UNLOCKING SOUTHEAST ASIA'S INNOVATION SPIRIT
December 6, 2019
Asia is the next big thing. It is a big source of growth, income, and consumer spending. While China is the largest global consumer market, the opportunities in Southeast Asia with its growing middle class is attracting investments globally.
“The next 10 years will be a special decade for Southeast Asia’s history,” affirms Nick Nash, Managing Partner & Co-founder, Asia Partners, at the recently concluded Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology (SWITCH) 2019. The spotlight is on the region’s market potential for disruptive technological adoption.
With some of the world’s busiest air routes situated in Southeast Asia, companies are embracing regional expansions, as discretionary incomes in this part of the world also increase.
Thriving in a vast Asian market
From prominent ecosystem builders to seasoned startup founders and insightful investors, diverse perspectives at the annual tech conference pointed towards Southeast Asia’s golden age. With 650 million individuals in a non-homogeneous Southeast Asian bloc, businesses have to serve a full customer experience. Building, scaling, implementing product-market fit and executing the purpose of a company remain at the core.
Ankiti Bose, Co-founder & Chief Executive Officer, Zilingo shared that the same product cannot be built for everybody. It needs to address different cultures by offering a multitude of services on platforms and all adjacencies that make the most sense. Even payment methods differ with each country and city.
“The solution is to find the right talents to connect with various cultural nuances. Everyone has a major role to play in catalysing innovation and enterprise within Asia and beyond,” she urges.
Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist, Sea Limited adds that community is key. Organic word-of-mouth can drive powerful technology adoption and on-the-ground learning of consumer pain points. Opportunities can then be identified to address and deliver valuable solutions.
In addition, the role of passion in driving a strategic vision and looking out for marketing opportunities is key to unlocking an innovator’s spirit. “You must enjoy building companies, and gain satisfaction on the job,” says Aaron Tan, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Carro.
Attracting talent in Asia
Talent is the lifeblood of the digital economy. Regardless of trade war or global recession, innovation happens. It boils down to unlocking value in people and great ideas.
But where does one find innovation talent in Asia? Adapting Silicon Valley’s formula for success, Peter Brack, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Hypothesis Ventures, emphasised the importance of location. In close proximity to universities, early-stage startups and investment capital are often drawn towards places with creative lifestyles and manageable living costs.
Wai Hoong Fock, Managing Director, Telecommunications, Media & Technology, and Southeast Asia, Temasek, points to how “Indonesia’s Gojek CEO joined President Joko Widodo’s new cabinet as the education minister,” highlighting the growing realisation that education is also critical in generating new talents. “That’s a shrewd move,” he adds.
The right talent can be empowered to grow innovative platforms across regions. As companies disrupt, the need for re-education is also apparent.
Building supportive ecosystems
Innovation is fast becoming a cornerstone of corporate strategy. Already, established corporates are collaborating with tech companies and startups. From setting up corporate venture capital arms to open innovation initiatives, efforts are underway to future-proof businesses and make the world a better place.
Jojo Malolos, Chief Executive Officer, JG Digital Equity Ventures (JGDEV), Board Director & Adviser, Wing (Cambodia) Limited Specialised Bank elaborates, “ [with] a marriage of different investment approaches, together, we solve conglomerate problems, adopt digital entrepreneur mindsets, shorten runways for startups and provide added value to customers.”
According to Rafaelita Aldaba, Undersecretary for Competitiveness & Innovation, Philippine Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), policymakers are also building supportive ecosystems across the globe.
Research-oriented initiatives are implemented to accelerate commercialisation efforts with other governments, and constructing digital infrastructure that supports entrepreneurship from the get-go.
Breakthrough Innovations from China
While Taobao focused T-Mall on tier one and two Chinese cities, Pinduoduo, the fastest growing e-commerce app, is targeting Chinese consumers in tier two and lower cities.
As Yiqun Bo, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, DayDayUp pointed, this is made possible by startup talents who demonstrate strong online to offline execution. Thanks to Taobao and JD, China’s logistics infrastructure is well-established. WeChat also paved the way for a booming mobile payments market.
Alongside increases in household purchasing power, the younger generation of Chinese consumers also demands more personalised user experiences over mobile phones. According to Jonathan Zhong, Founding Partner, ATM Capital, all these factors are ripe for disruptive technology to gain market adoption.
Disruptive Technology from India
Thanks to technology, India’s talents are beginning to solve pressing issues, develop research and scale-up solutions. With new government initiatives to set up large data centres and advance strategic digital transformation, startups and SMEs in India can better compete on a level playing field.
Recognising that the next billion customers are situated in smaller cities and rural areas, T. V. Mohandas Pai, Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners, highlighted India’s unique take on frugal innovation. “What works in India, works for under-developed parts of the world. India has the scale and brains to testbed solutions with low-cost models,” he says, adding that Indians are culturally adaptable.
Actionable Next Steps
As Southeast Asia continues to seize the day, thriving in a vast market requires ever-evolving business skill sets and technical know-how to unlock the innovator’s spirit.
For Singapore companies focused on technology and innovation, the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), a joint initiative between Enterprise Singapore and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), provides a network of Singapore and overseas partners in major innovation hubs and key demand markets.
Present in 13 cities across ten countries, in-market players connect companies to overseas business and tech communities. Singapore startups and SMEs can also look forward to venturing abroad, while international startups scaling up in Asia through Singapore as a springboard can further tap into GIA Acceleration Programmes for support.