As one of the largest entrepreneurship gatherings globally, the TiE Global Summit unites from across the world, leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers. This year’s event happened over the last three days in the city-state of Singapore. TGS 2023 was held in partnership with the Singapore Fintech Festival, which showcased cutting-edge financial & technical solutions and the evolving regulatory landscape.
Summary of what I observed
- Artificial Intelligence is just starting and it is going to be bigger than the Internet and Digital revolution;
- The investment winter is here to stay for a long time, so founders are advised to stick with the basics of business and focus on unit economics and profitability;
- China is going to keep growing but will become insular towards foreign investors, India is a bright spot of opportunity followed by Southeast Asian economies.
In the next few pages, I will attempt to share the notes I took during the conference with some commentary and photographs. A disclaimer, these are from my notes and memory, they may be random and not necessarily complete, so please go to the official sources for details.
Robotics Research Centre
On the first day of the conference, TiE organized industry visits, called Lab Crawls. I got invited for a visit to the Robotics Research Centre at the Nanyang Technological University. Nestled inside the car parking 1 of NTU, some of the best research students in Robotics were at work in this lab. We were shown about half a dozen projects that were incubated here, most of them were related to providing healthcare to the elderly, understandable with Singapore’s changing age profile.
The first startup we saw was Articares which builds H-Man rehabilitation robots for Singaporeans across various stages of care. These robots provide personalised physiotherapy to patients through playful games. The startup has received several million dollars as research funding and for commercialization.
The second venture designed a special type of wearable to assist Parkinson’s disease patients while controlling their shaking. Controlled by intelligent sensors, the nylon polymer-based wearable applies pressure to the affected pressure points by adjusting the vacuum in between the layers.
The third startup was an Automated Driving and Human-Machine System called AutoMan, which focuses on predicting unexpected scenarios in self-driving systems and on how to better handle them.
The fourth startup was showing a Robotics arm that could be controlled by human guidance, understanding the commands through ChatGPT. A digital twin model verifies the command and acts as the control plane.
The fifth was a portable lightweight exoskeleton device that assists workers in demanding jobs.
The last startup we saw was super interesting. They were designing small-scale soft robots, that can be deployed inside the human body, using natural orifices eliminating the need for a new incision. These were millimetre and smaller and seeing one in action was unbelievable. The robots are made of special materials, they don’t require any internal power and can be controlled from the outside using electromagnetic signals to do operations like biopsy and more. I was reminded of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) film but one of the other attendees mentioned a film called Fantastic Voyage (1966) which had envisioned a similar scenario to what the researchers were working on.
TGS 2023 Dinner
Mr Amit Gupta, TiE Singapore welcomed the dignitaries for the evening grand gala dinner. Mr Gupta then hosted a fireside chat with Mr Shailendra Singh of Peak XV. A few of the points that were discussed: Founders should plan for alternate funding through revenues. Valuation is someone’s opinion but cash is the truth. Intrinsic valuation is more important than extrinsic validation like awards. For AI in Singapore, there are opportunities in data centre business, and in use cases like financial services, and healthcare services but there are none in building new LLMs. In recent years, Singapore has become more risk-taking – there are now 4000 startups, 40 unicorns, and 400 VC firms in Singapore with over 200 accelerators. There is enough capital available for risk from a ten-year perspective but none for madness like what prevailed in 2021.
Day 2 Keynote
The Day 2 Keynote was delivered by GitHub CEO Mr Thomas Dhomke, who spoke on 10 Artificial Intelligence Global Insights. He talked of the Productivity Paradox – Computer sales went up in the last few decades, but Productivity was flat in the USA. Enterprise workers get a 40% performance boost with ChatGPT as per a Harvard study. Developers with Github Copilot are 55% more productive. By 2030 AI-powered tools used by developers will be adding to the US economy a value of 1.7 trillion dollars. Over 50% of organizations have adopted AI in at least one business area.
Mr Ravi Menon, Chairman Monetary Authority of Singapore spoke about the importance of instant payments across borders including with India’s UPI. Singapore’s QR codes for payments are now being accepted by over 90% of merchants in the country.
Real use cases of AI
Next was a panel with Mr Manu Chopra, CEO of Karya, a company that data annotation services for AI use cases by employing workers in rural India and helping them out of poverty. In India, it takes about seven generations or about 200 years for someone to save $1500 in savings to come to a middle-class level. We couldn’t repeat the same mistakes that left many behind during the Internet era with the access to AI now. Karya is doing large gender-controlled corpora to reduce gender biases in the data that feeds into large language models. Today, 78% of rural Indians have access to a smartphone.
BioTech – A force for good?
