Content Videos > SME Series
16 Mar 2022

Innovation Programme Helps SMEs Profit While Helping To Sustain The Planet

SMEs in Singapore consider sustainability important to their business
Michael Chang, Content STudio
PUBLISHED MAR 13, 2022, 4:00 AM SGT

About 60 per cent of local SMEs consider sustainability – based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors – important to their business, according to UOB’s SME Outlook Study 2022. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

When Mr Alex Tham, 48, started his cleaning and sanitation company Trust Cleanz Initiative in 2011, he was confronted with a critical factor: How much electricity and water his business used –  and its impact on clients’ utility bills

“We recognised the pitfalls associated (with its over-dependence on utilities) and sought to ensure minimal wastage, from both a financial and environmental standpoint, moving forward,” says Mr Tham, the company’s founder and director.

Today, with the world gripped by soaring oil prices and threats to water security, his decision to find innovative ways to cut back on its overuse is ever more critical.

Since September 2021, soaring energy prices – driven by increased global demand, cold weather-related production outages and disruptions to Singapore’s piped natural gas supply from Indonesia – have left consumers and businesses reeling.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is likely to heighten fears of more disruption and uncertainty.

“With the sanctions being imposed on Russia by various countries and the disruption to supplies, global prices of energy and other products are set to rise in the coming weeks,” said Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Trade and Industry, during the Budget debate in Parliament.

Trust Cleanz had already switched to using machines that are more energy efficient. “We also train our staff to be more conscious and aware of water and energy usage,” says Mr Tham.

How else can Mr Tham ensure that his staff are equipped with the right tools and solutions to perform their work in a more sustainable manner? “While we were aware of the need to go green, we were unsure of how to get started,” he admits.

The solution: The Sustainability Innovation Programme (SIP) – a five-week programme designed by UOB’s innovation accelerator, The FinLab, that helps small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) transform their companies into sustainable businesses.

Finding green solutions

Mr Tham is not alone in his quest for business sustainability.

“The concept of sustainability has been a growing area of interest among SMEs, especially in the last few years,” says Mr Shannon Lung, Head of UOB’s The FinLab. “This isn’t surprising, given the global focus on sustainability and the recent Budget 2022 announcement on progressive carbon taxes.”

UOB’s SME Outlook Study 2022 found that 60 per cent of local SMEs consider sustainability – based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors – important to their business.

By the numbers

  • 99 per cent
    SMEs make up 99 per cent of all enterprises in Singapore in 2020, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics
  • ​​43 per cent
    …of SMEs in Singapore cite insufficient knowledge as a major barrier in implementing sustainable practices, according to UOB’s SME Outlook Study 2022
  • More than 400
    …SMEs have participated in the Sustainability Innovation Programme, launched by UOB’s The FinLab in September 2021

But, like Trust Cleanz, many SMEs struggle with the know-how – how to go green or access green solutions, Mr Lung says. There is also a perception that going green is costly.

That’s where The FinLab’s SIP can help.

The SIP has three core pillars: Educate, Evaluate, and Execute. Over the course of five weeks, The FinLab’s SMEs are educated about different areas of sustainability and financing, exposed to a range of available tech solutions, and are guided toward successful execution of these practices.

“We also follow up with participating SMEs to find out how their journey has been post-programme, and if they have implemented any sustainable practices and solutions,” says Mr Lung.

Mr Tham seized the opportunity to kickstart his company’s sustainability journey when found out about the SIP. “We recognise the need to do more in the realm of environmental sustainability, and we are excited to learn from industry experts,” he says.We recognise the need to do more in the realm of environmental sustainability, and we are excited to learn from industry experts. MR ALEX THAM, founder and director, Trust Cleanz Initiative

Embracing sustainability

Mr Tham’s journey with the SIP began with learning more about best practices in the sustainability realm, followed by an analysis of his specific requirements for Trust Cleanz.

Once that was done, The FinLab helped to identify and connect Mr Tham with greentech solution partners that best suit his needs.

The greentech solution partners were chosen based on their track record, clientele, and product-market fit to ensure they are SME-ready, says UOB The FinLab’s Mr Lung.

While Mr Tham is still in discussion with several greentech partners, solutions that he is interested in include electric vehicles (EVs) and green energy.

