The Finlab’s successes and challenges: key learnings from the oldest of Singapore’s Fintech corporate accelerators
Almost every bank in Singapore has its own acceleration programme today. UOB (United Overseas Bank) was the first bank to launch a full-fledged accelerator programme in November 2015: The FinLab. To know more about the objective, challenges and results of the program, we’ve interviewed Felix Tan, Managing Director of The FinLab. He also shares his views on what makes Singapore stand out as a place for Fintech innovation.
The FinLab’s Objective: Catalysing Proof of Concepts
Startups often fail due to a lack of business or inaccurate product-market fit. Hence, The FinLab’s main objective is to help selected startups from around the world get business and conclude Proof of Concepts (PoCs). PoCs are key as they validate the startup’s ideas and test the applicability of their solution for corporate clients. The FinLab sees itself as a facilitator in the space, helping its startups through the accelerator’s two shareholders UOB and SGInnovate as well as via their own networks to provide opportunities which expose startups to business leaders. According to Felix Tan, “the more such interactions take place, the greater the possibility of having PoCs / contracts concluded”. Through success in Singapore, startups are better placed to then springboard into the larger regional markets like Indonesia,Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.
Helping Startups Improve: Selecting & Growing Startup Potential
To select startups for their programme, The FinLab requires that all applications must come complete with slide-decks and a filled-in questionnaire addressing key questions such as the startup’s value proposition, addressable market size and the expertise of the team. Shortlisted candidates are then interviewed via face-to-face or Skype meetings. Once satisfied, The FinLab’s mentors score the shortlisted startups, and the top 30 are then invited to come for Selection Days in Singapore – an intensive 3-day session culminating in a 20-minute presentation-cum-question-and-answer session with The FinLab Selection Committee. The ones that impressed the Selection Committee the most are then offered a place in the programme, with typically 8 to 10 companies per run. During the three month programme, companies are mentored by domain experts in technology, venture capital, soft skills like sales and presentation, as well as senior bankers from UOB. “Thankfully, the teams that have participated in both our programmes so far have been very receptive to the feedback they received. Where necessary, they have pivoted or strengthened their offerings, including how they communicate their value propositions more impactfully,” explains Felix Tan.
Challenges Faced: Managing Risk and Alignment of Objectives
“(However) the bigger challenges (for The FinLab) lie in how the objectives of both the Financial Institutions and that of the fintech businesses can be better aligned since they may be at odds. For example, in terms of support, should financial institutions stick to the “safe, tested and true” by giving contracts to the major tech companies, or work with startups with really innovative solutions and risk blow-ups that can affect their reputation?”
Success Stories : Blockchain Diplomas and Messaging App Fund Transfers
Felix Tan also highlighted two success stories from their efforts at The FinLab. “We (have) helped Attores – through our involvement in the PolyFintech 100 programme, a programme geared at nurturing a pool of skilled manpower to develop Singapore as a Smart Financial Centre, secure a PoC with Ngee Ann Polytechnic”. Ngee Ann Polytechnic, one of Singapore’s tertiary polytechnic schools, is now piloting a programme to issue diplomas via the blockchain. Their PoC with Singaporean digital certificate startup Attores uses a private Ethereum Blockchain software to support the certifications in order to protect student data and speed up the process of employers verifying the degrees of potential hires. “Another example is PayKey which partnered with UOB to enable funds transfer via social messaging apps; the first in Southeast Asia.” In July, the bank introduced UOB MyKey, a mobile keyboard for Android smartphones, for customers to pay – and be paid – on social messaging apps. The system is also compatible with popular peer to peer e-commerce apps like Carousell, making it a lot easier for Singaporeans to pay for items on these marketplaces.
Article From Innovation is everywhere
Mankind’s first spaceport, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, was founded by the Soviets in 1955. Its location in Kazakhstan was chosen for its low latitude, sparse population density, railroad access, and proximity to water supplies, all factors needed to launch an unwieldy rocket into space. Still in use today, Baikonur is a testament to how success often hinges on starting with the right place.
In many ways, aspiring fintech startups face a similar problem. Finding the right country to launch one’s brainchild can mean the difference between it becoming a star and a firework. This article aims to narrow down the options, and discuss the merits of Singapore as a launch pad for fintech startups.
Centers of gravity
For a budding fintech, one of the first considerations should be country of launch and base, such as global financial centers. Mature financial industries normally seek out cutting edge solutions to achieve productivity growth. Also, their larger flows provide more opportunities for value creation, fostering a rich fintech space. In contrast, developing counterparts can rely on acquiring unbanked customers and climbing the visible value chain for growth, reducing the urgency for fintech adoption. Hence, financial hubs allow fintech startups to plug into a larger network of potential partners and customers. Coupled with robust infrastructure and business environments, they are prime locations for fintechs to get started.
There are two salient exceptions to this. First, fintech innovation may happen concurrently with development. Some developing countries, notably Thailand, are relatively advanced in their adoption of fintech, and have popular startups such as Piggipo that are gaining widespread traction. However, this is normally within the confines of a localized financial industry. These solutions tend to be developed by locals, who have a better grasp of customer preferences, and hence their success cannot be easily replicated across markets. A fintech startup with international ambitions might do better launching in a cosmopolis, building an edge driven by technology, business model, or concept.
In addition, fintechs focused on financial inclusion might do better launching directly in developing markets. This would provide closer access to unbanked customers, and strengthen partnerships with local banks and regulatory bodies. This is particularly relevant for countries like Indonesia, where their large markets are able to sustain a niche, culture specific solution. Still, even amongst this category, some might prefer to roll out their solution through partnerships with international banks to borrow brand legitimacy. The natural choice would then be to seek out large players at financial hubs.
