Meet the startup innovators venturing onto the global stage
When Anthony Chow, a 26-year-old Singaporean graduated from Stanford in 2013, he went straight into the workforce, landing himself a role as a data scientist at one of Singapore’s large communications companies. At the same time, though, he and several of his friends were dabbling as Airbnb hosts.
As they tried to grow their sideline business, they came upon a common problem shared by many Airbnb hosts—that the process of checking guests in and out and managing access to properties was cumbersome. They set out to find a solution, eventually moving to the US and launching their business, Igloohome, which develops smart locks for rental properties.
After going through an incubator programme in New York, and trialling their solution with Airbnb hosts, they launched their first commercial-ready product in April 2016—a smart lock whose keycode can be changed remotely by a property-owner. Today, their system is fully integrated with Airbnb itself, along with other holiday rental platforms. They have more than 60 distributors serving clients in more than 90 countries.
“The space for smart access is growing at a triple digit rate year-on-year,”
“Vacation rental is a nice beachhead to get into the smart home space… and as we align ourselves with the sharing economy, property developers that want to build co-working spaces and co-living spaces are approaching us.”
Igloohome is now back in Singapore, where it has been growing steadily. With support from Singapore’s government agency championing enterprise development, Enterprise Singapore, Igloohome is also able to push on with product development. In 2018 it received US$4m in a Series A funding round, led by a Singapore-based venture capital firm, Insignia Ventures. Coming home has also given Igloohome access to major property developers and to companies, both local and global, who are using Singapore as a test-bed for smart city technologies, Chow says.
Igloohome is one of the many Singapore companies exhibiting at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, one of the world’s leading showcases for innovation.
Singapore has become one of Asia’s leading launchpads for technology startups, home to around 100 incubators and accelerators and 150 venture capital firms—making it a vibrant start-up hub. This would not have been possible without the close collaboration between the public and the private sector over the last decade, who have worked together to create a pro-business environment that encourages and enables innovation. This includes establishing the Startup SG brand in 2017, to make it easier for entrepreneurs, startups, mentors and investors to access assistance and connect to each other through a one-stop platform. The city-state has also built links with major innovation hubs around the world including the US, Germany and Japan to support the co-creation of innovation and ideas and to enable more information exchange amongst businesses.
That ecosystem has attracted companies from around the region, including uHoo, which was launched in Hong Kong by two MBA students, Dustin Jefferson Onghanseng and Brian Lin. Onghanseng and Lin suffered from allergies and asthma as a result of poor air quality in their university buildings. Their company, launched in 2014, offers smart air quality monitors that allow companies and homeowners to monitor the levels of pollutants and impurities in the air that they breathe.
They have enterprise and retail customers in more than 50 countries, and moved the business to Singapore to take advantage of its pro-business environment, and to gain access to the capital and connections that the city offers.
“When we did our seed round we moved to Singapore and built our headquarters here.
uHoo exhibited at CES for the first time in 2019, and used the event as a platform to source new distributors for its product in the US market.
Alongside uHoo, fellow Singaporean company Charaku launched a more quintessentially Southeast Asian product — the latest version of its home karaoke suite.
Charaku’s Popsical is the product of co-founder Faruq Marican’s lifelong love affair with karaoke. “My parents were really into it, we got our first set when I was only a child,” he says. “Whenever family came over we would gather around a television and sing.”
Returning to Singapore after a long spell in the US, Marican found that the technology used in karaoke lounges and in homes had barely moved on. “Even though this is something that hundreds of thousands, or millions of people do every day in Southeast Asia, there was just not a technological solution for it,” he says.
Popsical is a home entertainment system that recreates Marican’s childhood experiences of karaoke, with an intuitive user interface and at a price point that makes it accessible to average households. In Las Vegas, the company launched the ‘Remix’, a second generation of the product.
Charaku received support from Enterprise Singapore, as well as backing from Mediapreneur, a startup incubator programme operated by Mediacorp, a Singapore-based media and entertainment company.
Charaku’s next step will be to expand across Southeast Asia to tap the huge, karaoke-loving consumer markets on its doorstep—and in the longer term to break into markets in the US and Europe.
“I think entrepreneurs need to keep that in mind,” Marican says. “We’re building for Singapore right now, but we just have to keep in mind that our product has to have at least a regional and eventually global appeal to succeed.”
Singapore’s open economy and position on the edge of growth markets has helped to establish it as a gateway to the ASEAN region, but for companies looking to build global tech brands. With multinational companies and government agencies backing technology initiatives, from incubators to wide-ranging ‘smart city’ programmes, the island has become a springboard for innovators. As Igloohome’s Anthony Chow says: “Even though our [domestic] market may be small, you have to think global from the beginning.”
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