Steve Leonard is the Founding CEO of SGInnovate, a revolutionary effort by the Singapore government to prove, launch and scale deep technology companies backed by scientific research. With over twenty-five years of global experience working for top technology companies and Government bodies in various leadership roles, he has committed himself to the mission of supporting the most ambitious and capable individuals commercialise their expertise.
In just fifteen months since its launch, SGInnovate has become a household name in Singapore’s tech ecosystem through its multifarious portfolio of companies and immensely popular events in blockchain, healthcare, big data to name a few. In this conversation, he reveals his thoughts on tech entrepreneurship in Singapore, how he handles the inevitable obstacles that come his way, and why mindset is the most important enabler of innovation.
Q. It’s been over a year since SG Innovate launched. How do you feel?
There are days when it’s hard and days when it’s fun. It’s like running any kind of business; sometimes things work the way you want them to and sometimes they don’t, but you just have to keep iterating on them. What I like best is that these experiences help us better understand the journey of an entrepreneur and the various challenges they have to face. Customer-market fit, raising enough funding, hiring the right talent, making up for market competition, are issues that any startup runs through.
Q. How do you tackle these issues?
We have the strongest team. And as a team, we come up with ideas, test them out in the market, and get feedback. One thing that helps is that some of us have a lot of experience from multidisciplinary backgrounds.
Q. Not long back, the press made a big deal about employees leaving SG Innovate. That must have been quite unpleasant…
It doesn’t change anything about what we do. The facts are what they are, we went through a period and there’ll always be people leaving any organisation. We had a phase where people who had been with us in our early stages left, because they no longer related with what we are and where we were going, and that’s okay.
Secondly, I don’t think these changes impacted our mission, priority or focus in any way. We want people who are committed and want to work with us, and for the rest we wish the best of health and luck.
Q. Did it affect you personally?
Sure. SGInnovate is something that I’ve been working on for more than two years now. I spent an entire year trying to sell the idea and ensure the support of Government leaders. I’m as emotionally invested as any founder. So I like to spend time working with people to build cool things.. But the fact remains that the mission hasn’t changed. The potential that we believe in, hasn’t changed. What we are trying to do, working with ambitious and capable people, hasn’t changed.
Q. You have spent a long time working for MNCs and the Government before SG Innovate. How was it different?
It’s different in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways, it’s the same. The scale is different. In my last role in the private sector, we had thousands of employees in Asia, and we were S$3 billion in revenue. Then at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), we had 1500-1600 people. We were working on the national strategy towards technology. So, again, big scale.
Here, we still want to have a national impact, and on an international scale – we want to build from Singapore and not just for Singapore. And similar to the private sector, we still have to fight for market share, customers and budget. But there’s definitely a difference in scale and in resource. Now I don’t have to worry so much about margin and profitability.
Q. And as in early stage startups, things probably move faster?
We hope so (laughs). But even if we’d like to be nimble, we are still linked to the government. We do try and act in a private sector sort of way, and we do enjoy some of the benefits because of the access to ministers and so on. But the reality is that in the private sector you can make decisions purely based on a business perspective, and the conversation stops at customers. Whereas with the government you have to consider a whole bunch of things. You have to step back and consider the impact. What it means to citizens. It’s okay if the experiment doesn’t work out in a startup or a corporate, but if somebody’s health or privacy was negatively affected, future was affected, there could be dire consequences.
Q. With such gigantic responsibility on your shoulders, is it difficult to mentally cut off once you’re off work?
Well, it is possible to not care. There are many times when there’s something on my mind and I have to tell myself to not let it take over. It’s easy to lay awake thinking I should have done this or done that…but what I’ve learned is, it’s not going to change. Tomorrow morning will still come. The day will still bring what it brings. So there’s no point stressing about it.
Actually, this role is less stressful than previous roles I’ve had. My stress now is more self-imposed. Meaning, am I doing enough to contribute to the mission? In a MNC if you don’t deliver every 90 days that’s a failure. The markets are hit. Here it’s: should I have done it faster, worked with more people, done more? I also have the Singapore government backing me and supporting the mission.
If founders say that their chances of success were increased because of something that the SGInnovate team did, then I think it’s worth striving for.