Following that was an insightful panel discussion with Dr Krishna Murthy Ella of Bharat Biotech and Dr Jennifer Homgren of Lanzatech conducted by Ms Marie Cheong of Wavemaker Impact. Dr Jennifer mentioned how Bio-Technology can turn a carbon extraction economy into something sustainable, a regenerative one where captured carbon is reused. LanzaTech collects data from all their plants to train models to get the update to improve the efficiency of each individual plant. Bharat Biotech made India’s indigenous vaccine Covaxin (this was the vaccine I had taken three doses) for COVID-19, which saved millions of lives in India & other poorer countries. Dr Ella talked about how when they were manufacturing vaccines during the pandemic, they containers with live vaccines, unlike m-RNA vaccines like Pfizer or even Oxford-Astrazeneca which didn’t handle live viruses – they couldn’t allow their employees to go home for six months and that was the dedication of every employee. Bharat Biotech makes Typhoid vaccines for the lowest price in the world, at $1.15 a unit.
VC, Entrepreneurship and Beyond
In the lively conversation with Mr Marc Nicholson of 1880 Singapore, Mr Jack Selby of Thiel Capital LLC mentioned that the easy money era is over after thirteen years. The focus is now on unit economics. In recent years, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur which is not bad but they need to understand what lies ahead. Today, Venture Capitalists are triaging on the investments they made in 2019/20/21 to decide which of their portfolio companies live, who gets money and who dies. At the peak of the investment bull years, there were 11,000 VC funds, now there are about 8000 and when this investment winter gets over we may be left with about 2500 to 3000 firms. In the bull years, money was not a differentiator, so blank cheques started coming on. When money is 5x expensive like today capex intensive companies will find it difficult to raise VC money. In one of the incidents he recalled of the early days in PayPay: Julia and her entire management team went to Nebraska and hired everyone who walked through the door for an interview to manage almost the one million users who got onboarded every month, that was the scale of growth they handled.
Investment in a Global Context
In the next conversation with Lisa Oake, Mr Jack Selby continued on his views in the panel titled Charting the Course, Economic Policy and Investment in a Global Context. Mr Selby said in 2015 when Thiel Capital had to choose between China and India, they went with China. Now as Americans, he says they can’t go there. Mr Neil Parekh, Nominated Member of Parliament of Singapore and CEO of Pegasus Asia shared that China is still offering excellent opportunities but right now it is better to just wait it out but remember that you can’t ignore China.
A New Era of Entrepreneur and Investor Dynamics
In the panel Adapting to Post Funding Winter, the panellists shared that earlier storytelling was important for companies to raise money, now it is about operations and unit economics. Mr Aaron Tao says he is enjoying this investment winter when his competitors are going out of business! And the best time to build a company is now and the place is in India and South East Asia.
In the session titled Unleashing generative AI potential, Aampe CEO says that we may see growth in anthropology and design, as well as all software problems will get solved with AI. An example is QuiltAI, which converts big data signals into human insights and cultural meanings.
In the panel, Trust-Centric Cyber Strategies in an Unpredictable World Dynamics, Vivek Ramachandran of SquareX said over the long term, AI will first break our trust and then earn trust. Kinetic attacks are those where human lives will be lost – A cyber-kinetic attack is one which targets physical systems run by digital and that causes physical damage through the exploitation of vulnerable systems.
Shekhar Kapur – Role of AI in the creative arts
One of the last talks for Day 2 was by Mr Paraminder Singh of Mediacorp with the brilliant filmmaker Mr Shekar Kapur. By far, this was the most insightful talk I listened and Mr Kapur presented compelling arguments, which were uplifting and realistic on how the AI future will unfold in the creative arts.
Mr Kapur asked isn’t it arrogant to say that AI will surpass human intelligence, does it mean we are the supreme beings? He continued by saying to be human is to feel Life, Death, Fear, and Faith. You can fall in love with an AI voice but can the voice truly fall in love with you? If a human gets more creative thanks to AI, I am happy. For example, a sixty-year-old cleaning lady he encountered recently was suffering from arthritis and was unhappy with her life, if AI could help with her condition it would be great. If AI can make humans collectively more creative, I am happy.
Hitler became the most popular leader in Germany through loudspeakers and did horrible things, did we then ban loudspeakers which helped him to gain popularity? In the future, stars or singers won’t make it big, but brands will do. Mickey Mouse is still a big brand even after a hundred years. You can create your brand and own it. India is going to be big in this future, as people in India want to change their lives, make it better and they will use AI. We all live mysterious and potentially beautiful lives and we love. We are living in a golden age.
I want to, forever, be a child, I don’t want to be a grown-up – Maturity has become more about letting go of your curiosity. Life is about being all about wonder.
