Investing in Early Stage Tech Companies in Singapore with Gerben Visser, Co-Founder of Incubasia Ventures

Investing in Early Stage Tech Companies in Singapore with Gerben Visser, Co-Founder of Incubasia Ventures

Gerben, please introduce yourself…

I co-founded Incubasia Ventures together with Hans de Back. I have a TMT (Tech, Media, Telco) investment banking background. Prior to coming to Singapore, I have worked in Amsterdam, New York and London for 12 years. Hans is a serial tech entrepreneur and investor, who worked in Amsterdam and Singapore for the past 15 years.

Incubasia Ventures is an early stage tech investment firm with over a dozen investments in Europe, Asia and Australia. We are very hands on, both strategically through advisor roles and board seats, as well as operationally, either as co-founders or with “go to market” venture acceleration mandates into the South East Asia.

What is the background story of creating Incubasia Ventures?

I am intrigued by the explosive growth, the tremendous innovation and the fundamental impact that internet related technology has on people’s daily lives and how it already has revolutionizes and disrupted numerous traditional businesses and industries.

After working with large multinational clients and mainly executing public capital markets transactions, I got involved in the London tech scene (known as Silicon Roundabout or Tech City). Among others, I started to mentor start-ups with Seedcamp (an European seed investment platform).

Moving to Singapore was partly to capitalise on the regional market opportunities and my views on how to build a cross border early stage tech and venture capital bridge between Europe and South East Asia.

What startups and opportunities are you and your team getting excited about right now?

In general, we focus on the mobile enterprise and network platforms in the B2B space for digital advertising, social media integrators, analytical applications and e-payments solutions.

As an example, one of our portfolio companies that get us excited is Antavo, a social media lead-generation company. Antavo is a turnkey marketing tool that empowers small businesses, marketing professionals and agencies to launch online promotion apps. It simplifies the process of building powerful, but simple apps that run on Facebook pages, website, microsites. The apps are also mobile-compatible, and do not require any IT knowledge to be built. We are assisting them among others in acceleration into the region.

Another of our portfolio company Sayduck, provides a 3-dimensional augmented reality solution that is able to effectively bridge the online and offline, allowing consumers to experience products before buying. It has been gaining traction in Europe and the US, besides being an investor, we are also assisting them in the expansion into the Asian market. These are the type of start-ups and solutions we are really passionate and excited about.

What are the benefits of being based in Singapore, over other countries in the region?

Singapore is definitely presenting itself as the most attractive and efficient place for local and foreign startups to launch and scale their product and services in South East Asia.

Firstly, government organizations, like IDA, Springs, EDBi, Infocomm Investments and funding programs ACE, iJam, NRF TIS combined with start up facilities like Blk 71 and the Hub have been building a top down and tangible start up ecosystem.

Secondly, companies, like AirBnB, Uber, Twitter and Spotify recently landed in Singapore to scale their Asian businesses, alongside the established regional offices of Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn and Google, who all import foreign staff and attract local hires to fuel the Singaporean talent pool going forward.

Thirdly, deal flow has shown substantial traction with recently announced Rakuten’s acquisition of Viki, Singtel’s S10M investment Fab, SPH’s acquisition of sgCarMart $48M, $10M investment in Magzter and launch of S$100M early stage fund. National Research Foundations’ announcement of a S$100M program partnering with local venture capital firms to co-invest 1-to-1 in early stage tech firms and PropertyGuru’s rumoured intentions to IPO in 2014.

What are the challenges of running an investment firm in Singapore?

Finding the right talent is a challenge, both for our firm and for our portfolio companies. Most local graduates and junior employees still seek jobs in banks, MNCs or the government and high quality foreign staff still face employment pass challenges and approval uncertainties.

In addition, the risk-averse and more traditional lead culture is still prevalent among certain corporates, institutional investors and (hybrid) governmental organizations. Fortunately, there is an acknowledgment that certain mindsets and views towards early stage technology companies and investments need to shift more proactively.

How do you see the startup and investment ecosystem developing in Singapore?

We see sufficient seed capital available from various funding sources, strong data points for “follow on” Series A investments for the high potential start ups and bigger tickets written by established Singaporean investment firms and with more overseas VC’s scouting the region and getting involved in local deals.

How does the investment scene in Singapore differ to the US and elsewhere in Asia?

Singapore doesn’t yet have the critical mass, longevity and track record to recycle capital from successful founders, who have had a liquidity event, although evidence is starting to show. Also the number of active angel investors is proportionately relatively small, there is still a preference for more traditional “brick and mortar” investment plays.

In addition, the investment scene is still fairly domestically orientated; Incubasia Ventures is partly jumping into these opportunities to furthering the internationalization of the Singaporean ecosystem and strengthening co-investments, technology transfer and cross border partnerships with VC’s, tech companies and government entities, who are based in Europe and the United States.

Furthermore, the investment culture in Singapore has a preference for startups, that have substantial product development in place and have demonstrated some form of client traction. As a result, Singaporean startups have generally different business models and roadmaps compared to those in the Europe and the US. The startups here focus more on monetization, while those in the West focus more on scaling up before considering monetization.

What advice can you share with entrepreneurs wanting to start their business in Singapore?

Singapore is an ideal regional hub and test-bed to validate your business model and acquire your first customers. However, should your business lack scalability out of Singapore, you stagnate very quickly, due to the small local market.

For the foreign entrepreneurs looking to launch or expand into the surrounding countries, do proper research, obtain local expertise, before dashing in as, cultural differences, consumer behavior, competition, infrastructure and technology adoption may be quite different.

What advice can you share with angel investors wanting to seek companies in Singapore?

Being the entrepreneurship hub of the region, Singapore hosts various start-ups and tech conferences regularly. Taking part in such conferences is a good starting point to learn more about the local start-up scene, as well as networking with useful contacts.

VC-led, university-based or government-organised business programs are good avenues to source for potential startups. Do read up on the government incentives, as there are tax-incentives and grants that benefit angel investors.

What’s next for Incubasia Ventures?

We are looking to hire more talent and developing our venture acceleration, tech incubation and investment activities further.

Seeking more strategic partners and networks in the region to roll out the products and services of our portfolio companies.

We are also constantly on the lookout for early stage companies to complement our existing investments.

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