Much has been said about how the pandemic has thrown a massive curveball to startups in the last two years. The recent global health crisis has undoubtedly made it difficult for many, even those that have raised hundreds of millions, to emerge unscathed.
Amidst all of this, our local startup ecosystem is brimming with tenacious founders who are agile enough to tackle whatever is thrown their way. This is why it’s particularly heartening to see these four startup founders from SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE)’s Business Innovations Generator (BIG) incubation programme who not only turned the tide to close significant funding rounds over the last 12 months but also disrupted the way businesses are done.
Lin Fengru and Max Rye of TurtleTree Labs
Max and Fengru are well known locally for leading the way in cell-based technology for sustainable milk and for being the first in the world to produce cell-based human breast milk. What started out as a search for good quality clean milk became a startup now poised to disrupt the multibillion-dollar dairy industry and redefine dairy production.
TurtleTree Labs literally grew from an idea to laboratory and to market in just about three years. In December 2020, the duo announced that they had raised US$6.2 million in pre-series A funding. Subsequently, TurtleTree Scientific was launched in partnership with JSBiosciences to develop and produce food-grade growth factors earlier in January 2021. This will help expand TurtleTree Labs production capabilities to a scale that is commercially viable.
SMU School of Computing and Information Systems alumna Fengru enthused on her entrepreneurial journey with praises for the mentorship and support from the local food industry, government agencies, and the investors she met through the 4-month incubation programme at BIG.
“The BIG team was a super connector. We are linked up regularly to potential investors, partners, and researchers. One of the most significant was an introduction made to A*STAR which assisted us in our R&D and helped pave our path to success,” Fengru complimented in an interview with Singapore’s Ministry of Trade & Industry in August 2020.
“The Startup SG Founder scheme and HSBC-SMU Sustainability Enterprise Initiative offered under the BIG programme have been instrumental in helping us not just from the monetary point of view but also in terms of access to support and resources that gave us the advantage over other competitors,” she added.
Chris Teo of Mednefits
The astronomical cost of healthcare in Singapore accompanied by the loss of his grandmother was the turning point for Chris Teo. Reluctant to be a victim and succumb to the ways of the world, Chris started Mednefits in 2014.
Mednefits simplifies corporate employee benefits by connecting companies and their employees to healthcare providers. What started out as an idea to reduce healthcare costs evolved to become an all-in-one employee medical benefits platform that makes it easier for companies to provide strong benefits programmes. Mednefits not only tracks and processes employees’ claims in real-time, it also allows companies to offer a better and wider range of healthcare benefits to their employees without having to manage these providers.
In November 2020, Mednefits closed a successful Series A round with S$8 million raised, bringing their total funding raised to S$12 million. Today, Mednefits has connected over 50,000 employees in Singapore and Malaysia to over 2,000 healthcare providers.
Teo explained, “Mednefits is not an overnight success. In fact, we spent a six-figure sum developing a product when we first started, only to find out that no one wanted to use it when we finally tested it. It was devastating. But we learnt from these precious lessons and adapted to make it work for people who are actually using it.”
To find out that your idea is not working can take a mental and emotional toll on many startup founders. Teo’s learnings as a founder became insights for market validation and lessons to rebound from failure at one of the many BIG Founders’ Sharing Sessions held regularly for those who have just set out on their entrepreneurship path.
Teo added, “The community at SMU was a strong sounding board for our new business model and offered us a space to share our ideas freely. As entrepreneurs themselves, they helped us define our customers’ pain points which still stand true to us today.”
Rahul Banerjee of BondEvalue
Established in 2016 by Dr Rahul Banerjee, BondEvalue is a FinTech start-up that changes the world of fixed income markets. BondEvalue creates transparency in the bond markets, provides market news and data, and makes bond investments more accessible to investors. BondEvalue was enrolled in the BIG incubation programme in that same year.
Unlike equities, the bonds market has been operating in a traditional environment and remained unchanged for decades. In Asia and Europe, bond trading functions almost exclusively for affluent individuals largely because of the high minimum denomination of US$200,000 in the secondary market. Even private banking clients are unable to access live prices easily, and trading is carried out over the counter or over the phone, making for an opaque process and pricing.
