Why big corporates like SingTel can be White Knights to Asia’s startups
May 24, 2012 by Guest Contributor
This article was republished with permission from the author’s blog.
“What are you doing here in (insert country), you should be in Silicon Valley.”
Do these words sound familiar to you?
In Asia, it’s very common for Founders with great ideas to either run their companies in boot strap mode or relocate to Silicon Valley. Even great talent is expected to take huge pay cuts when they join a startup.
We don’t need a scientist to figure out the primary cause of this issue. This is primarily because of the scarcity of risk capital in Asia. Entrepreneurs with good ideas have to slog for cash. One key factor that gives wings to the dreams of most Silicon Valley startups is the free flow of capital that lets them dream big…really big.
Silicon Valley is blessed with excess capital. And, that is probably why failure is embraced.
But how do they get that kind of money? What is the source? Who are these Limited Partners (LP)?
As per Wikipedia, the sources of funds are Public pension funds, Corporate pension funds, Insurance companies, High Networth Individuals (HNI) / family offices, endowments, foundations, fund-of-funds and sovereign wealth funds. In addition, there are many cash-rich corporates that have their strategic investment arms hunting for opportunities.
Compare that with the sources of funds in Asia:
1. Do you think any government in Asia would allow pension funds to become Limited Partners in Venture Capital funds?
Certainly not. At the most, governments would allow use of pension funds to be invested in real estate and approved listed equities. CPF Board of Singapore allows a portion of provident funds into property, gold, selected equities and top 25 percentile managed funds. All the usual suspects of low risk investing. Nothing wrong with that. I also view that as prudent considering the fact that venture capital industry as a whole is a loss-making industry.
Of course, we hear everyday about the success stories of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. But we choose to ignore the stories of failures. I read a report recently that says how the average VC fund in US fails to return investor capital after fees.
2. Do we have foundations and endowments who can risk a portion of their money?
No. Most endowments and foundations outside America would choose to place their money into fixed deposits with highest-rated banks or managed funds.
In Singapore, the three local universities (SMU, NUS and NTU) together have about S$2.7B (US$2.11B) in endowment funds plus another S$1.7B (US$1.33) in accumulated surpluses and operating funds, some of which is actively managed. Portfolio allocation to venture capital is probably close to zero.
Compare that with Yale and other educational institutions in the United States. Yale allocates 33 percent of its portfolio to private equity (venture capital and leveraged buyouts). Average actual allocation of an American educational institution to private equity is around 10.5 percent.
Since 1976, Yale participated in a number of startups that helped define the technology industry, including Compaq computer, Oracle, Genentech, Dell Computer, Amgen, Amazon.com, Yahoo, CISCO, Red Hat, Juniper, Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Zynga.
Its investment policy document says : Alternative assets, by their very nature, tend to be less efficiently priced than traditional marketable securities, providing an opportunity to exploit market inefficiencies through active management.
3. Do HNIs have any incentives to back risky tech startups?
Not at all. High net worth individuals are so busy doubling and tripling their money every year in emerging economies and traditional sectors that no one has any bandwidth left for technology.
I recently met some HNIs who were busy buying hotels and warehouses in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. What kind of internal rate of return can GPs offer to beat emerging market returns?
What I mean to say is that the traditional sectors are growing at such a fast rate that HNIs have no incentive to look for other alternative investments. Society is highly entrepreneurial but unfortunately there’s no incentive yet to try out tech entrepreneurship.
So what are we left with? How can tech entrepreneurship flourish in Asia?
In my view, corporates can play a big role here. In Southeast Asia, SingTel has shown leadership by launching their fund Innov8 and sponsoring an incubator called JFDI. They have also acquired a slew of tech startups, most recently Singapore’s HungryGoWhere for US$9.4M.
If the top 10 to 20 corporates in each country can launch similar funds and sponsor incubators, it would certainly create a demand. And maybe that demand for investment opportunities would act as a catalyst for some wannabe entrepreneurs as well as angel investors.
In addition, if University endowment funds can also allocate five to 10 percent of their portfolios toward venture capital, it would be a great boost for the entire tech startup ecosystem.
About the author
Piyush Chaplot works with Innosight Ventures as VP-Finance & Investments. His current role is to source, evaluate, structure, monitor, and manage early stage investments in Singapore. He serves on the Board of www.chope.com.sg and also acts as part time CFO for some of the other investee companies. Additionally, he manages the finance and compliance functions within the Innosight Ventures group. He has more than 10 years of experience in financial and risk management roles in India, Indonesia, Australia, UAE and Singapore. Piyush is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, CPA Australia and CPA Singapore. He holds a Masters of Commerce degree from M.D.S. University in Ajmer, India. He is also a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA).
SingTel, a publicly-traded company in the Singapore stock exchange, is one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world. It has a total mobile subscriber base of 462 million users in 30th June 2011, up 11% from a year ago. It is now reinventing itself for the digital age.View profile: SingTel More articles: SingTel
Find out more about SGE’s research arm: SGE Insights, providing customized in-depth research reports to help you navigate the business of technology in Asia.
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