As a cleaning service provider, Trust Cleanz’s employees frequently travel between locations to provide cleaning services. EVs could help its employees travel in a greener way.

Since EVs run on electricity, they produce no tailpipe emissions, unlike their gasoline-powered counterparts. A 2020 study by US-based non-profit organisation Consumer Reports also found that EV owners in the US spend 60 per cent less to power their vehicles, compared to traditional car owners.

While EVs do have a higher upfront cost, a combination of governmental rebates – such as the Electric Vehicle Early Adoption Incentive scheme launched in 2021 – and flexible financing can help SMEs get started.

One example is UOB’s U-Drive, which provides SMEs with a comprehensive suite of solutions, including flexible financing for their electric vehicles, low upfront investment for charging equipment and an expedited approval process.

Another greentech solution showcased in the programme is SP Group’s Green Energy Tech (GET), which is a suite of solutions to help SMEs improve energy efficiency, indoor occupant comfort and sustainability efforts.

It includes GET Insights, a solution that provides an integrated view of all utility consumption of a business, by using existing data sources as well as installing extra sensors to better understand the utility usage.

It can also be used to maximise the use of renewable energy, mitigate the issue of grid constraints, and bring down the total cost of energy.

By integrating greentech solutions into Trust Cleanz’s business, Mr Tham hopes that Trust Cleanz can help clients reduce energy costs by up to 10 per cent.

He is excited about realising the full potential of sustainability. “With guidance from the SIP by The FinLab, we feel better equipped to embrace our sustainability journey while planning for long-term growth.”

Powering sustainability with tech

Founded in 2015, The FinLab is UOB’s innovation accelerator, bringing the ecosystem together to catalyse business growth and transformation. The FinLab’s Sustainability Innovation Programme aims to help SMEs become more sustainable through three steps:

1. Educate: Teach SMEs about the fundamentals of sustainability for businesses

2. Evaluate: Help them assess and identify gaps in their businesses, according to global sustainability standards

3. Execute: Introduce SMEs to relevant greentech solutions and connecting them with solution providers

The Future of Finance is a series that explores how digital solutions can empower individuals and businesses, creating a smarter, more sustainable world.

This is the second of a five-part series in partnership with UOB

21 Jan 2022

Success Story: How Ecosystem Cooperation Keeps The Digitalisation Momentum Going

Key takeaways:

  • Thailand’s digital industry is projected to rise by double digits this year, boosted by a robust digital service sector to meet consumer behaviour shifts.  
  • Concerted efforts by the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA) and the private sector have accelerated technology adoption, delivering impressive benefits to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers.
  • The Smart Business Transformation Programme (SBTP) matches SMEs with providers, enabling mutual growth for both SMEs and solution providers.

According to the Digital Economy Promotion Agency’s (DEPA) Thailand Digital Industry 2020 survey, the Thai digital service industry is projected to hit double-digit growth this year, a significant 10 per cent jump from the past few years.  This comes as the number of Thai consumers using e-commerce platforms increased by 35 per cent over the past 12 months, driven by  a work-from-home lifestyle during COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are currently 3.17 million SMEs in Thailand and they account for 30 per cent of the Thai GDP. To further strengthen the Thai digital economy, it is vital that the ecosystem enables stronger cooperation between the public and private sectors.

Importance of mutual cooperation

As a government agency, DEPA, is responsible for promoting digitalisation and has taken a key role in educating, providing funding and assisting entrepreneurs to get started on digitalisation. The agency provides comprehensive measures, including financial support for technology adoption and implementation, and standardisation of application and intellectual property registration, to make digital transformation more manageable for businesses across all sectors. 

However, SMEs still struggle to realise impact on its business. Statistics from the Department of Industry Promotion’s recent survey revealed that 13.74 per cent of SMEs cited technology and innovation development as one of the top challenges they face.  This is despite a recent UOB ASEAN SME Transformation study showing that 71 percent of SMEs ranked technology investment as their top priority.

This is where the private sector fills the gap.

Support from the private sector has come in many forms,from subsidising technology solutions, creating online ‘marketplaces’ for SMEs to gain insight into the latest solutions available and funding accelerators targeted at supporting SMEs to achieve sustainable growth post-COVID-19. 

