'Silicon Valley without the attitude' (The Straits Times)


How do Singaporeans see change as the Little Red Dot sets out to realise its future as a vibrant global city? In the third of a DBS series on a new Singapore, Wong Kim Hoh talks to the founders of a mobile game company about working in our technology corridor.

COMPARED to the shiny “intelligent” edifices that dot Singapore’s Technology Corridor, Block 71 in Ayer Rajah Crescent is decidedly unglamorous.

It is an old flatted factory built in the 1970s by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), utterly nondescript except for a new coat of paint. The more than 100 tenants in the building, however, are another matter altogether. Boasting zany names – Inzen, Hatcher and Paperplane Pilots – befitting the go-getting, game-changing nature of their trades, they are a motley crew of start-ups, venture capitalists and incubators.

In an article published last year, The Economist described Block 71 as “the world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem”.

The chief executive of Inzen Studio, Mr Gerald Tock, agrees.

The mobile game developer, which is hoping to roll out a game in China in the next couple of months, moved into its office on the ground floor of this seven-storey building earlier this year.

But already Mr Tock may have found a new partner from the same building for the three-year-old company.

They met through another game developer, caught up for coffee and talked a bit about business. Mr Tock, 35, says: “He said, ‘Let’s do a test. I will go away and not think about your business for a while. You don’t contact and tell me anything too. If I remember your business the next time we meet, it means I’m in.'”

As it turned out, the venture capitalist did remember Inzen when they next met. The two are now in talks over a collaboration.

Mr Tock says: “There’s a good vibe here. Everyone’s out to make stuff happen and seems to be vested in the community. And we like people who understand what it means to build not just a business but also a community.”

When the Government rolled out its National Technology Plan in 1991, the blueprint included a technology corridor which would create an innovative and conducive environment for knowledge-based industries such as information technology and the life sciences.

The quest to become a global knowledge society, of course, started much earlier, propelled by the country’s small size and lack of natural resources.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once said: “We have to automate and computerise, and later, to use robots. We must break through to a higher level of technology and achieve the competence to work that technology. Then we shall ensure security in a competitive world.”

Set out along the south-western part of Singapore, the technology corridor encompasses the Science Parks, National University of Singapore and National University Hospital, one-north, International Business Park, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore University of Technology And Design (SUTD), Insead and new high-tech industries in Jurong.

The cornerstone of this corridor is the Science Parks, the first of which was located along Ayer Rajah Road and developed in the 1980s by JTC. Science Parks II and III, in Pasir Panjang Road and South Buona Vista Road respectively, came along in the next two decades.

Modelled on Silicon Valley and other important science parks in Taiwan, South Korea, England and Japan, the Science Parks are now the base for many international companies in areas ranging from microelectronics to biotechnology. The design of the parks is unique, with lots of green spaces and recreational facilities from gyms with pools to pavilions and ponds. The idea is to have an environment where techies, scientists and geeks can take a break from their labs and offices to mingle, ponder, network and socialise.

one north, meanwhile, is a high-technology cluster for those involved in biomedical sciences, infocomm technology and media industries. The key clusters are Biopolis (biomedical R&D), Fusionopolis (infocomm, science and engineering), Mediapolis (digital media) and Block 71 (start-ups and venture capitalists).

The area is also home to The Star Performing Arts Centre and Rochester Park, which has restaurants, galleries and spas.

The city state’s push for a high-tech, knowledge-based economy has resulted in the congregation of not only Fortune 500 companies but also local start-ups such as Inzen Studio in Singapore’s Tech Corridor.

Mr Tock says the company has five founders. All of them met while they were working at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab (Gambit), a six-year collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Singapore Government to explore new directions in game design and development. In 2012, the SUTD was picked to continue Gambit’s work; it is now known as SUTD Game Lab.

“At Gambit, I saw a vision: to push design on one end and introduce novel forms of play experiences to new audiences on the other,” says the corporate finance and marketing graduate from the University of Adelaide. He found the same desire in four of his colleagues, all of whom have their own special skills – from marketing to prototype design.

One of them was Mr Zander Liang, 30, who says: “We have been doing so much game innovation; we wanted to do something fresh.”

And when a Dutch angel investor came along, Inzen Studio was born in 2012. The company has since received two more rounds of funding, from Japan’s Incubate Fund, China’s Mobile Game Confederation, Singapore business accelerator Hatcher as well as local angel investor Melvin Tan.

Inzen – which now has 13 staff members – spent its first year developing a Japanese-influenced game for the Western market and doing contract work for clients, including a financial literacy start-up Play Moolah. But it soon decided to change tack and is now developing its own games as well as working with other developers in the region to modify games for the Chinese market.

The reason is obvious. The Chinese mobile game market is set to overtake the United States’ and become the largest in the world by 2016 with revenues of $7.7 billion, according to data from the Global Mobile Games Whitebook 2015.

“We are talking annual revenues of between $3 million and $10 million for relatively successful games, and from $30 million to $50 million for very successful ones,” says Mr Tock, who once worked on strategy for Singa-pore’s games industry for the Media Development Authority.

Inzen is now in the final stages of refining a shooter game, Dark Dot, before introducing it to the Chinese market in a couple of months.

Inzen first started operating from small offices in Beach Road and Orchard Road. Mr Tock says the move to Block 71, where they share an office with Hatcher, has been good for the company.

“Hatcher is a fund incubator and accelerator. Harveen is the chair of the fund but he has stayed up late to give us advice on how to structure deals and look at the business-to-business side of things. The mentorship is invaluable,” he says, referring to Hatcher’s founder Harveen Narulla. “I love the sense of community here. It’s Silicon Valley without the attitude.”

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

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