Welcome to the SUSS series of podcasts that tackles growing ˜technologies around us. Technologies that changed how we engage the world, connect and come together as a modern society. This series discusses how the tools of our everyday lives have evolved and changed our lives.
The startup culture has always been associated with the younger generations. In recent years, we have been seeing a rise in impact-driven startups. From scaling social impact to addressing UN sustainable development goals, I’m curious on how these impact-driven startups are changing our world.
We sat with Kenneth Yap, Venture Builder Lead at SUSS, Sang Shin, Director of Digital Innovation at Temasek, and Valerian Fauvel, Co-founder of Jumanji Studio – and began by asking Sang Shin what it takes for startups to put social impact first.
So Sang Shin, starting with you. What are some of the trends, macro trends that you see in the startup ecosystem?
Sure. And I just want to say how happy I am to join you all here today. Key trends in the startup ecosystem: I think, there are quite a few going on and these are more long-term cyclical trends.
Before coming to Singapore, I was still in the United States about five years ago and that was when I was doing a startup myself. And when I look back and see what was happening out in America in the west and then after having moved here and watching what's happening in this region, you can see that there's a growth that's happening in this ecosystem in Southeast Asia.
You can see degacorns coming out here, the maturation of the funding side, as well as from the entrepreneurial side. But within there, there're also shifts in the purpose of startups that we're seeing. And if you will, the last decade, there were a lot of startups t focused on just making a lot of money, gaming you into tapping and clicking and your attention, and, trying to become a unicorn or a billionaire quickly that way.
And then I think more recently, you're starting to see startups trying to actually make an impact, whether it be in sustainability or some form of ESG coming up. And you'll also see funding going into these startups. And these are driven by large changes happening in the world. As we know, there's an existential issue we're having with climate change, for example, or sustainability and food and energy.
So I do think that there are these continuing shifts. These are long-term trends that are happening. But it's happening both here and around the world.
Valerian, what about yourself? You're a startup founder. Do you agree with the trends that Sang Shin just mentioned, or what about your peers who are starting startups as well?
Yes. I've been in this space of impact for about 13 years now in Asia. And so I started even before the “impact” word was coined and it was social entrepreneurship back then. So I've seen really, an exciting trend – a bit too slow for my taste, of course, but an exciting trend of having people realising the needs and the issues around.
Now you can actually put together entrepreneurship, generating revenues, targeting profit, raising funds. And in doing that, building a team, a venture that has a purpose that is also to solve an environmental issue or a social issue. So in terms of the purpose, but also even within the organisation, because those founders have different values.The way that the growth is thought, the way the recruitments happen, the way people are managed is driven by different values, not just money and profit.
So that's very exciting and definitely, the new generation of entrepreneurs, more and more, are thinking about this and are excited about this. And I think they are inspired by the first generation of entrepreneurs who tried.
But to your point, it's still too slow for your liking.
It's slow. Yeah. It's very slow. For me, the funding mechanisms around social entrepreneurships have been too slow to happen because there's still this, you know, partly true, partly not true, impression that there is not enough money in the space, to actually give the proper return in capital that a traditional investor would seek.
So I think there's been a huge issue in growing.
Well, we can tell that Val is a very patient man for having been doing this this long, but at the same time, knowing that it's not fast enough for us. So I really applaud Val and people like him who have created Jumanji Studio, and an effort to fast forward this movement that needs to happen for sure.
Kenneth, what are your thoughts? You're helping to move a lot of founders, to create their first startups and to move into social impact in your role at SUSS. What are some of the findings or experiences?
I would say actually it's quite interesting.
When we first started the programme that I'm leading at this time, which is the Venture Builder Programme. Nonetheless, we were kind of agnostic towards the type of industries that people could sign up for this programme. But inevitably, somehow, as also a function of our university to lead social good in the society.
We also targeted, for example, domain expertise and resources that we can provide and support our startups in this programme. And offer them resources that are related to the fields of, for example, social services, gerontology, mental health and wellbeing.
And somehow, we started to see more and more of these applicants looking to focus on something in that space. So coincidentally, I think since we started this programme for about a year now, one of the notable startups that have come up from it, is an interesting mix of a part-time graduate, a full-time graduate and a Master's student.