Having identified the pain points in the industry, BondbloX Bond Exchange was added as part of BondEvalue’s offering in October 2020. BondbloX became the world’s first fractional bond exchange using proprietary technology and enterprise-grade blockchain that enables investors to buy and sell bonds in denominations of US$1,000 instead of the usual US$200,000.
BondbloX is regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore with Citibank and Northern Trust as its designated custodians. The exchange combines the power of distributed ledger technology that allows for enhanced transparency and liquidity and faster settlement, while making institutional-grade investment opportunities available to new classes of investors.
As recently as June 2021, the company raised US$6M Series A bringing the total funding raised to US$10 million. The company was named under the “Forbes Asia 100 to Watch” list. They also announced a joint venture in Mexico to form a Peso bond exchange as part of its expansion plans.
Disrupting a traditional industry requires grit and a deep commitment to move things forward. Despite his busy schedule and the demanding nature of being the CEO and founder, Dr Banerjee believes in giving back and sharing his knowledge with the community. He is currently a mentor at SMU IIE’s Global Innovation Immersion internship programme, eager to provide guidance to young talents who are keen on a career in innovation. He is also a trainer on Bond Investing at SMU Academy.
“SMU BIG has been integral in BondEvalue’s growth. I was a traditional banker and learned a lot about startups during the time of incubation. All our initial teammates joined us there. We may have grown up, but we can never grow out of SMU”, said Dr Banerjee.
James Chan of ION Mobility
“Electric motorbikes can cut smog and reduce PM2.5 and greenhouse gas emissions in the air. Imagine that being adopted across all the cities in Southeast Asia like Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bangkok!” said James Chan, Founder and CEO of ION Mobility.
Inspired by Tesla and its vision to be Southeast Asia’s top technology company leading our region’s transition towards a low-carbon economy with electric and electric mobility products for consumers and businesses, Chan founded ION Mobility in late 2019. Southeast Asia is the world’s third-largest market for motorbikes after India and China, yet little progress has been made to introduce cleaner alternatives for these little dirty machines.
Headquartered in Singapore and an all-Singaporean management leading a team of 10 nationalities across its three offices in Singapore, Shenzhen, and Jakarta, ION Mobility is committed to creating great products and seamless user experiences by combining human-centred design with advanced software and hardware. Their goal is to entice the 200+ million motorbike users in Southeast Asia to switch from petrol to electric for a more sustainable future.
In October 2020, ION Mobility raised US$3.3 million in seed funding and more recently secured over S$800,000 in grants from Enterprise Singapore in March 2021, proving that the bleak economic situation from the pandemic had not dampened its ambitions, execution, and growth.
“It was an interesting time to start a company in the typically capital-intensive automotive sector (that does not exist in Singapore), and an even more interesting period to try and raise capital (where risk capital is typically in lesser supply for early-stage hardware startups),” Chan shared through his blog.
He likens their strategy to countries’ responses in flattening the curve to avoid overloading their healthcare capacity. With great risk comes great opportunities.
“We scaled back on the magnitude and velocity of our forecasts on travel, hiring roadmaps, rental, and renovations in order to stretch our Plan C further into next year and give ourselves options ahead of our Series A raise,” stated James.
“We joined SMU BIG right from the start before we secured our own office. I’ll always be grateful to them for their support from our very beginning, which made our startup journey feel much less lonely and difficult.”
“It was an especially challenging environment to operate in. But what did not kill us can only make us stronger,” Chan quipped.
The company is revving up to unveil its first smart EV motorbike for Indonesia before the end of 2021 and is set to expand its operations in Singapore and Indonesia. ION Mobility stands poised to continue developing its in-house design, research and development capabilities, build up its supply chain, and add to its in-house production capabilities and partnerships.
SMU IIE’s Business Innovations Generator
Keen to find out how SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) can help you to build your startup or business ideas further and faster? Learn more about SMU IIE’s Business Innovations Generator (BIG) equity-free and founders-centric incubation programme on its website, and its latest cohort of startups!
IIE is also one of the Accredited Mentor Partners (AMP) for the Startup SG Founder scheme that helps early-stage startups and entrepreneurs kick start their business ideas. Subscribe to its quarterly e-newsletter, The Greenhouse Effect, for more inspiring stories from the founders of today.
This article is produced by the e27 team, sponsored by SMU IIE
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