DON’T judge Block 71 by its appearance. What looks like an uninspired, prototypical seven-storey industrial building in Buona Vista happens to be the epicentre of Singapore’s startup ecosystem, with what observers reckon has the potential to hit the next tech home run.
Amid promises by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to preserve Block 71′s sense of community even as some tenants move out after their lease ends next year, there are mixed feelings about the extent of government intervention needed.
Block 71, a factory building once slated for demolition, was relaunched in April 2011 by MDA, NUS Enterprise and SingTel Innov8 as a one-stop office and incubation space for startups. Today, it houses more than 180 companies comprising startups, incubators and investors.
“When Block 71 was set up, we weren’t sure it was going to work. There was no MRT station nearby, not many places to eat; only bare concrete walls,” said Hugh Mason, CEO of Joyful Frog Digital Incubator.
“While it’s still very young, it now certainly has signs of Silicon Valley’s (SV) vibrancy,” said Darius Cheung, CEO of roommate search service homie.co.
Many attribute this vibrancy to the dynamic mix of tenants at Block 71.
“We have a balanced mix of dreamers and pragmatists. Younger companies bring with them enthusiasm and the dreamer mentality which enables them to think out of the box, while experienced ones come with pragmatism, experience and a network of contacts,” said Terence Swee, founder of video software company muvee Technologies.
There is also a strong sense of camaraderie among the tenants, and this creates an atmosphere of sharing and collaboration.
According to Quek Siu Rui, co-founder of mobile marketplace app Carousell, whenever his team had questions about scaling their servers, they would approach the Python experts from corporate travel startup Tripconomics, who are based in Block 71′s flagship co-working space Plug-In@Blk71. If they wanted advice on fund-raising, they would consult Cheung, whose office is next to theirs in a level three co-working space.
“It gives a cosy feeling, and has a certain scrappy, startup style,” said Amelia Chen, founder of LoveByte, a mobile app for couples.
Tenants come to work in t-shirts, and have many opportunities to interact, thanks to regular community events, the block’s open-door policy and even its common toilets.
“It gives a feeling that anything is possible, without the need to conform to any norms,” said James Teh, CEO behind T.Jacket, a wearable jacket for autistic individuals.
In terms of rental, he reckons it would be difficult to find a place with cheaper rent than Block 71. Indeed, the latter beats most co-sharing spaces in Singapore, charging only $100 for a resident desk in Plug-In@Blk71.
Despite the low rent, the building has such promise that even companies who can afford posher locales will choose it, claimed Cheung.
Mohan Belani, founder of tech blog e27, said it is a start-up landmark, and a drop site for foreign start-ups and investors who would regularly hold their meetings there.
Block 71 is also geographically close to key research institutes and universities such as the National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and I2R.
Start-ups can benefit from such clustering, said Huang Zhi Long, NUS graduate and co-founder of Vapour, a “next-generation laundromat” which recently opened its doors in Sunset Way.
“For example, Vapour’s proximity to the NUS Enterprise Incubator means we can easily leverage existing NUS contacts to explore new business opportunities,” he said.
“Block 71 is actually at a very critical stage, with many small milestones such as travelmob’s recent acquisition by HomeAway,” said Cheung. But it has not produced a home run yet, unlike SV which is built around a series of home runs, such as Intel, Cisco, Apple, Yahoo, Google and Facebook. “It will take decades to build an ecosystem like that,” he said.
Concurring, Mason said: “Nowhere will ever be like SV but there are some things we have done here to try and replicate the same spirit. For instance, Blk 71 is the only place in Asia (to our knowledge) that you can walk into and get advice from anyone on whether the investment you just secured is a good one.”
“It has the potential to produce the next big thing from Singapore. A vertically integrated building has far more casual collaboration opportunities than SV, which usually requires a five to ten minute drive between places,” said Swee, who moved muvee’s global headquarters from Middle Road’s BOC Plaza to Block 71 late last year.
“The most important thing about Block 71 is the strong community that has been established,” said Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise. “Many of our entrepreneurs started out hot-desking in our Plug-In@Blk71 area. Within several months, they grew the team, needed their own office space, and still chose to locate within the building as they wanted to stay connected to the community.”
But some tenants recently expressed concern over MDA’s potential decision to not extend their leases beyond March 31 next year, saying this may break up the community.
“With only a three-year contract and no clear indication on whether our leases will be renewed, the amortised renovation costs makes investment into the office space risky,” said Frank Lee, investment manager at TNF Ventures.
In response, MDA told BT that all tenants will get to enjoy a six-month extension option till September 30, 2014. Block 71′s incubators, which are anchors of the ecosystem, will be given an option for renewal beyond September 30, subject to an evaluation framework. Independent start-ups which have not fulfilled their three-year tenancy terms by March 31 can request for a lease extension beyond the date.
MDA is also looking into how it can help these independent start-ups find alternative spaces in the area.
“In this way, the vibrancy of Block 71 is preserved, and the renewal process will bring in fresh startups and enable them to enjoy the benefits of existing expertise and resources, and a supportive and nurturing environment,” said Joachim Ng, MDA’s industry operations director.
Rishi Israni, co-founder of roti-maker Zimplistic, said the government is forward-looking to begin with. “Singapore needs a Block 71, and it has already gathered good momentum and drawn many good people which is key to any ecosystem’s success.”
But there are things the government must do, and others they must stay out of, she said. For example, while it has an initial role in creating spaces like Block 71, Ms Irani believes the running of such spaces should be left to a non-governmental body that is part of the ecosystem.
“A public-private partnership model will work well in a young ecosystem like Singapore’s,” she said.
As this ecosystem is not that large, it should house no more than three such spaces, said Cheung. “Block 71 and The Hub are already epicentres in the west and central. There is maybe room for one more in the east, potentially SUTD’s future campus.”
But the government should think beyond buildings and more about the entrepreneurial community, urged Mason.
“Entrepreneurs tend to find opportunities in ambiguity. If everything’s too centrally planned, they can’t do their work. We look forward to the time when the government is able to leave the community to organise itself. It will be messy, it won’t be efficient, but it will be incredibly dynamic and creative and it will adapt in a way that centrally-planned activity cannot.”
He added that the real lesson from SV is the virtuous circle where yesterday’s inventors become today’s investors, and today’s founders become tomorrow’s funders.
“If the government stays too involved and gets too hands-on for too long, this virtuous circle will never develop and the community will always stay dependent on the government,” he cautioned. “It’s a hard balance to strike and nobody will get it right the first time.”
Carousell’s Quek and Battle Ventures’ co-founder Jeffrey Paine have more light-hearted suggestions.
“Add ping-pong tables at the lift lobbies on each floor. This will increase the ‘serendipity coefficient’ and give us more reason to take short breaks and meet people from other offices,” Quek said in jest.
“In fact, the only thing Block 71 needs to do is construct one main entrance so that everyone is forced to go through it and say hi to one another,” said Paine. “Trust me, this will work.”