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Entrepreneur First’s Bernadette Cho on her passion to work with deep tech startups in Singapore: Profiles in Tech

Written by Alice Chia Published on 

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Entrepreneur First will unveil the latest Asia 7 cohort soon, including one startup that is exploring alternatives to plastic.

Bernadette Cho has always been passionate in supporting talent. When a role opened up at Entrepreneur First in November 2019, she immediately took it.

As general manager of the Singapore-based Entrepreneur First she now oversees the local office and cohort. The accelerator enables talented people to build deep tech startups from scratch. Cho is confident that these individuals will go on to transform the way we live and work, and wants to help them as best as she can.

Founded in 2011, EF first started in the UK and expanded to Singapore in 2016. It has now set up offices across the world, in Asia, Europe, and North America. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman joined its board in 2017.

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“We want to mine the wealth of ambitious and talented individuals, no matter their location,” said Cho. In an interview with KrASIA, she shared her views about the deep tech space in Singapore, her career journey, and plans for EF Singapore.

KrASIA (Kr): Can you talk about your career so far? How did you end up with Entrepreneur First?

Bernadette Cho (BC): Prior to joining EF, I served as chief-of-staff at Funding Societies. I was also chief-of-staff to the co-founder at Grab and first product marketing hire to grow the function.

I have always been passionate about supporting and enabling talent, and when the role at EF presented itself, I was excited about the opportunity to do this at scale. At EF, we are committed to taking an option on the careers of the world’s most impactful people and help them achieve their fullest potential.

Kr: What is the role of Entrepreneur First and what are the startups that you have invested in? 

BC: Entrepreneur First is the pioneer of the talent investment model. We play a unique and important role in the deep tech ecosystem by focusing on individuals—and not ideas. Our focus is on finding and contributing to the strength and pipeline of deep tech talent to build a community where like-minded and talented individuals can maximize each other’s success.

Since our entry into Asia in 2016, we have helped over 600 co-founders build more than 120 companies across the region. Some of our prominent portfolio companies include SensorFlow, a clean-tech firm, Seppure, which produces nanofiltration technology, Transcelestial in space-tech, Entropica Labs, a quantum computing software company, and Musiio, which provides AI-based music tagging solutions.

Kr: What is your vision for Entrepreneur First and what are future initiatives that we can expect from Entrepreneur First? 

BC: There remains so much untapped potential for us to disrupt in the deep tech industry in Singapore, and to build tech that can scale and compete globally. After all, we are home to some of the most talented and innovative technologists in our region, and A*STAR, our leading research agency, has been named by Reuters as one of the top 5 research institutions in the world. Beyond the consumer unicorns and decacorns that we have seen in the first wave of startups here, there is a huge opportunity for us to strengthen our focus on deep tech and export excellence and new solutions globally.

What I envision for EF in Singapore is for us to continue solidify our standing in the deep tech ecosystem, and sustain the momentum of growth and innovation among our community. We recently launched the Amplifier Network—our talent affiliate and advisor program—to extend our reach, drive deeper connections, and fuel greater collaboration within the deep tech ecosystem.

We are also looking forward to introducing our latest Asia 7 cohort and will soon unveil their companies and innovative solutions. One is exploring alternatives to plastic, which is in line with the ongoing focus on sustainability.

Kr: How does Entrepreneur First pick which startups to invest in? What do you look out for in a startup? 

BC: We focus on finding and funding exceptional individuals even before they have a team or idea. After all, astute investors are more selective when backing new businesses, realizing that the best way to achieve success in venture capital is to invest in talent.

When considering talent, we look for outliers who are smart and skilled. They must also be leaders that can influence others and possess the drive to achieve in their given fields.

One of our core tenets is that finding the right co-founder is crucial, which is why we dedicate the first 14 weeks of our program to help these individuals find the right co-founder and idea. Our founders must split their roles between CEO and CTO, to ensure that their company has both a pronounced focus on deep tech and expertise in business development and growth.

Kr: You have worked in MNCs (LinkedIn) and startups (Grab, Funding Societies). You ran a non-profit and you are also an angel investor. What’s your view on the startup ecosystem in Singapore and Southeast Asia? 

BC: I have had the opportunity to work with different players and key stakeholders across the ecosystem, and what has struck me is the diversity and vibrancy of the startup scene here in Southeast Asia and Singapore. With the region housing some of the best technical talent and universities in the world, and a burgeoning demand from both investors and consumers, it’s no wonder we have seen some extraordinary growth and disruption.

Governments have also been highly supportive, with tech-friendly policy implementations that stimulate innovation and attract investors. COVID-19 has triggered a ripple effect across the global startup ecosystem, and Southeast Asia has not been immune to its shocks. Startups must now contend with a more cautious investor landscape, longer fundraising cycles, and adopt flexible business models to remain operational.

The startup community has demonstrated incredible resilience and a genuine spirit of service. Venture capitalists have stepped up to kickstart funding initiatives and share valuable resources, while deep tech companies have adapted operations to develop novel solutions to combat the virus.

The Singapore government has also committed an additional SGD 285 million to a special start up fund to boost investments and support the community. So while these are by no means easy times, it’s been heartening to see the strength of the startup network, and I am hopeful that the industry will emerge stronger than before.

Kr: What are the common challenges facing young entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia in general, and Singapore in specific? 

BC: Compared to other parts of the world, Southeast Asia remains a relatively new and budding market for deep tech and startups. This means that there are fewer success stories for first-time entrepreneurs to model after or aspire toward. As it stands, entrepreneurship is not a conventional career path for a majority of people in the region, due to risk-aversion and a tendency for pragmatism.

As we learnt from the EF Ambition Study conducted last year, people in Singapore do have a growing interest in entrepreneurship. What stands in their way is the fear of failure, the unknown, and a lack of precedent—they don’t have a like-minded community to find a co-founder, or the resources and expertise on how to raise funds, or run a company. This is where EF comes into the picture.

Kr: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are walking on a tight rope, trying to survive. What’s your advice to entrepreneurs struggling during this crisis?  

BC: The pandemic has certainly changed the playing field, and as with any economic downturn, has resulted in declining funding rounds and dollars. Investors will start to exercise a little more prudence when it comes to their investments and prioritize existing portfolios, so companies must prepare for longer fundraising cycles in the short to medium term.

While it can definitely be a challenging and uncertain time, entrepreneurs should keep in mind that the opportunities for deep tech are just as great, if not even greater than before. The pandemic has exposed new challenges across sectors and markets that deep tech is poised to serve, and investors continue to recognize the huge potential for innovation to plug these gaps.

We know that astute investors are still backing companies with high relevance and traction, across all sectors, so it is crucial for aspiring entrepreneurs to continue to be purpose-driven and create meaningful impact, while demonstrating a path to profitability.

Kr: What are the steps that Entrepreneur First has taken to ensure business-as-usual within its programs and talent investment efforts in Singapore and Southeast Asia? 

BC: Since the beginning of the year, we have taken multiple steps to safeguard the health and safety of our community, such as running a remote program across all our offices. We have packed our program with more tools, structure, and contact time between founders and advisors, including online streams, virtual coaching by venture partners, and hosting more than 50 hours of teleconferencing between the local and global investing community.

Founding a company remotely brings its own challenges, but our founders have responded with unmatched grit and courage. They have adapted quickly to uncertain circumstances, with founders even setting up a small make-shift lab at home to develop their proof of concept.

We are very much looking forward to being able to meet our teams in person again, and will continue to monitor the situation to decide when might be a suitable time. That being said, this experience has helped to future-proof our co-founders, by setting them up for the new reality of remote work and telecommuting.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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