This top Asian university helped groom some of Singapore’s biggest startup founders

Established in 2002, the NOC program today has expanded to include other technology hubs including Shanghai, Beijing, Stockholm, and Israel.

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When Shih Choon Fong became president of the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2000, he recognized the need to produce more enterprising graduates as the internet looked to become the future.

The Silicon Valley dot-com boom was in full swing, though it would soon bust and put many of the more dubious internet start-ups out of business. Still, the realization that Singapore had few of its own start-ups led Shih to work with several other professors to launch the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) program.

The hope was that sending students to intern at the surviving technology start-ups in Silicon Valley while studying entrepreneurship in Stanford University would groom them to be more entrepreneurial, which would lead to innovation later down the road, whether through their own start-ups or taking on innovation-related roles in their careers.

Established in 2002, the NOC program today has expanded to include other technological hubs including Shanghai, Beijing, Stockholm, and Israel. Over the last 17 years, over 3,300 students have taken part, and the program by Asia’s top university has now produced some of Singapore’s most prominent young entrepreneurs who have founded multimillion-dollar companies.

The program is just one part of a broad and ongoing effort in Singapore to foster innovation in a country whose only resource is its people. Universities such as NUS, as well as the government and the private sector, often work together to foster conditions in which a trained workforce is able to thrive.

Efforts include grants for investors and start-ups, training programs at universities to groom talent, as well as policies that make it easier to establish a business in Singapore, which attracted regional headquarters for US tech majors such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

“Entrepreneurship is comprised of two parts – one is the skill set, and the other a mindset,” said Wong Poh Kam, a professor at the NUS Business School as well as the former senior director of the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre. NUS is currently ranked 11th in the world, according to the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings.

Wong was part of the team that helped establish NOC and spearheaded the program up until July this year, when he stepped down from the position. In 2015, he won the World Entrepreneurship Forum’s (WEF) 2015 Entrepreneur for the World Award in the educator category in recognition of his efforts in nurturing entrepreneurs and spreading an entrepreneurial culture in Singapore.

“Skill sets can be taught, like how to conduct market analysis or financial projections, but to have an [entrepreneurial] mindset it is something that by and large is learned by observation and by being influenced by role models,” he said.

Wong played a pivotal role in helping to launch the NOC programme, helping to seal a partnership with Stanford University that allowed students to sit in and take part in popular entrepreneurship courses run by the university. Back then, Singapore’s entrepreneurial landscape was not strong, with a lack of angel investors and venture capital to support a start-up scene, said Wong.

In 2019, Singapore was ranked 14th globally in Startup Genome’s annual start-up ecosystem report, climbing three places from its ranking in 2012. It is among the top start-up ecosystems in Asia, lagging only Beijing, which ranks 4th, and Shanghai, which ranks 8th.

Since its establishment, the NOC program has produced students that have gone on to build some of Singapore’s most well-known start-ups. Founders of companies such as mobile classifieds app Carousell, cashback app Shopback as well as property search platform 99.co are all alumni of NOC. A survey conducted in July found that one-third of the nearly 1,000 alumni questioned had started their own businesses.

Shopback co-founder Joel Leong, alumni of the Shanghai program, said that working for a digital marketing and events start-up during the year he spent in China gave him the confidence to leave a stable job and build a company from scratch.

“During NOC, we interacted with many different founders and they were regular people just like me,” said Leong. “The only difference was that they stepped out of their comfort zone and started their own company. The experience working in a start-up killed the myth that it was all about the big idea. Execution is everything. The idea is just the starting point.”

Today, Shopback has raised over US$70 million as it seeks to expand its cashback model across Southeast Asia. The company works on an affiliate marketing model – when users shop with partner merchants via the Shopback app, Shopback makes a commission which it then splits with the customer. The company’s chief executive Henry Chan also attended the NOC program in Philadelphia.

The three co-founders of one of Singapore’s most well-known start-ups, Carousell – chief executive Quek Siu Rui, as well as Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo – were alumni of the NOC Silicon Valley program. Today, they run the mobile classifieds app that operates in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

“NOC was life-changing for me,” said Quek, who decided to attend NUS primarily because it offered the NOC program. “[It] helped discover my love for tech and more importantly realize my passion to solve meaningful problems at a very large scale.”

Being able to take classes in Stanford and attend guest lectures by entrepreneurs such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey as well as attend events with speakers such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was also inspiring and fascinating, said Quek, whose company is now widely credited with pioneering the mobile classifieds model that lets users sell items simply by snapping a photo and creating a mobile listing.

Naturally, the success of the NOC program is also due to self-selection. Students already interested in starting a company are more likely to apply and get accepted, but for Wong the value is that it helps equip young people with the skills they need to go on their entrepreneurial journey and succeed.

“For the students we’ve surveyed, those who say the program has had a positive influence on their mindset also turned out to be the same people who are most likely to start their own companies,” said Wong.

The success of NOC has motivated other Singapore universities to adopt similar programs. Nanyang Technological University (NTU) launched its Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme, while Singapore Management University (SMU) introduced an Entrepreneurship Immersion Programme, with both offering students internship opportunities in start-up hubs in China, US, and Europe.

While the Silicon Valley and China programs have become popular over the years, NUS’ Wong said they have also expanded to regions like Southeast Asia where opportunities are growing in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.

“It’s important for students to gain experience in these up-and-coming markets,” he said.

This article first appeared on the South China Morning Post.