Q. At the EmTech Asia conference last year, you voiced an important concern, “Do we have the ability to embark on something we don’t have the answer to, that almost certainly won’t work the way that we hoped?” Do we have the answer to that question today?
(pauses) The short answer is no, we don’t. I mean, the reality is that it’s difficult for almost any environment to take on challenges in which the answer is unknown in the beginning. Some places can do it, while some places have to do it. In markets like Israel, it’s not a question of whether the answer to water, cyber or crypto is known. These are crises to be confronted quickly, and the luxury to think about the issues is not available. These have to be solved.
In other markets, it’s more of – we’d love to improve healthcare and traffic etc. But are we willing to start on that journey not knowing where this is going to lead us? And it might lead us into directions that are uncomfortable or problematic. That’s what we aspire to do; taking risks on a journey, not knowing.
Q. Doesn’t Singapore seem more unwilling to take that risk, as opposed to Japan or South Korea?
I think it’s based more on location than on geography. Singapore was built by people taking risk and doing different things. It was built by innovation. Fifty-sixty years ago, Singapore had huge breakthroughs: the HDB plans, the MRT, reclaiming land from sea and building tunnels in that land.
Think of it like climbing a mountain. If you’ve climbed the top, there’s a long way to fall down. If you’re at the bottom, there’s not very far down to fall. You only have to take a look at history to see that every region has gone through its own time of triumph and decline. The Roman empire at one point of time was a world leader in health and education…so I don’t like it when people think of it as Singapore is innovative or not. With the luxury of success comes comfort and if you’re comfortable, human nature is likely to take less risk!
Q. The thing with Singapore though is, it seems to be in this awkward position. A developed economy sitting amidst emerging markets.
Well it is definitely different than in Europe, where a proof-of-concept in one country can be extrapolated to most of the neighbouring countries. But for Singapore, the adjacency to Asian neighbourhoods is also an opportunity. We have a better understanding of surrounding economies than someone from North America or Europe. We know best to be able to build and serve some of these markets. Take a look at Gojek- their biggest investors are in Singapore. Of course, this doesn’t mean that if it works here it’s going to work everywhere. But if we don’t think of it as an advantage, we are wasting our time.
Q. And why are we focusing so heavily on commercialising deep technology?
For me it’s a simple thing. It was a gap we identified in the market. We felt that Singapore put in a huge amount of effort and investment in research and education. All these things were big investments. Deep tech wasn’t some sort of magical answer. It just wasn’t happening in the way we thought it could. Entrepreneur First (EF) and Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) were important partnerships. We realised that we don’t need to support areas that are already served by the market, such as e-commerce startups. Once the ball starts rolling, we can get out of the way.
We want to be a part of problems that the world will benefit from those as compared to say, online retail sites.
Q. Why should a research-backed company come to SG Innovate and not any other accelerator?
Anyone can go anywhere. Every place has something unique to offer. We are the Government so we have certain capabilities and access to resources. But we also act in a private sector sort of way. We are linked to professional organisations, such as EF, and we have a dedicated fund to invest in companies. We try to strike this balance.
We do cool stuff and are always trying to do things that lift the community and individual founders. We try to work with people that are trying to start a company and figure out what we can do that adds most value to a particular company.
Q. What is the one piece of advice you’d give first-time entrepreneurs?
Work with somebody that has something to offer you. I’m a strong believer in the EF message of working in a team. Work with like-minded individuals who can offer helpful guidance and feedback. There are a lot of experienced people in Singapore who would love to offer valuable insights.
Q. Why are teams so important?
Everything in life has to happen in teams. My wife and I have been in a team, we have had so many adventures and raised kids together. I couldn’t go through it alone. I couldn’t do SGInnovate without a team. Even when you look at EF, we always talk about Matt and Alice, Alex and Anne Marie. It’s never just Alice or just Matt.
Q. What is your vision for the Singapore tech landscape five years from now?
I want us to be more curious, confident and courageous. Singapore has consistently been an academically excellent place, and we have to now move towards trying things that might not work. A lot of this depends on mindset. Today when a new idea is suggested, someone in the government says this is not worthwhile. Someone in the private sector says Singapore won’t be able to build anything. The entrepreneur says maybe I should move to San Francisco because people might love me more there. That needs to change.