The coronavirus pandemic has uprooted most aspects of daily life — and much of the economy built around it. But out of crisis comes opportunity. And for some young entrepreneurs, the pandemic has unearthed green shoots for a new future. In Singapore, fast-growing start-ups in the food, retail and technology industries have been working to respond to the changing environment.
Finding green shoots in crisis
When the novel coronavirus emerged at the start of 2020, agriculture was one of the industries first hit. Supermarket shelves were cleared as people feared food shortages amid border closures and supply chain disruptions. Even before the pandemic, Ben Swan of Singaporean agriculture technology start-up Sustenir was working to make food supplies more reliable. The Australian ex-engineer launched the business in Singapore in 2013 to address land shortages and food scarcity issues. This year, the pandemic has brought more attention to the problem, said Swan. Today, less than 10% of Singapore’s nutritional needs are produced from within the land-scarce country, which is smaller in area than New York City. Singapore’s government hopes to raise that figure to 30% by 2030 through better land use and technology, as well as investments of more than $215 million in start-ups.
Making shopping easier
Just as the virus changed agriculture demands, it also shifted shopping habits. Nationwide lockdowns and the subsequent economic blow made consumers and retailers more conscious of their spending.
That’s a space Henry Chan of cashback platform ShopBack has been focusing on for several years.
Since launching in 2014, the Singaporean start-up — which gives users a percentage of cash back on every purchase made through its app — has grown steadily, giving $115 million back to more than 20 million users in Asia Pacific. But when the pandemic hit, the business moved quickly to offer new savings. The company’s efforts to move businesses online is to help diversify their sales channels. Even before Covid-19 hit, a 2018 McKinsey study found that 92% of companies believed they would have to alter their business models as a result of digitization.
Connecting a new digital future
While the pandemic fast-tracked the digitization of many industries, it also unearthed shortcomings in global internet infrastructure. Over the past four years, laser communications start-up Transcelestial has been working to bridge that gap with a more efficient and less expensive alternative to traditional internet services. Transcelestial’s flagship product — the Centauri wireless device — uses light to transmit data, which Jha said is more “infinitely scalable” than fiber optic cables. Meanwhile its three-kilogram, shoe box-size dimensions mean it can be installed overground by telecom companies in around 10 minutes. The 31-year-old said such efficiency reflects the company’s plan to provide internet services fit for a fast-changing world.
To drive that vision, in July Transcelestial received $9.6 million from investors including Singapore’s EDBI and venture capital firm Wavemaker partners — even as global funding dried up due to the pandemic.