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Silicon Straits founder wants to bridge startup and government hollow chambers

Shiwen is a part-time freelance writer, aspiring entrepreneur and overall generalist interested in exploring, researching and writing.

Silicon Straits' James Chan at Co.Lab with Sanjay Nath, managing partner at Blume Ventures.

Silicon Straits’ James Chan (left) at Co.Lab with Sanjay Nath, managing partner at Blume Ventures.

James Chan is the Singapore-based founder and CEO of Silicon Straits, a ‘tech venture foundry’ focused on Southeast Asia. James is also the principal of Neoteny Labs, a $5 million venture fund co-founded with Joi Ito in 2009, funding startups in their early stages in the United States and Asia.

Prior to establishing Silicon Straits and Neoteny Labs, Chan sharpened his edge at venture capital firms Walden International and Infocomm Investments as well as government agency IDA (Infocomm Development Authority) Singapore, gaining skills and experience in industrial and policy development, investment promotion, business development, operations and venture capital.

These experiences gave Chan a rare breadth and depth of experience in the startup ecosystems of both Silicon Valley and Singapore, as well as insights into the workings of the public and private sectors.

Chan took time off work to speak to Tech in Asia at Silicon Straits’ coworking space Co.Lab over at Block 71, the heart of Singapore’s startup community.

Tech in Asia: What inspired your deep interest in technology and startups?

Chan: Well, I grew up as a geek. Star Trek was a heavy influence during my childhood, and I was a member of the Computer Science Club during my time in school. I initially didn’t make the grade or know any Computer Science stuff (e.g. computer binary language) that many guys in Raffles Institution already knew, but eventually I managed to get a waiver. The teacher-in-charge made an exception.

I could’ve spent my time doing stuff that didn’t further my interests but fortunately, I managed to get in based on my passion. I pursued my interest in computers and got into the robotic club and web development. I also learned about DHTML and CSS, which were critical during the early years of the Internet. So I guess all of that furthered my geek tendencies.

How did your tenure at IDA shape your decision to enter the startup venture business?

I got exposed through the tech blog e27, which some of my friends started. I also had the experience of helping IT companies go international through my work with the IDA. I was exposed to a lot of different platforms and areas; gaming, mobile computing and e-government were part of it. Because of that, I gained a great amount of insight into the IT industry, and also through helping out at game publisher Garena, when it was a part-time project for me and the rest of the team.

I helped with the product and community management, specifically with regard to its virality and spread. It helped me to apply my skills and background. When they became serious and went full-time, I couldn’t join them as I was bonded to the IDA. So really, Garena inspired me. IDA was essentially doing what the Economic Development Board did for the Multi-National Corporations in Singapore’s early development. We acted as a concierge service for VC-funded startups. Everything was designed, end-to-end, to attract people to Singapore. Honestly, it was like selling ice to Eskimos. We tried very hard to get SV (Silicon Valley) startups to come into Singapore and make it their engineering home base. It was this that got me further involved in the startup scene.

Let’s talk about your time with Infocomm Investments. What did you do there?

Infocomm Investments was about serving the A and B sides of the startup equation. It was about formulating a direct human capital strategy and develop human networks to draw investors, technologists and entrepreneurs into Singapore.

How do you feel that your exposure to different cultures overseas contributed to your current success?

Well, Singapore gave me a head start on that aspect. I did Higher Chinese and grew up in a Chinese-speaking family. I actually turned down the offer of learning a third language, since I wanted to play computer games – which incidentally contributed to my technical slant. The Army (note: Singaporean males are required to undergo a compulsory two-year military stint) exposed me to a lot of different people from different backgrounds, since it’s such a melting pot, and I think was of tremendous benefit to me. It helped me to truly understand Singapore society, as it involves the whole gamut of human interactions.

When I was in the United States, I grew to understand US perspectives, politics and society, as well as their foreign policy from their own eyes. I turned down MIT for Stanford, as I wanted to place myself outside of my comfort zone and I was also tired of the Eastern Seaboard (Eastern US States, where Carnegie Mellon is located). I did a summer term at Berkeley in may of 2004, and I liked what I saw. From August 2002 to May 2005, I was in Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), then I was in Stanford from September 2005 to June 2006. The shift in geography corresponded with a shift in discipline.

The fabrication lab at Co.Lab.

The fabrication lab at Co.Lab.

So what specific activities in your diverse portfolio of interests and experiences have contributed to your current trajectory as founder of Silicon Straits?

Well, jazz music, technology, science fiction, photography and Star Trek are amongst the things that led me to where I am. I cracked the SCV (Singapore Cable Vision) cable modem when it was still encrypted using DOCSYS 1.0, as I wanted to unlock higher speeds for gaming. In Junior College, I was a member of the robotics club. This sort of geek tinkering helped me develop my interests.

