Neoteny Labs, a Singapore-based early stage fund, is now Silicon Straits


Updated: 17th January 2012

james chan neoteny labs silicon straits

Image: Silicon Straits

After running Neoteny Labs as Principal and making 24 investments since May 2010, James Chan has announced on his blog the rebranding of his early-stage venture fund. It’s now called Silicon Straits, reflecting the narrow bodies of water that flow through much of Southeast Asia.

The change affects Neoteny Labs Pte Ltd, the Singapore-registered entity that was part of the National Research Foundation’s Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS), a government startup co-funding initiative. Neoteny Labs will continue to exist as an offshore Limited Partnership.

James unveiled the new development not long after Neoteny participated in a USD500K seed round in Burpple, a Singapore-based startup that has created a mobile food journal and discovery app. While Joi Ito, the General Partner of the fund, will continue to maintain its existing portfolio with James, he will be focused primarily in his new appointment as the director of the MIT Media Lab.

Although Neoteny has a portfolio with startups from diverse geographical areas — including San Francisco — James writes that Silicon Straits will be primarily Southeast-Asia focused. Details are scant on this new entity, except that it’ll continue to be enlisted under the TIS scheme. More will be revealed in 2013.

Meanwhile, James will continue to be on the boards of Burpple, ImpulseFlyer, and TripVillas, and he won’t be making any more new investments using Neoteny’s USD5M fund. He’s also seeking new partners for a few unspecified endeavors.

Besides Burpple, Neoteny’s previous investments in Asian startups have included Viki, an entertainment translation service, Insync, a syncing app for Google Docs, ImpulseFlyer, a private sales platform for hotels, and Animoca, a games development company.

While the above startups are either thriving or alive, Neoteny has had its fair share of failures too. Startups that have gone nowhere include Found, an app that arranges meetups between friends, Chalkboard, a mobile advertising startup that shut its doors in April this year, and Chumby, which failed to respond adequately to market shifts, most notably the rise of Apple’s iPhone.

SGE: Why rebrand when you can continue running Neoteny Labs by yourself? I’m presuming that the difference between old and new entities would be that Joi won’t be involved, but how do you hope to further differentiate Silicon Straits from Neoteny Labs?

James: Neoteny Labs isn’t my brand but Joi’s. Joi is still someone I call on for personal advice from time to time, but given that he’s busy at the Media Lab leading its reinvention, he won’t have the energy or inclination to share the same motivation (as I would) about the new partners that I’m in the process of identifying. I figured it was much easier to do a rebrand. Besides, the term “neoteny” has become too synonymous with Joi. I figured I had to come up with a brand/term of my own.

Were you offered an opportunity at MIT Media Labs and what do you mean when you say you “didn’t feel like you belonged” and want to write your own narrative?

Joi did ask me if I wanted to join him at the Media Lab. I thought hard about it but decided that reinventing the Media Lab wasn’t my calling. I reassessed what I’ve learnt, what I have going, and decided to stay in this region (SEA) and make the best of it.

Having said that, I’m still helping Joi out with some Media Lab matters, albeit remotely. Our lives are still connected somewhat, just not as tightly in the next few years as it was in the past 3. He’s been a great mentor and source of wisdom and inspiration, and will always have a special place in my heart, just like the other major influences before him.

You’ve highlighted a lack of Series A funding in another blog post. Is that something you’d like to address at Silicon Straits?

Not immediately, but it’s certainly something I’m keeping an eye out and hope to have more to share at some point this year.

I understand that Silicon Straits existed briefly as an anonymous tech blog last year. What was the motivation for that and is it something you will continue to do?

I wrote stuff back then to experiment with regular writing, which took a lot of energy out of unskilled me. It’s always good to know what you’re not so good at, and not do it.

Having said that, I’m toying with some ideas about content that people might be interested to consume, and may seed some of those in a lean, experimental manner, in support of my other activities at Silicon Straits. It’s all rather fluffy and vague right now, but I hope to let my walk do the talking, and not the other way round.


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