"Creating an entrepreneurial culture is deemed so crucial to this nation's future that the government is matching venture capital investments and teaching kids in grade school how to start their own companies..."
SINGAPORE — Creating an entrepreneurial culture is deemed so crucial to this nation's future that the government is matching venture capital investments and teaching kids in grade school how to start their own companies.
In a country where anything but a straight and narrow path from college to a stable job with a good salary has been anathema, Singapore has spent the last decade building out an infrastructure to help its best and brightest get over their fear of failure so they can launch new companies.
"In the early 2000s the government decided we didn't want to put all our eggs into the foreign investment basket, which means we need to create our own startups," said Edwin Chow, director of planning at SPRING Singapore, an agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry founded in 2003 to promote and support start-ups.
Making that happen requires some cultural shifts in a country steeped in the Confucian tradition of social harmony and knowing ones place, a far cry from the "fail fast, bet big" bravado of the start up world.
"Ten years ago an entrepreneur would never be able to pass 'the mother-in-law test,'" said Chow,"Only people who couldn't get a solid, stable position founded companies. It was the job of last resort. But things are getting brighter," he said.
Today the nation boasts a broad range of government-sponsored initiatives as well as public-private partnerships.They include almost 40 government-supported incubator programs and several programs that match, dollar-for-dollar, any money a start-up gets from the private sector up to $1.5 million, said Chow.
A program at the LaunchPad @ One North, a SPRING-funded start-up incubator, helped Sanjna Parasrampuria found her company, Newcleus, a predictive analytics platform for high-end sales.
She left a 12-year career in banking to found the start-up, to the horror of her family and friends.
"People around me were convinced it was because I was fired and I wasn't getting any other jobs," she said. "Or even temporary insanity."
Her reinvention mirrors that of Singapore, an island nation of just 5.4 million that has been reformulating itself almost continuously since 1965 when it unexpectedly found itself an independent country after it was expelled from Malaysia.
The country focused first on textile manufacturing as a way to get people working, then petrochemicals and later electronics and biotech — all the while investing heavily in education. Today Singapore is consistently ranked as having one of the top school systems in the world.
Unfortunately, all that focus on book learning has had a side effect of creating a risk-adverse population — exactly what Singapore's technocrats want to get away from.
"I was having tea with the Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) one day, and we agreed that the biggest barrier to entrepreneurship is the parents," said Grace Sai, co-founder of The Hub Singapore, a entrepreneurial-minded co-working space that supports 500 start-ups. It raised $1.1 million in a Series A round of funding in June.
"Even when the youngster is passionate and wants to change the world, the family discourages them. They say, 'Get a job, get a salary!'" said Sai.
Fifteen years ago, Singaporeans who wanted to throw caution to the winds tended to flee to Silicon Valley, China or anywhere where taking big risks was considered a good, rather than a bad, idea.
Today, Parasrampuria and her six partners share a tiny desk space at LaunchPad's Block 71, a building the Economist dubbed "the world's most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem."
A joint project of the JTC Corp., a government agency that encourages economic development, and SPRING Singapore, it's a three-building complex with three more buildings slated to open by 2017.
But creating an entrepreneurial culture requires more than just office space, said Michael Goldberg, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, whose expertise is entrepreneurship in transitioning economies.
"What helps is access to funding and access to networks. It's that potent mix that goes on inside, so when you walk down the hallway you run into people who can help you," he said.
Block 71 brims with that vibrancy and connection. The colorfully repurposed factory building from the 1970s offers start-ups space, free Wi-Fi, an atmospheric café and lots of places to hang out and run into others, all amid a decidedly un-Singaporean grittiness.
Walking into the building reveals a world very different from the clean, well-ordered one outside. Singapore is infamous for its Vandalism Act, which can impose mandatory caning on those found guilty of graffiti.
The walls of Block 71 are covered with graffiti, much of it about start-ups. It's a heady and encouraging place for Parasrampuria.
They've gotten cash grants and tax deductions to help them get off the ground, but perhaps more importantly, being in Block 71 gives Parasrampuria a place where being an entrepreneur is celebrated, not condemned.
"When you hit your highs and lows, you have people who understand," she said.
The rest of the world is beginning to pay attention. Norwegian investor William Klippgen has been working in Singapore since 2003. His firm Tigris Capital has done 21 investments so far, and gotten a four times return on money invested, he said, "which compares to the best returns in Silicon Valley.
"It is amazing how a consolidated, high-level effort has been able to kick-start an entrepreneurial culture that is already delivering successful tech companies," Klippgen said.
Chow sees the difference in young people. In 2005 fewer than 10% of college graduates said they wanted to start a business. In 2011 it was 15% and by 2013 it was up to 20%, he said.
The next step is growing Singapore's own venture capital infrastructure. That means getting people over the fear of failure that keeps them from picking themselves up after multiple failed start-ups so they go on to do one that succeeds.
Then, when they strike it rich, they can turn around and start investing in other start-ups and beginning the cycle again.
As that happens, said Chow, "we can bring that idea of paying it forward, which is so common in Silicon Valley, to Singapore."
This article first appeared on USA Today, read it here.