By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions, and by 2030 the global demand for fresh water could exceed the supply by 40 per cent, according to the United Nations. Finding solutions that will help to meet this pressing need is both a social imperative and a huge commercial opportunity.

With sustainable water supply increasingly becoming a global concern, it is perhaps not surprising that Singapore, a city-state with more than 5.5 million residents packed into a small and resource-constrained island, has positioned itself at the forefront of innovations that could help to reduce the pressure.

“The result of Singapore positioning water as a vital resource has created unique innovation and economic opportunities,” says Nimesh Modak, Vice-President of strategy and business development at Imagine H2O, a California-based water-tech accelerator which introduced its inaugural Singapore programme in 2018.

Modak says that Singapore’s willingness to embrace new technologies to address its own needs has created a perfect environment for innovators and start-ups in the space. The country has invested heavily in the infrastructure for research and technology startups, while the national water utility, PUB, is embracing innovation and provides a natural test-bed for new solutions. Even though the domestic market is relatively small, it provides a valuable test-bed for technologies that could be scaled up across Asia.

Imagine H2O is looking to support innovations ranging from desalination and wastewater treatment to new financial products that could help fund new infrastructure development. The company is working with Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that champions enterprise development in the country, to identify tech startups with the potential to turn their innovations into enterprises that could have a regional impact.

“The vision for our programme is to use those unique ingredients in the Singapore ecosystem to support startups that can leverage those resources… to develop [products and services] for the wider region,” Modak says. “All startups do appreciate that Singapore’s market often lies beyond its borders—to scale you need to go outside eventually. Singapore’s regional connectivity in other sectors is well established—whether it’s financial services or biotech or transportation. IH2O Asia and our partners want to further leverage the same regional connectivity and apply it to water.”

Besides water innovation, Singapore has invested in other solutions related to infrastructure and energy to address urban challenges. This ranges from energy generation for sustainability and efficiency to transport and public health. This has also drawn in innovators, investors and incubators from around the world looking to use the country as a springboard to the rest of the region.

For example, Emerald Technology Ventures, a Zurich-headquartered venture capital firm that has invested in more than 60 startups in advanced materials, water, energy, agriculture and industrial IT, has launched a Singapore programme. ETV hopes to back at least 10 Singapore companies over the next two years, from water treatment and monitoring technologies to broader ‘cleantech’ solutions, including waste logistics and recycling, building efficiency and automation and renewable energy.

“We value [Singapore’s] strategic location in terms of proximity to major markets, a stable regulatory environment, presence of multinational corporates, top class research institutes fuelling innovation and leading global investors. The government’s interest to push sustainable solutions provides support schemes and an attractive local test bed for promising solutions,” Helge Daebel, the company’s investment director, says.

As Daebel says, the presence of major multinational companies provides an additional advantage to startups.

“Startups and multinationals have complementary strengths and assets. When combined correctly, we believe that both can enhance each other and lead to more value creation overall,” says Quentin Vaquette, Managing Director of ENGIE Factory, the strategic venture arm of the multinational energy company ENGIE.

Co-working space in the ENGIE Factory APAC

ENGIE will move its Asia-Pacific headquarters to Singapore in 2019, and announced plans to invest S$80 million over the next five years in Singapore to develop its Centre of Expertise for District Cooling and to drive digital initiatives and technical competencies in energy efficiency for the region.

Vaquette says that the company looks for startups that have found new ways to solve old problems, and works with them to help them scale up their solutions.

“Singapore is a leading startup hub in Asia-Pacific, with strong deeptech expertise with roots in R&D and a strong government support in enabling entrepreneurship. The result is an increasingly vibrant community of entrepreneurs, investors and corporates who seek collaboration. For any budding entrepreneur or startup, Singapore is a good launchpad to the region and beyond,” Vaquette says. “The influx of energy and smart city startups here presents an opportunity for multinational companies to collaborate on ground-breaking solutions with startups. By playing an active role, multinationals will benefit from greater innovation and efficiency, while accelerating the pace of change towards being a more decarbonised, decentralised and digitalised world.”

More from this series

Switch On To Singapore

Where the world’s bright ideas take root

Singapore to Silicon Valley

Startups are bridging ties between the two cities

The Eureka Seekers

Meet the startup innovators venturing onto the global stage

Springboard to Asia

A launchpad for startups to grow

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