Last updated: 09 December 2022
Published on: 12 September 2022
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This content has been produced by IMDA in collaboration with the Commercial Department of The Financial Times.
Mergers and acquisitions can seem a cold-blooded affair. Vigorous dealmaking in the south-east Asian city-state of Singapore, however, is the hallmark of a dynamic startup ecosystem in which accumulated value, synergies and growth opportunities are frequently being unlocked in a win-win proposition.
With these deals, the acquired startups are discovering opportunities for scaling up, opening the door to bigger platforms and greater possibilities. The acquiring firms, by partnering with complementary companies, are unleashing market-competitive advantages and imaginative solutions that would otherwise have gone undeveloped.
Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has fostered this dynamic ecosystem through a rigorous accreditation programme for the country’s tech startups. By collating a diverse portfolio of innovative tech companies, the IMDA has created a conducive environment for growth that drives the cycle of investment and innovation.
And momentum is on Singapore’s side. The city-state recently surpassed China as the top-ranked startup ecosystem in the Asia-Pacific region.1Singapore has 15 unicorns in a city of only 5.6mn people.2 The average Series A deal size is $6mn against $4.7mn globally, while time to exit averages 6.8 years against 9.4 years worldwide.3
“The best, most vibrant ecosystem naturally provides liquidity and exits, and this has the effect of attracting participation from the best entrepreneurs, best talent and best capital.”
Director of Enterprise & Ecosystem Development Division at IMDA
Here are two examples of IMDA portfolio companies that have achieved successful M&A, and which highlight the vibrancy of Singapore’s startup ecosystem.
ADVANCE.AI and Jewel Paymentech
ADVANCE.AI is a pioneering fintech startup that enables secure customer digital onboarding as well as end-to-end antifraud, risk management and automation capabilities. Through KYC (know-your-customer) and AI product innovation, it has expanded into multiple markets across south-east Asia, Asia-Pacific and Latin America, partnering with nearly 1,000 clients.
ADVANCE.AI looked to smaller but fellow IMDA-accredited startup Jewel Paymentech as a potential partner with which to build its capabilities in KYx (an alphabet soup acronym for everything a business needs to know to minimise risk in financial activity).
Jewel allows clients to identify and onboard businesses and verify transactions in Web3 environments such as crypto and the metaverse. Its KYB (know-your-business) and KYT (know-your-transaction) technology would thus complement ADVANCE.AI’s KYC abilities to enable a more robust and complete end-to-end solution.
When ADVANCE.AI approached Jewel, both sides saw the possibility of synergies, not only in technology but also in talent differentiation and team building. By acquiring Jewel, ADVANCE.AI gained a jumpstart in the KYx market with a broader suite of offerings, while Jewel gained the ability to tap into ADVANCE.AI’s global market to export its solutions.
Umair Javed, head of M&A and corporate development at ADVANCE Intelligence Group, ADVANCE.AI’s parent company, credits the dynamism and depth of Singapore’s startup ecosystem for a successful outcome.
“Singapore, despite its relatively small size, is a vibrant ecosystem. Innovation, talent, entrepreneurship and networking technology are of a high calibre. That means we're able to quickly identify teams, technologies and talents — serving customers in new ways without developing capabilities from zero to one.”
Head of M&A and Corporate Development at ADVANCE Intelligence Group
Sean Lam, co-founder and chief executive of Jewel, says IMDA accreditation facilitated the matchmaking by giving instant credibility to both parties. “Very rarely do you see a square peg in a square hole — the perfect fit,” says Lam. “If we succeeded it’s in large part because of a rigorous, highly-structured accreditation process where a lot of due diligence is done before you start talking.”
UnaBiz triumphs with bid for bigger Sigfox
When Singapore’s UnaBiz beat eight rival bidders — including operations from the US, the UK and the Middle East — to acquire a French IoT communication technology firm Sigfox which more than doubled its size, it marked a watershed in the city-state’s emergence as a global technology hub.
Sigfox had gone into administration following strategic missteps that left it in a precarious financial position, despite being the world’s leading provider of low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) communication services.
While being the smallest bidder, UnaBiz ultimately pulled off a coup that reverberated around the world, largely thanks to its success as a Massive IoT service provider in Asia-Pacific — the fastest-growing and most dynamic IoT market — and as the Sigfox 0G network operator in Singapore and Taiwan.
“Do you know the story of the small fish that swallowed the big fish? We’re three times smaller than Sigfox and took them over. A key reason? Coming from Singapore, we were the only ones who were able to bridge this great technology coming from France to the fastest growing market, with the highest potential in the world.”
UnaBiz Chief Executive and Co-Founder
As an example of its ambition and abilities, in 2019 UnaBiz completed one of the largest and fastest smart gas metering projects in Japan with Nicigas — extending to more than 1.2mn meter readers — despite the pandemic and the supply chain crunch. Trust was another factor in UnaBiz winning its bid, with Singapore enjoying global respect for its culture of openness, fairness and tech neutrality.
When UnaBiz threw its hat into the ring, the six-year-old startup received a wave of support from the LPWAN community and major customers who believed in its vision of “convergence” — a movement to unify different IoT platforms and connectivity solutions, including rival LPWAN and LoRaWAN technologies. “Singapore is a testbed of innovation, and it's a place where people respect IP,” says Bong. “These are factors that worked in our favour in clinching a deal all IoT companies were dreaming of.”
Combining the best tech from Singapore and France, Bong now aims to leverage its ownership of Sigfox to accelerate Massive IoT. He aims to make accessing global IoT networks as easy and as seamless as enjoying today's roaming cellular services by converging and standardising protocols.
“We now have established R&D teams in Labège and Taipei, and we’re going to build a new R&D team in Singapore that will focus on building bridges between Sigfox and various IoT communication technologies and bringing peace between LPWAN platforms,” says Bong. “It’s a mission to create trust and confidence in the data journey, which Singapore has always excelled at.”