SINGAPORE (June 11): Software developer Alok Pathak is taking a leap in his career, moving from medical devices to combating fake news on social media. Pathak spent the last five years developing software for infrared spectrometers at Attonics Systems, a start-up spun out from the National University of Singapore. But now, with the help of talent incubator Antler, he wants to try his hand building a start-up of his own.
Antler is the third talent builder programme to launch in Singapore. While start-up accelerators look for fledgling companies to build, talent incubators look for founders with good ideas. The other talent builders here are London-based Entrepreneur First (EF), which launched its programme here in 2016, and the Singapore Institute of Management’s Platform E, which is planning to sign up 25 individuals this year.
Spearheaded by Magnus Grimeland, the former managing director of start-up builder Rocket Internet and co-founder of e-commerce platform Zalora, Antler will bring together 50 candidates for its first cohort in July. The programme aims to build 10 to 15 startups and is now looking for the talent to found and run them.
Antler’s programme is divided into two phases. In the first phase, it aims to match co-founders to each other to create a founding team. Once a team is assembled, it gets two months to iron out its game plan. The co-founders are then given an opportunity to pitch their ideas to Antler, which may make a US$100,000 ($133,767) investment for a 10% stake. Antler will also provide founders with a monthly stipend of about US$4,000 each in the first two months of the programme.
The most difficult part will be matching the founders up, Grimeland says. “The only way to know if it works is if we put them together,” he says. “Usually about two to three of them form a team.” Grimeland says having the wrong composition in a founding team is among the common mistakes for young start-ups. For instance, many companies start out with founders who have technical strengths. However, they may not have a founding member who is capable of managing the business aspects of a start-up. Antler hopes to alleviate this problem by pairing the right mix of founders together.
“We see three types of people entering the programme,” Grimeland tells The Edge Singapore. “Some are [domain experts] who have spent their entire life in very narrow fields and are the best people in their field. The other type is people with very strong functional skills such as data scientists. And the rest are business generalists like myself.”
Founders who are part of the programme will receive some training from Antler too. “We are planning to be very hands-on. In the first six months, it is critical to build the right team,” says Grimeland. “Founders will go through topics like growth hacking, performance marketing, how to structure your company, hiring and recruiting and leadership development.”
The focus on the founder, rather than the product or the service, holds a certain appeal. “Antler has a lot of emphasis on the founder,” Pathak says. “[The programme has not started], but the mentors are very open to informal chats [to refine my idea] and help me see where I would stand in a [new] industry.”
Collectively, EF, Platform E and Antler are expected to groom at least 50 start-ups this year. Some industry observers see talent incubators catching on and possibly even becoming more popular than accelerator programmes at some point.
“Venture capitalists currently compete for deals in existing companies and that space is very competitive,” says Daniel Thong, founder of office-cleaning start-up Nimbus and former entrepreneur-in-residence at Entrepreneur First Singapore. “But... investing in an idea or founders before they are formed [into a company] creates the opportunity for investors to tap a new source of deal flow.”
EF, which is backed by Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist Greylock Partners, has expanded aggressively in recent years. It also has a presence in Berlin and Hong Kong. And it has a track record of attracting talent from big firms, including Google and Credit Suisse. Among the start-ups that EF counts as its alumni is Magic Pony Technology, which uses machine learning to transform grainy footage into high-quality videos. Magic Pony was acquired by Twitter for US$150 million in 2016. EF has built more than 140 start-ups globally, worth an estimated US$1 billion.
In Singapore, EF invests $75,000 in qualified start-ups for a 10% stake. Each of its founders gets $5,000 a month for the first three months of participation in EF. Almost all of EF Singapore’s start-ups have received follow-up investments from SGInnovate, the government-owned company that helps build deep tech start-ups.
Network of mentors
So, what is Antler offering its startup founders? Grimeland believes Antler’s strength is in its strong network of mentors. “We are growing the number of advisers and venture partners like 1% each week. These are [individuals] who are successful founders of other businesses [and some of them] can open markets for our start-ups in this region,” he says.
Grimeland himself is a successful entrepreneur, credited for helping Zalora enter new markets in Southeast Asia. He also served as chief operating officer of Global Fashion Group — a consolidation of e-commerce fashion companies including Zalora — where he rolled out e-commerce platforms across 26 countries.
Many of the advisers and mentors that have signed on at Antler come from Grimeland’s previous organisations — Zalora, Rocket Internet and Global Fashion Group. Most of them have indicated specific areas of interest. For instance, the managing director of Zalora Philippines, Paulo Campos, is looking to work with start-ups that want to expand to the Philippines.
“For us, there is a clear commitment in terms of time [from them],” Grimeland says. Antler will also help facilitate the legal paperwork if the start-ups and mentors want to continue working together after the programme.
Plenty of funding
Antler raised US$3 million in seed funding earlier this year for its operations, with backing from Indonesia-based Lippo Group’s director John Riady, WeWork managing director Ole Ruch, and Andreas Ehn, the first chief technology officer of Spotify. Grimeland is also on the way to raising a Southeast Asian-focused fund of between US$15 million and US$20 million, which will be used to invest in companies formed through Antler’s programme. The fund has a 10-year horizon.
There is no shortage of capital here, says Grimeland. But he believes there are still many talented individuals who are not getting into the business of entrepreneurship. “We see a lot of talent in the region who want to start a company but are not doing so. Some have good jobs or are waiting for the next promotion. I think they need the extra push,” he says. Grimeland hopes his early investment of US$100,000 would help spur talent to start their own companies.
He is particularly interested in ideas that can have an impact on people. “One example is healthcare,” he says. “Healthcare spending is increasing but we have less than 10% spent on preventive services, which can really reduce the amount of people getting sick.”
Pathak, the budding entrepreneur, may no longer be in the medical field. Nevertheless, he thinks his anti-fake news idea will have a pretty big impact on people too. And he’s hoping the folks at Antler feel the same way.
This article appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue No. 834, week of June 11) which is on sale now. Or subscribe here