Different pads, different planets
In selecting amongst financial centers, it is beneficial to consider one’s target market. Financial centers are generally best integrated with their own regions – US, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore with North America, Europe, China and South East Asia respectively. Preferably, one’s business model and value proposition should interact well with the region’s characteristics. For example, startups dealing in cross currency exchanges should be mindful of cross-border capital flows restrictions in North Asia. These could cripple a business with bureaucracy should they be managed inappropriately.
In addition, the merits of the country itself should be assessed. Notably, market forces can only reward good ideas if two factors are in place. First, political support is vital to enable fintechs to navigate a sea of financial regulations. Without a cooperative regulatory partner, startups are likely to be mired in rules that were designed for traditional banking. Second, capital availability grants fintechs more opportunities to raise funds, which allows businesses to expand operations and build credibility. Startups may also opt to fundraise with accelerator programmes, which can provide the added benefit of business mentorship and networks.
To expand on these points, we zoom into Singapore, which has become increasingly attractive to fintech startups as a launch pad.
Space bound from Singapore
Singapore is both a sensible and easy place to set up a fintech. Ranked as Asia’s top financial center by the Global Financial Centers Index 2016, Singapore boasts a highly developed financial system that is well integrated with the ASEAN region. It was touted as the world’s easiest place to do business by the World Bank in 2016 due to a host of factors, including rapid business incorporation and low startup costs. Compounded with a world-class infrastructure and highly skilled workforce, Singapore has many qualifiers as a base of operations for fintech startups.
Moreover, Singapore stands out for several reasons. First, Singapore is well connected to the ASEAN region, being a trusted provider of financial services. ASEAN enjoys high economic growth, with its 2015 bloc GDP growth of 5.9% outpacing most developed regions. Also, ASEAN, comprising separated markets at varying stages of development, has a great diversity of problems that require solutions. The unbanked, wealth managers, and migrant workers across the region all face different pain points that can potentially be solved by fintech.
Second, the Singapore government has a clear direction to attract fintech startups in its bid to transform the nation into a smart financial centre. Statutory boards offer grants and industry support, whilst regulators work closely with fintech startups to enable their business development. The government puts its money where its mouth is; in 2015 the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) committed S$225 million to growing the fintech startup ecosystem in Singapore. Known for its political stability, Singapore is a place where fintech startups are given every opportunity that is possible to succeed.
Finally, Singapore offers fintech startups diverse opportunities for funding. Numerous venture capitalists, government grants and financial institutions in the country are on the lookout for strong solutions to harness. There are also many accelerator programmes that seek to boost startups, often providing entrepreneurship workshops, business networks and all-rounded mentorship. With a range of business enablers, fintech startups in Singapore are likely to be constrained only be the size of their ideas.
A rocket’s takeoff is an incredible feat. It must overcome the earth’s gravity, withstanding the immense heat and pressure of its liftoff. Fintech startups, in planning to do the same, should pick a place that maximizes its probability of success. And, whilst there are several strong options to consider, it is not difficult to see why fintech startups worldwide come to Singapore to shoot for the stars.
Image by ZUU online Singapore
The startup scene is undeniably flourishing in Singapore, especially in the fintech (financial technology) sector. The ecosystem for fintech is incredibly conducive in Singapore since it is a developed nation and the financial hub for ASEAN. In fact, fintech is so well-received here that there is even a fintech festival happening this November. That is why many of the best fintech startups in Asia like to make Singapore their base.
Fintech startups have the necessary resources in Singapore to achieve success. There are plenty of incubators, accelerator programmes and funding available. There is no better time to bring your startup into Singapore than now.
One of the accelerator programmes in Singapore that is fairly new but has already garnered a lot of interest in the fintech startup landscape is The FinLab. The FinLab is a leading corporate accelerator programme started by UOB and Infocomm Investments. Led by Felix Tan, managing director of The FinLab, the programme is the highest calibre of its kind.
Felix comes with an illustrious career in finance, bringing only the best to The FinLab. He has worked for two banks (one international, one local), established his own startup (which then went on to be valued at US$100 million in October 1999), raised and managed a private equity fund of US$20 million, been an angel investor, mentored startups through NTU Ventures (now known as NTUitive) and the list goes on. He’s run the full gamut, which makes him the prime candidate to head The FinLab.
The FinLab was established in November last year and Felix joined them in December.
How to make your fintech startup stand out
There is a lot of hype surrounding fintech startups in the world. There are many startups with plenty to offer but whether or not these ideas can be adopted and adapted by banks, is another question.
It is competitive to get accepted into an accelerator programme in the first place, especially one like The FinLab.
“There are a lot of people jumping on to the fintech bandwagon, but after a while, market forces will separate the men from the boys,” Felix says. “The stronger players will get funding and smaller players may get bought out if their technology is good or just die out.”
“Once the dust has settled, the remaining players will grow really big mainly because the banks will be working with them,” he adds.
These are some things Felix says you need to know if you want to be the best fintech startup in Asia:
1. The new ROIs
ROI, or Return on Investment, should no longer be the standard companies (including startups) look at nowadays as a measure of success.
“ROI is a backward looking indicator. There are 3 things you should be paying attention to first – information, ideas and innovation – because these are forward looking indicators,” he advises.
With so much information out there, the challenge now is the ability to filter out things that are non-essential and see what patterns emerge.
“The ability to identify future trends from this information will help you to formulate what needs to be done to capture and ride these trends – and these will be the ideas you generate. So, the 1st ROI is the return on information – and that will be where ideas are generated.
Ideas remain ideas until they are pulled out from your head and made real, and when they become real, that’s innovation. So, innovation is the return on ideas – the 2nd ROI. When we innovate and succeed (or not), that is when we see the return on investment,” Felix adds.