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Hothouse atmosphere takes hold in Singapore

City-state wants to be Asia's go-to place for incubating innovative ideas

Aashish Mehta teamed up with two friends to reinvent the laundry pole for Asia's high-rise dwellers. (Photo by Yasu Ota)

SINGAPORE -- Aashish Mehta did not have to look far for entrepreneurial inspiration. The Indian-Singaporean engineer, who spent eight years working for a high-tech company before venturing into the startup fray, simply considered the needs of his own aging family members.

"I wanted to create something that would resolve real problems around our daily lives," the 35-year-old said.

In 2015, Mehta founded a startup called Medarwin with two friends. Their goal, basically, was to reinvent the laundry pole. Anyone who has spent time in the big cities of emerging Asia will have seen laundry hanging out the windows of high-rises. But they wanted to design a system that would be easy for even wheelchair-bound seniors to use.

They devised a device that would let users hang clothes at an accessible height, before automatically extending out the window. The team sought to include other functions, too, including a built-in weather sensor and remote control via smartphone.

To create a good prototype and get on the road to commercialization, they needed some help. Again, Mehta did not have to look far: He found support in the form of a Singaporean government program.

The city-state has a vision for itself as a startup hothouse. It wants to be a place where venture capitalists, technology funds and other investors come together with inventors, researchers and engineers to exchange ideas and innovate -- a place where people like Mehta can turn their ideas into reality.

Beyond blueprints

For the Medarwin team, one key challenge was to design a mechanism capable of withstanding the weight of wet garments. They turned to Pixel Labs, a studio for promising startups managed by Singapore's Infocomm Media Development Authority, or IMDA.

The IMDA was born last year through a restructuring of government ministries and agencies. At Pixel Labs, which originally opened in 2014, entrepreneurs have access to the equipment they need to build prototypes, such as 3-D printers and laser cutters. Metal, plastic, wood and other raw materials are available for free, and four engineers are standing by to offer advice.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Pixel Labs is the networking. Many entrepreneurs who pass through the studio end up returning to help those next in line. And the IMDA makes a point of holding study sessions and building a community.

When Mehta was struggling with the moving parts in the laundry-drying system, he received some helpful hints from a metalworker who ran a small factory in Tokyo. They met at Pixel Labs.

"We help the startups who embrace unique ideas, by providing a stage for a 'makers community,' not through subsidies from the government," an IMDA official said.

So far, 66 teams of inventors have graduated from Pixel Labs.

The city-state, though, is not only interested in nurturing grown-up innovators. Another program, dubbed Lab on Wheels, is designed to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs from an early age.

Start young

As the name suggests, the program centers on a mobile lab -- a converted bus that makes the rounds of elementary and junior high schools. Cheerful instructors teach children the basics of digital technology, including robotics, drones, 3-D design and game coding. The project is led by the IMDA in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.

Children learn how to program small robots inside Singapore's Lab on Wheels. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"In Singapore, there are not many manufacturers, and children rarely have an opportunity to touch actual hardware," said one primary school teacher. "So they tend to think high-tech comes from somewhere far away from here."

Hands-on experience could set the students on a path that might otherwise seem inaccessible. During one recent session, the children were asked what they want to be in the future. Krishnakumar Girijesh, an elementary school student, shouted, "I want to be a scientist to invent a time machine!"

Alongside the government, private businesses that support startups, such as OneMaker Group, are raising their profile in the city-state.

The next level

Multinationals are taking notice of Singapore's commitment to innovation and taking steps to get in on the action.

A prime example is Unilever. The consumer goods company teamed up with Daryl Arnold -- a British entrepreneur and expert in civic innovation, open data and the internet of things -- to create a salon for startups at Unilever's regional headquarters. It offers space to work and mingle, and even a lab for testing consumer products, complete with a fridge, bed and other furnishings with built-in sensors.

The salon, which opened in February, is dubbed Level3, since it is on the third floor. Look at it this way: The facility is right in the middle of everything Unilever does. The company's development unit, for example, is just a flight of stairs away on the fourth floor.

Besides helping startups get off the ground, the idea is to make it easy for Unilever's own employees to come and chat with entrepreneurs over coffee. These discussions could lead to the hit products of tomorrow.

"What I am trying to do here is to build a technology community to invent the future," Arnold said.

Communities need leaders, of course. Unilever turned to Arnold, while DBS, Singapore's largest bank, headhunted Neal Cross, a veteran in technology sales at Microsoft and other companies. Cross is now the chief innovation officer at DBS.

"I am neither a banker nor an engineer," Cross said.

He took a unique career path. After quitting high school in the U.K., Cross made a living designing aquariums, developing websites and coding. Creative types gravitate to him, perhaps because of his approachable nature and casual style -- polo shirts are a favorite of his. While he may seem like an unorthodox hire for a big bank like DBS, a conservative approach was not going to cut it in the age of fintech.

Will Singapore become the region's go-to spot for entrepreneurs looking to make a big leap? It does have a lot of the right ingredients: a safe, clean environment; enthusiasm in both the public and private sectors; a concentration of venture capital and other financial services; and well-developed IT infrastructure. When it comes to attracting talent, the city-state may well have the edge over its neighbors.

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