Block 71 looks nondescript against an otherwise impressive Singapore skyline. But this former factory building that was set to be demolished has become the core of the country’s start-up ecosystem. A brainchild of the National University of Singapore’s NUS Enterprise, Block 71 is now abuzz with young, creative minds.

Since 2011, over 350 start-ups have come out of this hub, which is designed as a plug-and-play space where graduates fresh out of university can start ventures of their own. The building provides infrastructure support in the form of space, power and internet connectivity. Block 71, known by its abbreviated name Blk71, now houses 250 incubators, as well as venture funds and firms. About 30 investors have invested over S$120 million in the start-ups here.

One of the success stories from the Block is Abhinav Krishna, co-founder and CEO at MyFitnessWallet, which developed OurHealthMate. He says: “Block 71 is where we found our first customer, investor, mentor and pivot. With several start-ups and VC firms in the building, it’s a good place for budding entrepreneurs to be. NUS Plug-in and JFDI (Joyful Frog Digital Incubator) organise regular networking events, enabling entrepreneurs to meet potential investors and advisors. NUS provided us with funding to boost our development. The government has special funding schemes and tax benefits for start-ups.”

The success of Block 71 has been instrumental in making the island-country one of the best places for emerging entrepreneurs. Startup Genome’s Startup Ecosystem Report 2012 ranked Singapore the 17th among the top 20 entrepreneurial hotspots in the world. Bangalore was ranked 19th.

It has also brought about a change in the people’s attitude. Traditionally seen as risk-averse, like most Asians, graduates from Singapore’s universities were, till some years ago, content to move into stable jobs in academia or in the financial services space. This attitude is changing swiftly. Entrepreneurship is receiving active encouragement and support, with the universities themselves acting as incubators and going the extra mile to set up enabling ecosystems for entrepreneurship to thrive in.

New lease of life

Block 71 was part of a light industrial estate in the 1970s and was slated for demolition about three years ago, along with other blocks in the estate. Seeing an opportunity to optimise the space for its burgeoning entrepreneur community, the National University of Singapore, situated a kilometre away, spearheaded an initiative with a government agency, Media Authority of Singapore, and SingTel Innov8 to breathe new life into the building. SingTel Innov8 is a unit of the SingTel Group.

The three parties got together to establish Plug-In@Blk71, to provide support services and a gathering space for the community. They strived to gather more like-minded entrepreneurs to take up units in the block. Over the course of the next few years, new and not-so-new entrepreneurs started ventures in the Block.

For NUS, Blk71 is but an extension of its long-standing support for entrepreneurship. NUS Enterprise symbolises the NUS’ decision in the early 2000s to corporatise to drive entrepreneurial initiative. NUS Enterprise created research groups to study such initiatives in other countries and come up with a framework that would suit young Singaporeans starting out on their own.

Starting young

The preparation for entry into this Block starts at the university stage. “An innovative idea needs holistic entrepreneurial support, in terms of on-campus and off-campus incubation,” says Dr Lily Chan, CEO, NUS Enterprise. She adds that not everyone is a born entrepreneur; enterprise-creation needs to be nurtured and given the right opportunities

Such support begins at the university. In an initiative called NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC), students do internships with start-up companies located abroad while attending entrepreneurship-related courses at partner universities in places such as Silicon Valley, New York, Shanghai and Israel. Significantly, the undergraduate students come from any of the University’s 16 faculties, such as law, pure sciences, social sciences or humanities, and not just from its engineering or business schools.

The innovative Local Enterprise Achiever Development Programme (iLEAD) is the NOC’s domestic counterpart, offering internships with Singapore-based companies.

Upon their return from their overseas stints or completion of the iLEAD programme, the alumni form part of the entrepreneur community on campus and may take up residence in N-House, an entrepreneur-themed residence housing about 90 students at any one time who have been on the programme. The N-House helps them to study and work in an entrepreneurial atmosphere, where they seek guidance and learnfrom one another.

The NOC programmes have resulted in widely known enterprises such as Zopim (an award-winning live chat solution, acquired by Zendesk in 2014), Burpple (a restaurant and food guide), Intraix (energy management solutions), Jublia (networking platform for conferences), SGentrepreneurs (Singapore’s leading tech and entrepreneurship blogs), Bagosphere (a programme to help Filipino youth start careers), Carousell (mobile marketplace app) and TechSailor (Singapore-based digital marketing company, acquired in 2013).

The ecosystem

As students give form to their ideas, Block 71 helps them understand business processes such as accounting and legal processes, critical to building successful companies. A carefully selected team of industry experts and experienced mentors regularly interacts with the incubatees, providing guidance in marketing, fund-raising, strategic business advice and internationalisation. Investor days are held for start-ups ready to pitch to potential angel investors, corporate advisors and venture capitalists.

Throughout the pre-incubation and incubation phases, student-entrepreneurs are encouraged to create partnerships and engage with stakeholders to move further towards setting up their businesses.

The NUS Start-Up Runway, an end-to-end support system, provides start-ups access to NUS technology, research reports and to NUS laboratories. NUS Enterprise has brought together several funders and start-ups, with students and alumni, striking an average 300 deals a year. Not all of these might turn out to be successful. But that’s the whole point of a system like Blk 71, where failure is far more acceptable and support continues even if an enterprise doesn’t succeed.

As the more mature businesses in Blk 71 move out to their own spaces elsewhere, new start-ups move in. There’s always a lively exchange of ideas among entrepreneurs and ‘kopi chats’ (discussions over coffee) between investors and entrepreneurs are frequent. Over 250 start-ups have come out of Blk 71; a few of these have even been acquired. A recent success story is Viki, a video streaming website that was acquired by Rakuten, a Japanese electronic and Internet company, for an estimated $200 million.

Among the other successful ventures that were housed at Blk 71 are: BizEquity (online business valuation software for small and medium businesses); T.ware (therapy management for autistic children); Saught (jewellery from scrap remnants of war metal to support sustainable development in conflict zones); TribeHired (online social recruitment platform that helps users find jobs in Malaysia and Singapore); and Milaap (crowdfunding platform that raises funds to lend to working poor in India).

Pranoti Nagarkar is the Co-founder and CTO of Zimplistic developed the ‘Rotimatic’, the first fully automatic roti-making machine. She was a student at the NUS Faculty of Engineering when her team won the 2009 Startup@Singapore business plan competition, which helped validate her idea. She says of her encounter with NUS Enterprise: “NUS Enterprise was always there to help when we needed, with mentorship guidance, international linkages and office space. Now that product development is complete, our next challenge will be in rolling out the Rotimatic to key markets around the world.”

“The Singapore start-up ecosystem is becoming an entry point to the Asean and Asia-Pacific markets,” says Naman Shah, Asia-Pacific Lead for US startup BizEquity. He adds: “As an NUS alumnus, I have for the last four months, been working at the NUS Enterprise incubator, which provides great resources, including meeting relevant companies.”

The writer was in Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information