The case for deep tech in Singapore
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: The case for deep tech in Singapore

A CLIMATE of extreme temperatures. A global pandemic. The threat of inadequate food supply.

These global-scale challenges have hit home in recent years, and we expect more of such threats to emerge in the future.

Thankfully, the pace of technology development continues to accelerate, with advanced solutions emerging to tackle these new challenges. We are seeing the growth and transformative power of deep tech – biotechnologies that enable vaccine development at an unprecedented pace, innovative agritech methods that enhance bio-fertility and increase crop yield, and green innovations that help corporations track and reduce their carbon emissions. There is great potential for change.

Science-based, purpose-borne innovation for the world’s most pressing challenges

What sets deep tech (some call it tough tech, or hard tech) apart is its potential for impact and innovations based on research and development (R&D), usually arising from novel scientific discovery and engineering. Deep tech ventures typically undergo extensive development, rigorous testing, and validation before reaching commercial viability, which means a longer gestation period and the need for patient capital.

What this requires are significant resources, time, and deep niche expertise to incubate and scale deep tech startups. This is no easy feat. But their success has the potential to generate outsized impact for Singapore.

Take Mirxes, a biotech startup that developed the world’s first approved microRNA blood test to detect early-stage gastric cancer from a single blood draw. This could have important implications for improving patients’ health outcomes. Another is Hydroleap, which is tackling industrial wastewater treatment. It leverages innovative electrochemical technologies – in place of conventional chemical processes that are energy-intensive and less effective on a large scale – to treat wastewater, lower carbon footprint, and drive water sustainability.

A key impetus for driving the growth of deep tech is its potential contributions to building a strong economy. Intensive R&D and innovation efforts present the opportunity for Singapore to develop new high-technology clusters and activities that are “stickier” and more deeply entrenched to Singapore, and enable our companies and industries to move up the economic value chain.

Not only will Singapore startups and enterprises build new competitive advantages and revenue streams, but we will also be able to attract and anchor new multinational corporations (MNCs) looking for conducive environments to site their R&D and innovation centres.

In Singapore, we take an ecosystem approach to growing a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy. The seeds for our deep tech ecosystem were sowed more than three decades ago. From the launch of the first five-year National Technology Plan in 1991, to the most recent Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan (RIE2025), Singapore has made significant and structured long-term investments in science and technology, which started from building a deep scientific research base in our universities and public research institutions.

This serves as a strong foundation from which cutting-edge discoveries and innovations can spring. Enterprise Singapore, as the key agency driving startup ecosystem development, is working together with public and private sector players to super-charge this growth, and to catalyse the creation and commercialisation of new innovations.

What it takes to build a deep tech ecosystem

Unlike many other research-intensive countries that have the benefit of centuries of organic growth from excellent academic institutions, Singapore has had to be fast yet deliberate in growing our deep tech ecosystem. We enacted strong policies to create a conducive environment for innovation; our Startup SG initiative provides support for entrepreneurs across varied needs, from mentorship to technology sourcing and development, and catalysing private-sector investments.

Our startups must build with global scale in mind. That is why we established global platforms for them to network with partners and seek collaboration or funding opportunities. The Global Innovation Alliance plugs our startups to major innovation hubs all over the world to drive cross-border collaboration. The Startup SG Accelerator programme connects startups with ecosystem enablers and venture builders, who take on the role of jumpstarting startups’ growth and helping them turn an idea into reality.

These efforts are agglomerated and magnified at our flagship Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (Switch) conference. As a nexus for deep tech, we bring together corporates, investors, and startups across the global innovation ecosystem, to exchange ideas and co-create solutions for the future.

Finally, a strong deep tech ecosystem necessitates having the right people. Not only do we need to build a strong local talent pipeline, but we must also be open to global founders who add diversity and vibrancy to our ecosystem. Together with public and private sector partners, we have initiated programmes, such as the Startup SG Founder, to help founders develop as successful entrepreneurs. We also have facilitative work passes and our marquee deep tech competition, Slingshot, to attract and anchor foreign founders.

It is not our job to tell founders and entrepreneurs what to do and how to run their business. Instead, our focus is on putting in place the policies, infrastructure, networks, and platforms that give them the best shot at success.

We have seen promising progress so far. Today, Singapore ranks fifth on the Global Innovation Index and eighth on Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2023 – our highest showing to date. We are home to more than 4,000 tech startups, 400 venture capital firms and 220 accelerators and incubators. Last year, we topped the region as the lead destination for venture capital investments, accounting for 56 per cent of the total deal volume and 64 per cent of the total deal value.

The work continues. A deeply rooted tree weathers the most difficult storms. To nurture the technologies that have the potential to meet the world’s most pressing challenges, and to ensure Singapore remains economically strong and resilient, we need to intensify our efforts, to grow our deep tech ecosystem and the next generation of deep tech startups.

The writer is assistant chief executive officer, innovation and enterprise services, at Enterprise Singapore.

The Switch Conference, organised by Enterprise Singapore, will be held from Oct 31 to Nov 2 at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.