As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the global economy, financing nosedived in Southeast Asia, where there was a 13% drop in the amount of capital invested in the region compared to the same period of 2019, while the total numbers of deals declined by 15%, according to research by Cento Ventures.
The pandemic has complicated the fundraising process for many startups and venture capital firms, Jeffrey Seah, managing partner of Singapore-based Quest Ventures, told KrASIA. He explained that COVID-19 can be seen as a stress test for the region’s startups.
Even during the pandemic, Quest Ventures, which has injected capital in the likes of Carousell, Shopback, 99.co, and Carro, has managed to invest and raise funds in the burgeoning Southeast Asian market, Seah affirmed.
“Fundraising was extremely tough, but a lot of angel investors joined our Asian Fund I investments round. When it comes to Fund II, individual investors came in with a much bigger check size. There were four to five funds from north Asian countries who wanted to give us checks in excess of eight digits. But we couldn’t do the due diligence, as none of us could visit each other in person,” Seah said.
The VC firm announced the first close of its USD 50 million Asia Fund II in April, counting Temasek-owned Pavilion Capital and Kazakhstan sovereign wealth fund QazTech Ventures as its two institutional investors.
Quest Venture has since made its foray into Kazakhstan, the largest economy in Central Asia. In June, it kicked off an accelerator program in Kazakhstan to dive into the landlocked country’s growing tech ecosystem and connect local startups to the global market. Quest Ventures recently led a USD 750,000 funding round in Kazakhstan-based HR tech platform Clockster, a cloud-based system to coordinate employees’ work schedules across different time zones.
KrASIA recently spoke with Seah on the investment behind Clockster and the market potential of Central Asia for the next two to three years.
The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): What is the rationale behind investing in Clockster? What is the potential you see in Kazakhstan?
Jeffrey Seah (JS): If you look at the map, Kazakhstan is a big country with 20 million people. All businesses have to learn to manage their staff across a huge region, and Clockster is one of the tools they use. We see how this technology is helping local companies manage the performance of their staff while providing development support.
QazTech Ventures came to us and wanted to understand Southeast Asia. They wanted to partner with us to open a new market into Southeast Asia for Central Asia and Kazakhstan firms.
Kr: Since COVID-19 made fundraising tougher, how have startups reacted to the pandemic?
JS: Startups are generally very intrigued and welcome us. During COVID, we received a lot more propositions from startups looking for mergers and acquisitions. Many of these startups were either running out of cash, dying, or developing good technology but at the wrong time, so their VCs could not support them. As a result, many of them ended up coming to us, which was a validation of our experience.
Kr: Are we going to see more Southeast Asian startups going public next year? How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting companies’ interest in listing on stock markets?
JS: Stock markets in Southeast Asia have lower exposure to technology firms and to American and Chinese investors. Still, there are many companies that will file for IPOs in Southeast Asia. The problem is that very few people understand what’s inside Southeast Asia. They think that Southeast Asia is big, with 700 million people, and then they find that it is hard to find consistency.
When it comes to companies going public, there are some “rubbish companies” that go up on Nasdaq and then disappear, which sends a bad message to retail investors. It is so unfair to other companies in Southeast Asia, as investors may say no to newcomers. We need quality IPOs.
The last two years of the Trump administration have helped Southeast Asia a lot, but they also destroyed multilateralism. However, that showcased one strength of Southeast Asia, because the region has always supported multilateralism. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) allows people to move around, while people can do many things via apps like Grab and Carousell.
Kr: What will the investment climate look like in Southeast Asia and Central Asia in the next two to three years?
JS: After nine months of COVID-19 and with the vaccine coming soon, the learning phase for the world will go on for the next one and a half year. Big corporate companies that have survived the pandemic will acquire aggressively, because those who have money will buy everything. I would bet that companies able to survive are the ones equipped with good technology.
Meanwhile, there will be a lot of corporate guys trying to build new capabilities. This will be the best time to acquire new capabilities, or even talents. You could get a bunch of talents with a fairer price compared to a year ago, so there’ll be a lot of streamlining and equity acquisitions, which also mean that startups’ founders will level up and raise the quality of their people. COVID is a period of market validation for startups’ business models. It makes it easier for VCs like us to assess their go-to-market viability. They will be able to maintain their valuations if they thrive during this period. We look to invest in such businesses.