its heart about education, albeit in a different form. But by positioning itself as the training ground for successful entrepreneurs, NUS intends to not only produce, in its own parlance, “future-ready talent,” but help to create valuable employment opportunities through the formation of new businesses.
How large is the expected impact? Taken together, the aforementioned programmes alone are expected to generate over a thousand NUS-trained entrepreneurs in the next few years. And if the success of existing programmes such as NOC are any indication, the resulting influence on the start-up ecosystem has the potential to be momentous. In its history of nearly 20 years, NOC has seen many of its alumni become serial entrepreneurs, returning to NUS to start again, mentor, and/ or invest in fellow start-ups. Other alumni have played alternative roles in the innovation & enterprise ecosystem, finding employment in incubators, venture capital firms, or taking on corporate innovation and new business development roles.
The emphasis on venture creation is poised to take this phenomenon to another level, providing the next stage in a progression that starts with exposure to others’ start-ups and ends with the development of one’s own. Indeed, in NUS’ next phase of growth, NOC can be seen as a prelude to later programmes such as GRIP- a first step in a cohesive and complete chain of resources focused on the production of innovative entrepreneurs and cutting-edge companies.
In a similar vein, the plan also anticipates the extension of the university’s sphere of influence internationally. The global BLOCK71 network will take on an additional and more proactive role in channeling overseas talent to NUS, while the TAP programme will enable NUS’ IP to be tested in markets outside of Singapore. As Noh states, “TAP serves as a platform for us to be able to explore new markets and new applications for NUS’ technologies, while also addressing the need for people outside of our immediate community to have access to us, our IP and our know-how around deep-tech start-ups.” The result: increased commercialisation of NUS research and increased alumni with experience in forming technology-intensive ventures.
Key to the success of NUS’ innovation and enterprise endeavors, however, is the ability of its employees to translate the blueprint of these ideas into reality. Acknowledging that the current team is both passionate and committed, Prof Boey underscores the opportunities available to high-energy talent with new ideas: given the expected growth of both new initiatives and the start-ups that will result from them, NUS urgently needs and is on the active lookout for new staff.
If all goes according to plan though, what does NUS ultimately hope to achieve through its emphasis on venture creation?
According to Prof Chee, “My aspiration is for NUS to be the most influential force behind start-ups in Asia, or even beyond.”
Prof Boey echoes this sentiment. “We want to surprise people, and we want to be among the top three universities in the world in terms of innovation. Israel is the start-up nation. We will be the start-up university.”