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Is Singapore's startup accreditation scheme pivoting to global outfits?


THE last few years have seen global tech startups - think Uber, Stripe, Netflix and ofo - flock to Singapore to acquire new customers or set up regional bases. But the likes of these companies could soon be coming here for an entirely new reason: a stamp of accreditation.

The Business Times understands that Singapore could potentially become a global accreditation hub for startups. This comes after the government's revamp of its startup accreditation programme, which has been expanded to support more than just local tech startups and young SMEs (small and medium enterprises), but also later-stage SMEs and, notably, foreign deep-tech companies.

Unveiled last Friday as part of the Infocomm and Media Industry Transformation Map (ICM ITM), the revamped programme is now named Accreditation@SG Digital; it was Accreditation@IMDA.

Minister for Communication and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said the rebranding would help accredited companies "leverage the Singapore brand for better recognition overseas".

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), which runs the programme, added that even with the refresh, the programme's core objective would remain the same: to accredit promising Singapore-based tech companies, and help them win contracts with government agencies and large enterprises by giving them first dibs to projects.

However, that the programme now admits foreign companies has led to murmurs that it is no longer a pure "support local" initiative to quell the perceived procurement risks associated with smaller companies. The new goal seems to be for Singapore to become a global accreditation hub for startups.

In response, IMDA told BT: "The key objective is to continue to grow Singapore's ICM ecosystem. To complement our local ecosystem, Accreditation@SG Digital is now expanding to attract best-in-class, foreign deep-tech companies. These companies should only offer unique solutions that are not replicated locally, with accredited companies setting up regional headquarters in Singapore to better integrate into, and complement our ecosystem.

"By congregating a critical mass of high-growth tech product companies in Singapore, we expect more global investors and high-tech talent to be attracted to our ecosystem, creating synergies and positive spin-off effects for our local ecosystem."

To-date, two foreign companies have been accredited under the Accreditation@SG Digital programme. They are DataRobot, a Boston-based machine learning company, and Taiger, a Spanish company that offers enterprise search and intelligent virtual assistant services.

IMDA said that it is currently evaluating a number of foreign companies that are in insurance technology (insurtech) and cybersecurity. IMDA added: "By re-domiciling such companies in Singapore, we want to attract more international investors and funds, as well as talent and high value ICM jobs into Singapore."

Accreditation@SG Digital has accredited a total of 23 companies in areas such as video analytics, robotics and energy management as at October. Since its launch in July 2014, the programme has created a pipeline of over US$80 million for its companies, comprising over 600 government project opportunities from over 80 agencies.

Over 120 of these projects have been won by companies in the scheme.

To achieve accreditation, companies are evaluated on three aspects: technical, financial and operations. This includes an assessment of their leadership and management; business scalability and product usability. The accreditation status is valid for 18 months, and up for renewal.

Last year, Accreditation@SG Digital extended its market access platform into the enterprise sector. DBS, OCBC and UOB, as well as Lendlease and Surbana Jurong, have come on board to offer accredited companies increased access to projects so that they can build a track record in the banking and real estate sectors.

Hugh Mason, chief of corporate innovation platform JFDI.Asia, told BT: "Singapore has a great brand for integrity around the world, so this accreditation service is in itself an important innovation and offering it on a commercial basis to foreign companies makes sense.

"It should not just help to build Singapore's reputation and reality as a startup-friendly nation, but also extend the range of suppliers that the Singapore government and multinational corporations based here can trust to be robust."