Diving into the Deep: Interview with Founding CEO of SGInnovate, Steve Leonard

ISSUE #65 – Singapore moves into deep tech and is investing in transformational technologies. SGInnovate Founding CEO Steve Leonard (pictured below) looks into how Singapore seeks to navigate these uncharted waters.
deep tech sginnovate-singapore-french-chamber-startups-innovate


Could you tell us about the role of SGInnovate?

SGInnovate was formed in 2016 because we believe Singapore can create globally relevant deep tech products and companies. Singapore has great strengths in academia and scientific research, but we saw a gap in the critical ‘business-building’ capabilities needed to create a viable deep tech company.

Over the past year, we have met and worked with hundreds of researchers, founders, corporates and investors. Being so immersed in the deep tech founder community has given us a rich understanding of the specific challenges facing these entrepreneurs.

We recently announced our “Deep Tech Nexus’ Strategy“, and for 2018, we will be working with greater clarity and focus in adding tangible value to the Singapore deep tech start-up ecosystem in two key areas: Human Capital and Investment Capital.

SGInnovate’s focus areas for 2018 and beyond will be in transformational technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain that have (or will soon have) horizontal applications to many industries. We know innovations in MedTech can bring positive impact to the healthcare industry so we are also working in that space.



We understand that SGInnovate focuses on deep tech, and deep tech start-ups face their own particular set of challenges. What would you say makes deep tech different?

To baseline what we mean by deep-tech products, we define it in simple terms as a product that has research-based IP at its core, is difficult to replicate and as such, has a high barrier to entry. The start-up scene in Singapore has seen strong growth in recent years, with a rise in the number of start-ups being founded. However, not enough of these start-ups are in the deep tech space. We believe one reason could be our current mindset that, because Singapore itself is not a large market, we cannot build globally relevant companies.

At SGInnovate, we’d like more people in Singapore believing they can build something that matters to people around the world. We certainly don’t have the limitations that we think we have, especially with all these assets: top-quality education, stable government, rule of law, IP protection, transparency, lots of investible capital and a large base of corporations. The secret ingredient is the enormous amount of talent based in Singapore doing scientific work that could positively impact the world. There are also strong and consistent R&D investments in future-building areas such as AI, MedTech, Robotics and blockchain.

The next step is not that “we need more scientific research”, but “how do we turn some of this incredible work into products and companies that solve big global problems”. We need to have a stronger belief that we deserve a place on the global stage.

Founding CEO Steve Leonard speaking at SGInnovate’s one year anniversary  (24 Jan 2018)


How do you see Singapore’s start-up scene growing and evolving?

Over the past decade, Singapore has consistently been acknowledged as a globally recognised leader in areas of scientific research and IP protection. In fact, the Global Innovation Index 2017 ranked Singapore as themost innovative nation in Asia, and the WEF Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017 rated Singapore as having the best IP protection in Asia.

With a pipeline of high-quality scientific research, a culture of valuing the intellectual property that arises from research, and the amount of available investment capital, Singapore has a healthy innovation-based economy and we are seeing the growth of an increasingly strong start-up ecosystem here. The growing number of start-ups has also further strengthened the nation’s foundations for the future.

One of the prime areas of focus for Singapore as a nation, and for SGInnovate as a contributor, is the field of AI technologies. In Singapore alone, there have been significant commitments in AI-related research for some time. The launch of AI Singapore formalised the collaboration of key stakeholders to accelerate AI-related projects, fuelled in part by a S$150 million commitment from the National Research Foundation. These stakeholders include a large and growing group of entrepreneurs, corporates, academics, investors and government. Given our focus on the deep-tech entrepreneur and the venture-capital communities, SGInnovate is a founding member of the AI Singapore national effort.

Now that Singapore has everything that a world-class innovation ecosystem needs, we can evolve our collective thinking from a “not sure we can”, to a “we think we can”, and eventually into a “we know we can” mindset. We will then be on our way to building deep-tech companies from Singapore for the world.


What opportunities for collaboration might there be with SGInnovate?

At SGInnovate, collaboration is a big part of our on-going work. We work with partners and a start-up community that share our passion, and one of our key focus areas is making equity-based investments in promising deep-tech start-ups from Pre-seed to Series A stages.

Our collaborations with universities and polytechnics as well as with our partners such as Entrepreneur First, IPOS and NVIDIA, allow us to build a large database of talent in different areas. One of our goals is to create a two-sided marketplace in which talented people and high-potential start-ups can find each other.

Recently, we expanded our partner ecosystem. As part of our ‘Deep Tech Nexus’ Strategy, we have partnered with like-minded industry players including General Assembly, GIC, IBM, National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC) Singapore, Nurture.ai, Red Dragon AI and SingularityNET.

These partners will play instrumental roles in helping us strengthen individual talent capabilities, as well as communities of deep-tech talent. All of this will help SGInnovate better enable the scientist founders we work with to build viable early-stage companies.



Interview with Steve Leonard, Founding CEO, SGInnovate

Published in FOCUS Magazine — Issue #1 2018 “Ready? Start-Up. Go!”