UOB is among many organisations who play an active role in helping SMEs transform their business. The Smart Business Transformation Programme (SBTP), a collaboration between UOB, The FinLab, depa, the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and the Office of SMEs Promotion (OSMEP), was initiated to match appropriate and innovative technology solutions to the needs of SMEs. 

Since the programme’s inception in 2019, there has been almost 600 technology adoptions by SMEs and these include Anymind Group, an agency that offers digital marketing solutions, Zaviago, an e-commerce solution, UOB’s BizSmart, a comprehensive selection of back-end operations solutions.     

In bringing together an ecosystem, impact can be felt by both the suppliers of the solution and demand from businesses.  

An SME perspective – Getting The Help Needed    

IQLab, an imaging and printing studio, joined the SBTP in 2021 to accelerate its family business’ transformation into a modern technology driven organisation. “For 36 years, my parents documented everything manually,” said Ms Nantanat Chiaramaneetaweesin, IQ Lab’s Business Director. “As a second-generation business owner, I faced a big challenge in transforming my business into a modern one. I know where the problems are, but I struggled to find where to begin, especially in seeking solutions to address these problems.” 

Chiaramaneetaweesin’s story is not the only one. Ms Nattakarn Wuttianan, Managing Director of Oklin, a distributor of machines that turn food waste into compost, shared that her challenge was about getting access to the right solution. Oklin’s database was not well managed and the operations and sales teams found it difficult to follow-up with their clients.

Through the programme, IQ Lab was connected with TRCloud, a cloud-based operations solution, and Oklin was matched with Venio, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool.  

“The SBTP helped us shorten the time to find a solution provider that can address our challenge. With the usage of Venio, we have a central database that enables us to manage our clients, schedule follow-ups and have an overview of the sales cycle. This has allowed us to better control our operational flow and provide better service to our customers. ,” said Wuttianan. For IQ Lab, TRCloud helped to revamp their operational processes by digitising their inventory and sales processes, and reducing the number of man days.

A Tech Provider Perspective – Visibility to Many Potential Customers

Mr Jutiphan Mongkolsuthreet, Chief Executive Officer of Gofive, the parent company of Venio, said, “Through our participation in the programme, Gofive has had the opportunity to meet with prospective customers, both domestic and international.” The company has since seena 20 per cent increase in the number of SMEs adopting its solution in the first year after joining the SBTP. 

Similarly, Robolingo, developer of Zwiz AI, an AI chatbot and analytics tools for businesses, also experienced a significant increase in its solution adoption by SMEs within the first year of participating in the programme. Mr Chanakarn Chinchatchawal, CEO, Robolingo, said, “We doubled the number of customers we had by being a technology solution provider under depa and SBTP’s network. Since then, we have had more SMEs reach out to us due to the credibility of the SBTP programme that we participated in.” He added that it was through guidance from both depa and The FinLab, and being able to hear first hand from the SMEs they met in the programme about their needs, that they started offering a free trial for their solution. “We realised that SMEs were more open to take it up once their trial period ends. Wealso learnt to adapt to better cater to different SMEs needs,” said Chinchatchawal.

Continuing digitalisation and cooperation efforts Many Potential Customers

With mutual growth experienced by both technology solution providers and SMEs, UOB and depa have agreed to continue the cooperation through the SBTP.

“Encouraging SMEs to adopt technology in their businesses is part of driving Thailand towards a digital economy,” said Mr Chatchai Khunpitiluck, Senior Executive Vice President of depa. “Entrepreneurs across industries will become more reliant on technology, enhancing their ability to grow sustainably and boosting the digital economy as a whole.”  

Ms Sirinun Jiradilok, SVP Digital Engagement & Fintech Innovation, UOB Thailand, said,  “Enabling SMEs to move to digital business platforms is very important, especially in this critical time while COVID-19 continues. Through SBTP, we have observed that SMEs who proactively use digital technology have higher success rate and seize new business opportunities.”  

Thai technology solution providers looking for business opportunities or seeking to make themselves known to SMEs can visit www.facebook.com/uob.th or https://thefinlab.com/th/thailand for more information.  

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