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Business

Singapore unfurls the welcome mat

Entrepreneurs from around the world promote their ideas at the Tech in Asia conference in Singapore in May. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

SINGAPORE -- A vibrant startup ecosystem is taking hold in Singapore, attracting entrepreneurs from far beyond Southeast Asia.

     One of them is Mitsunobu Okada, who set up a company in the city-state in 2013. His business, Astroscale, is aiming high: It wants to clean up Earth's orbit. 

     There is a lot of junk up there -- disused satellites, rocket scraps and other remnants that pose a danger to spacecraft. There are millions of tiny pieces zooming around at high speed. More than 20,000 objects are bigger than a softball, according to NASA. Astroscale is developing a system for collecting some of the debris. 

     But why Singapore? "I thought that Singapore, a politically neutral country, would be the ideal place to negotiate with the U.S., Russia and China, which together are responsible for 90% of the junk in orbit," Okada said.

     As Okada and others have found, the city-state is generally venture-friendly. Even non-Singaporeans can get started on a shoestring budget. The corporate tax is just 17%, compared with more than 30% in Japan and over 40% in the U.S.

     Singapore is also one of three host cities for the Tech in Asia conference, arranged by the media organization of the same name. Tokyo and Jakarta are the other two. Seven hundred entrepreneurs from 35 countries participated in this May's event in the city-state -- Okada was among them. When he told the crowd that Astroscale "plans to launch the world's first satellite to remove space debris in 2017," he was greeted with thunderous applause.

Astroscale CEO Mitsunobu Okada presents his plan for collecting space junk during the Tech in Asia conference in Singapore in May. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Government backing

Innovators are flocking to Singapore's JTC LaunchPad @ one-north, an incubator set up by the government at the edge of the city. Originally an office complex known as Block 71, the 28,000-sq.-meter site has three office buildings along with restaurants and a soccer field. The rent is around 25 Singapore dollars ($18.5) per square meter.

     Some 500 entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries work there, attempting to create the next big thing.

     Philippe Limes, 29, co-founder of a startup called Wedilo.com, hails from Venezuela. He moved to Singapore in 2014 after working in fashion e-commerce in Paris. Limes and his colleagues, including a former Google engineer, in April launched a software application that lets users share information about their favorite places and restaurants around the globe.

     Another thing Singapore has going for it: The island serves as a base for a large number of domestic and global venture capital companies, including Sequoia Capital of the U.S. This makes for a hospitable fundraising environment.

     Besides offering generous subsidies, the Singaporean government last year teamed up with a venture capital company to establish a S$120 million fund to assist businesses with promising technologies.

     The government sees cultivating startups as a global project. In January, it opened an office in the U.S. state of California to assist startups there -- and encourage American entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to explore opportunities across the Pacific.

     Skeptics argue that with a population of only 5.4 million, Singapore is too small to be Asia's Silicon Valley.

     On the other hand, the island sits amid a populous and ever more connected region. Khailee Ng, managing partner at major U.S. venture capital player 500 Startups, noted that the number of smartphone users in Asia is projected to exceed 2 billion.

     Ng suggested Asia is poised to lead the next round of innovation. Singapore looks set to be at the center of it all.

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