They’re working on a gerontology-related idea, something a bit different. So as you can imagine, the world of influencers has been pretty much saturated at this point. But they thought that this would be something interesting that could give meaning to elderlies as well. So what they've built is essentially kind of like a social agency, an influencer agency for the elderly.
And it works as well for merchants and businesses that are looking specifically for that kind of exposure to this age group at that market. Because as the generations grow up, they become more tech-savvy and using these sorts of mediums to reach out to clients and new customers, is a great way for them to do it.
So I’m really intrigued and curious. You said they come from different backgrounds, in different fields of work, anyone can chip in as well. How would we be able to spot all these young talents or founders, see that they would be interested in social impact and help them? So, Kenneth, how do you select these talents?
To be honest, choosing them at the very beginning based on their original idea, doesn't always pan out to the end outcome or even towards the end of the programme where they're going to be at with their ideas. Because pivoting is really all part of the whole process. So what we're really trying to do here at the Venture Builder is really just equip them with the base skills and the fundamentals of what it means to be a startup entrepreneur. How to be very adept, be customer-centric with your approaches and understand the problems that need to be solved rather than trying to shove things down people's throats, because you think something is a great idea.
So for example, during our interviews, we were looking out for the kind of attitudes that they have towards society, social problems, towards how they tick and interpret problems, and kind of have that resourcefulness to really drive things on their own. While we say that this is a programme that offers them a lot of support and resources, on day one, we manage their expectations.
We tell them, “You have to be driving this on your own. You have to be hungry to make it work. You have to find that vision that really drives you, that drives the product and that service that you're trying to create.”
And that's really important.
And you help work with these startups to get to that stage.
Exactly, and we are trying to look for these kinds of people that are at least ready enough to take on that responsibility on themselves and as a team to build that startup, be ready to take action, and pivot and adapt when they need to. Because there are just an uncountable number of challenges that we will foresee they may need to pivot because they realise this is not a real problem that they need to solve; there's something else that requires their attention. So adaptability and flexibility are important.
The ability to adapt, and make changes. These are some of the qualities that you see. Sang Shin, is this true from the ecosystem point of view as well?
Absolutely I think, for me, ultimately, trying to become a startup founder, I know it looks glamorous, but it's really not for everyone. And that's just the truth, even though many people try it as they should. Who it's for, is for the woman or a man who has determined a purpose that they have fully committed themselves into devoting their life towards.
Without having that, and if you're doing it just to make a lot of money or get social street cred, that kind of stuff. It's not enough of a motivator, to get you through what eventually, as we've heard, will happen, which is a ton of challenges, a ton of questioning yourself as to why did you even do this?
And it's really during those dark moments and those challenging times, where the passion of your purpose is going to carry you through. And so that's ultimately what I look for when I look at people who want to do startups. And if I can't find it, it's not something I say, don't do it. But I say, you know, you should try and find that first before taking the leap and doing this. Without doing that and just taking the leap for the other reasons, you're not going to have that anchor to steer you through what will be in your way.
Before I get to Valerian for the 13 years of resilience –
He’s a great example of somebody doing it because he is fully committed to it.
Exactly. But Sang Shin, I’m just really curious you know, I'm hearing a lot of words about purpose. The founders need to know why they're doing, what they do.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it ties into the fundamental shifts that are long-term cyclical shifts that I was talking about.
You know, people who created social networks and these apps, they had something good in their mind to connect families and friends together. And even Google, in the beginning, they said do no evil. And that was their mantra. So it's not like that wasn’t there before. It's just that what's happening more and more now is because of the challenges we're seeing globally and a new generation growing up.
You know, we say digital native, but there's now this like sustainability native or impact native type of generation who has been born into this world where we're seeing issues. With resource allocation and all the challenges we see, that as they grow up they're not like us, and us being, you know, myself, older people. So they're growing up in this different world.
Where they're bombarded by these things. And so they have this different purpose that has evolved. And this is what I mean by the shift. And so you're seeing more of these founders having that inherent drive to try and make a difference. They’re less, I guess relatively speaking, concerned about just getting their 10th Lamborghini. Perhaps more concerned about making a change in their local community.
Or making an innovation or invention that has a macro change in the world. And that seems to be something I see more and more, with the younger you go with the generation gap.
You’ve been listening to the SUSS series of podcasts. The next part of this episode will be available at suss.edu.sg/podcast. Stay tuned!