Mediacorp’s Chief Digital Officer Mr Paraminder Singh shared that it took hours and so many people who understood football to create small clips with descriptions and upload them to YouTube during the World Cup in the previous years. Today with AI, it takes them a few minutes to create and upload those same clips with far better accuracy and attractive comments.
Pitch Competition 2023 by TiE Women
I was happy to observe that there were day-long presentations by many talented women entrepreneurs as part of a TiE Women initiative. I attended two pitches and I was enthralled by the diversity of the companies and the problems they were solving. The first was from Ireland, and it was an IoT and software solution that goes inside large trucks to speed up cross-border shipments and prevent human trafficking. The other was software to manage the entire process of clinical trials.
How to set up shop in the USA
In a roundtable conducted by Karr Turtle Campbell, a law firm in the USA covered the nuts and bolts of starting a business in America. Their first message was if you are going to the USA, you better lawyer up. There is a lot of opportunity but the market is tough to crack. Stripe Atlas is the easiest way to incorporate a company but it is the most dangerous because you don’t know what you don’t know. Delaware is a neutral location, every attorney in America knows the laws of their state and Delaware and that’s an advantage. S corporation shares can’t be held by foreigners and they can’t issue different types of shares. India and the US have a double taxation treaty, but Singapore and the USA don’t have a treaty, as Singapore doesn’t have capital gains.
Day 3 Breakout sessions
Funding for Good
In a lively conversation with Mr Amit Gupta, Ms Cherie Nursalim of Giti Group, Indonesia mentioned that the Tri Hita Karana was a traditional philosophy for life on the island of Bali. It means the “three causes of well-being” or “three reasons for prosperity”. The three causes referred to in the principle are Harmony with God; Harmony among people; and Harmony with nature or environment – what a beautiful concept! She mentioned how in their eco-friendly, sustainable tourism and preservation work they have been doing in Kura Kura Bali – Kura means Turtle in the local language.
Shiv Kera – Master Success
Just before lunch on Day 3 was a talk by the author and speaker Mr Shiv Kera. It was unbelievable to watch and experience the energy of the septuagenarian writer, he kept the audience captivated and spellbound. He shared his life story of having lost everything and also his father, he and his family relocated to Canada. There he started earning by washing cars and by luck getting hired as an insurance salesperson in Toronto. His performance was poor and he was fired after 90 days by his manager who said you work hard but you are measured by performance and not by action. Later that day, Mr Kera went to listen to the author of the book “The Power of Positive Thinking”, their Mr Norman Vincent Peale deliver the serenity prayer which goes like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Mr Kera returned to his manager and asked for a last chance to prove himself, he was given one, he worked really hard and smarter and the rest was history.
- People are hired for skills and fired for behaviour,
- Three things that will still be valid in the future: People skills, Persuasion Skills and Prioritization,
- Sometimes you need to be unkind to be kind,
- Five things that are important in life: Physical health, Mental health, Family and bonds, Social and Spiritual,
- In life, there are important and urgent things. If you don’t handle important things and procrastinate then they become urgent things,
- I am stuck in traffic is the biggest lie, you have the courage to say you should’ve started early,
- Practise makes perfect is a lie. Practice just makes it permanent. For example, if you keep lying then you will become good at that,
- Remember that in life, we always have choices and we are free to pick up one, but once we pick one then it controls one. If you keep questioning whether I did the right thing and keep waiting, you are wasting. What is important is not being always right but executing consistently.
- You should measure people’s height on what is above the shoulder and not below the head,
- People are greatest assets is a big lie. Good people are, but bad people are evil.
From Seed to Success
The next panel was moderated by Ms Harmin Kaur with the veterans of the investment & funding world including Mr Shankar Ram, Chair of TiE Global, Mr Neeraj Tyagi, CEO of Invstt, Mr Saurabh Srivastava, Founder of Indian Angel Network, and Mr Suresh V Shankar Founder of Crayon Data: Charting the course is important in early-stage investing, Cross-border deals are becoming important and more common nowadays, and Remember that a financial investor will change the course of your journey as they will want to make you grow at breakneck space.
One of the panellists mentioned that, as a rule in their fund, they don’t invest in husband-wife founders.
Mediacorp Singapore mentioned that they are launching a new TV show called TheBigSpark.Asia from February 2024, which will showcase the unconventional stories of founders and their businesses.
Fundamentals of Fundraising, Investor Cap Tables, and Value Creation
In the session Laying the Groundwork for Successful Scaling Mr Hero Chaudhary mentioned that in their fund of over eight years, statistically, they found companies with an odd number of founders do well, similarly, founders with unequal shares, with a visible alpha dominating to break the tie really helps in success. Interesting observations right, with that thought I will let you go, thanks for reading so far.