Being immersed in the geek subculture helped develop my skills in and interests. My experience with IDA’s International Operations and Industry Development divisions, as well as my stint with Infocomm Investments helped me. It was through IDA that I first came into contact with Silicon Valley culture. I was a latecomer to SV culture honestly. It was also through the IDA that I met Joi Ito.

What was different about your experiences in the public and private sectors?

The biggest difference is in execution. When you’re in the private sector, you say you do it, then you do it and get it done. Public sector organizations take a longer time to change directions. It’s to do with governance and efficiency, you could say. In the private sector, there is a cavalier and cowboy behavior. In the public sector, it’s all about checks and balances. Organizational agility is greater in the private sector, with a consistent movement to more agile organizational structures.

Large organizations have a lot of bureaucracy and processes, leading them to become less productive. Exceptions exist of course, but bureaucracy and inefficiency in large organizations is the norm.

How do you feel the public and private sectors can interact to better develop the existing ecosystem in Singapore?

I think they need to listen to each other more. The government tries very hard and has good intentions, but it doesn’t really listen to the wisdom we share. What we have in startups requires a lot of agility in the organization. They hear our feedback and they want to do the right thing, but the internal organizational layers and senior decision makers operate in different contexts. So it’s going to be difficult.

It’s like a chicken and duck trying to talk to each other and doing the same thing, but being unable to understand each other. I’m more of a technologist and less of an engineer. So I’ve been on both sides of the hollow echo chamber that currently exists, and I feel like I need to play the role of the bridge. That desire manifests itself in Silicon Straits.

What led to your decision to establish Neoteny Labs (NL) and then rebrand it as Silicon Straits?

NL gave me the red pill to reject the Matrix. NL was not my brand but Joi Ito’s. Ultimately, I wanted something for myself. I’m grateful to Joi, but NL was narrowly defined. To synthesize my experiences and bridge the divide, I needed a different implementation model. I was not an ego decision but the name best suited what I wanted to achieve, so I came up with it myself. Neoteny Labs still exists but it is an offshore venture. It was not able to be a receptacle for my vision. Like Joi Ito, for whom I was a node connector, I went from being a node connector in his network to being a node, and a hub for my own network.

Where do you see Singapore going in the next two to five years, in terms of startups?

I see a string of exits, the most recent being Viki, in which we were investors. I see new venture funds emerging. Some startups will fall on the wayside and you’ll see more people pursuing their dream and trying their hand at startup venture entrepreneurship. There’ll be more entrepreneurs forming teams, and more opportunities for investors. For the government agencies, it will be a messier playing field. The ecosystem will be more organic and a virtuous cycle is starting to emerge from the recent wave of exits. The talent is slowly starting to flex their muscles and show their prowess since between 2002-2005, when this talent first invested themselves in the system. There’s more to come, I think.

What are Silicon Straits’ best investments to date?

We have small investments in a small pool of entrepreneurs, and it would be inaccurate to say that we’ve had success. My track record is with Neoteny Labs, under which were Viki, FormLabs and littleBits.

How does your training as an engineer impact on your investment decisions?

I look at it from a fundamentals perspective. I look at the impact on technology on people, something I gained from my academic background at CMU, which has been critical in getting me to my current position. I evaluate the impact of technology, people, markets and other products. Being an engineer is not enough, so you need to be an engineer with exposure. My professional background and academic path helped me in that regard.

Do you feel the current migrant restrictions inhibit Singapore’s status as an economic hub?

Yes. However it’s necessary as a nation, and something we must get through and over. The government has the unenviable task of dealing with it and it certainly impacts the vibrancy of the startup ecosystem. There need to be attempts to ameliorate the impacts, since talent supply is very important, like coal in a steam engine. SV sucks in talent. The cutbacks are so dramatic and blunt that it affects not only the traditional businesses, but also the startups. Startups operate at a different cadence to the rest of the world and you cannot look at their talent needs the same. The requirements for culture , fit and vibrancy are very different.

What have been your memorable moments as an entrepreneur?

I’d only consider my entrepreneurial track record to be from November 2012 and I only got Silicon Straits going in April 2013, so it’s a short time. Raising capital for Silicon Straits has been the most memorable so far. It’s not a product company but a platform that creates opportunities. There’s not going to be an immediate return on it, as it’s investing into another platform besides Neoteny Labs. It’s getting investors to believe in me and my vision. Getting the capital helped validate me, and I am responsible to my shareholders and my family.

Do you feel that having a family impacts on your business decisions as an entrepreneur?

Your risk profile changes, and that’s not a bad thing. Your perspective shifts and makes you look at things over a longer term. I am motivated by the environment I’d want my kids to grow up in, and I want it to have a positive impact on my children. Before having a family, you only think about yourself. Once you have a family, you start thinking of a legacy and having a wider impact. It drives me to pursue success with more determination. In short, you do see things differently. The view you get is more holistic and longer term. And also, it serves to anchor me.

(Editing by Terence Lee)



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