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Is the Asian Century here sooner than we had expected?

Written by Sherman Tham Published on 

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Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem has witnessed remarkable transformation over the past few years—providing numerous opportunities to its young and dynamic communities.

KrASIA Multiplier is a new community focused on connecting the Southeast Asia ecosystem together and creating new relationships across the region. We will provide a platform for startups to have a voice and share their valuable insights to the wider community. If you would like to join or find out more contact taro@kr-asia.com

The term ‘Asian Century,’ first popularized in the 1980s by a Chinese premier, has now taken form much earlier than pundits have predicted. The McKinsey Global Institute claims that Asia is on a fast track to the top 50% of the global GDP by 2040—in merely 20 years’ time. Despite initial setbacks by the 1997 Asian and 2008 global financial crisis, both China and Southeast Asia have seen leaps and bounds in terms of economic growth.

Credit: McKinsey Global Institute

While the teaching of entrepreneurship has often been met with skepticism, studies have shown that entrepreneurship, like most academic subjects, can be taught. Unlike traditional business programs offered at academic institutions like University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Reactor’s teaching philosophy is one that is defined by experiential and digital hands-on learning experiences coupled with industry networking and mentoring.

In short, Reactor School’s teaching ethos is most aptly reflected by tech entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell’s quote ‘The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer.’ Focused on the ‘doing’ of entrepreneurship, Reactor has nurtured over 8,500 students in 10 different cities, with over 30 youth startup founders actively launching or running  their ventures. And alongside other student startup founders, I’ve also experienced first-hand the process from ideation to execution of business concepts to eventually founding my own social enterprise.

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Asia was home to more than one-third of the world’s 331 ‘unicorns’ (startups typically valued at more than USD 1 billion)—with 91 of these companies based in China, five in Singapore, four in Indonesia and 1 each in the Philippines and Vietnam. With Southeast Asia expected to witness yet another phase of growth in the coming decade, cities like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Jakarta, Singapore, and Bangkok are jumping at the opportunity to ground themselves in deep tech research and entrepreneurship.

The new home of fast-rising tech enterprises

Home to some of the world’s fast-growing unicorn startups such as Grab, Gojek, Traveloka, Tokopedia, and Sea, Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem has witnessed remarkable transformation over the past few years—providing numerous opportunities to its young and dynamic communities. Experts predict that the startup market is expected to grow even more so that by 2024, with the Southeast Asian region presumed to produce at least 12 new businesses with a total market value of at least USD 1 billion each, in other words—unicorn startups. Once a region with creeping economic growth, ASEAN is fast becoming a hub for global businesses and investments. With a young, literate, and urbanized ASEAN population, coupled with a median age of 30.2 years old, it has become one of the world’s most thriving enclaves for business productivity and entrepreneurship activities.

A culturally and ethnically diverse region with its 11 state nations, Southeast Asia has attracted the attention of the world’s investors which led to eventual arrival of venture capitalist firms—Reapra (founded in 2014), Antler (which was founded in Singapore in 2017), Golden Gate Ventures (based in Singapore in 2011), as well as the blooming of Singapore-grown AngelCentral, an angel investment network based in Southeast Asia.

Financial support from governments and public institutions

This tech ecosystem has been implemented with the help of the government in most of these countries, and has proven to be a step forward into this new technological era of rapid development. This sector seems to be highly supported by the government through tech-friendly policy implementation, the development of national, regional, and international strategies coupled with an increased number of investors attracted to this environment.

In Singapore, the Smart Nation initiative is one of many government-led initiatives that spearheads research and development of the tech industry, thereby creating more opportunities within the tech ecosystem to foster innovation.

SGInnovate, a Singapore-government backed venture capital fund focuses on investing in emerging companies, enabling the entrepreneurial potential of people who are building startups in the city-state. In addition, SGInnovate hosts a venture capital management associate program to nurture talents “upstream of the ecosystem chain,” which is believed to be the region’s first such talent development scheme.

With an interventionist, hand-holding approach from the Singapore government, it has tremendously helped the community to create innovative and impactful solutions beyond the business world.

Such top-down initiatives also play a nurturing role in grooming a new vibrant startup and venture capital scene. Despite Singapore being one of the most highly regarded global investment-economic hubs of Southeast Asia, other ASEAN nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand are catching up swiftly.

Experts forecast that Indonesia will surpass Singapore’s position as the largest venture capital market in Southeast Asia in the next few decades.

Yet in spite of the competition from the rest of Southeast Asia as they play catchup in the global startup arena, Singapore has the opportunity to leverage on the regional growth. In doing so, can Southeast Asia create a more cohesive economic-entrepreneurial community within the different nations themselves.

Written by Sherman Tham. Sherman is the Marketing Ensign at Reactor School, and a Reactor Student Alumni. Reactor School was founded with one purpose—to build a space for all students to grow, learn, and create with each passing day. Through a unique teaching approach and a truly passionate staff, we help students develop academically and personally to the highest level.

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