DPM Heng Swee Keat at the NUS Deep Tech Venture Showcase 2024

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 18 March 2024

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the NUS Deep Tech Venture Showcase on 18 March 2024.


President Tan Eng Chye
Dr Wen Hsieh,
Founding Managing Partner, Matter Venture Partners

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon, I’m delighted to join you at NUS’ Deep Tech Venture Showcase. 
It is good to see so many of our ecosystem partners here today. 

Eng Chye spoke about NUS’ commitment to nurturing innovation, and the new efforts to strengthen commercialisation and venture creation for deep tech.  

Deep tech investment and commercialisation are priorities under our current Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan. 

Deep tech is critical to solving many of today’s global challenges like climate change, food security, healthcare management and the energy transition. 

It is about harnessing scientific knowledge, often in a multi-disciplinary manner, to achieve new breakthroughs and game-changing solutions. 

It requires significant research depth as well as extensive development, testing and validation before arriving at commercial solutions. 

This is why deep tech is also known as “tough tech” or “hard tech”. 
With its long gestation, it takes patience and perseverance to incubate and scale deep tech. 

As technology cycles shorten and become more disruptive, there are more opportunities to create and capture value through developing winning products. 

But to seize these opportunities, we must have the necessary capacity and capabilities. 
Given the winner-takes-all nature of some of these technological advancement, we must play to win. 

Looking around the world, we can observe common elements across ecosystems where deep tech thrives. 

First, they are anchored by a strong network of universities and research institutions, which provide the scientific base and talent for innovation. 

Research excellence is the requisite base of all innovation nodes. 
But when I visited Boston and the Bay Area last year, I was struck by how it was a norm and almost an expectation, for professors and students to be entrepreneurial and run startups. 

These startups operate alongside industry leaders and global companies, enabling each to draw on the other’s strengths and capabilities to move faster together. 

Second, there must be availability of smart and patient funding. 

In any innovation ecosystem, funding – in the form of investors, corporates or financial institutions – serves as the fuel that propels promising solutions into commercial products. 

Funding deep tech ventures is a little more challenging because of their long gestation period. 

Deep tech startups are vulnerable to succumbing along the “valleys of death” during its lifecycle. 

It therefore takes investors who can grasp the scientifical potential and marry that with industry insights to shepherd deep tech startups from infancy to maturity. 

In fact, the funding cycle that The Engine, MIT’s deep tech incubator, adopts is up to 6 years longer than the regular funding cycle.  

Funding and talent put together can create a virtuous cycle that drives innovation output, deepens the ecosystem, and in turn draws more talent and funding in. 

This is exactly what Singapore seeks to achieve, by positioning ourselves as a Global-Asia node for technology, innovation and enterprise. 

With successive RIE plans, we have systematically developed different aspects of our RIE ecosystem over the past decade. 

Our research base has strengthened, with NUS and NTU’s excellent rankings reflecting the depth of Singapore’s research expertise, including world-class expertise in areas like additive manufacturing, biotech, quantum and material sciences.  

We have nurtured some good startups, with 27 homegrown unicorns since 2013, including 2 deep tech unicorns, Nanofilm and Biofourmis. 

Much of these stems from our IHLs’ efforts to nurture and support our students’ innovative capacity, such as NUS’ Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP). 

From overseas experience in other innovation nodes, to structured programmes and internships, our students receive good scaffolding as they seek to transform their ideas into solutions.  

This is enabled by our increasingly vibrant venture landscape. Today, we have over 400 VCs in Singapore, investing significantly in tech startups in Singapore and the region. VC investments in Singapore was S$14.7B in 2022, nearly triple that of 2020’s S$5.5B.

Like other innovation nodes, we have built up linkages with industry to strengthen translational capabilities. 

We have more than 20 corporate laboratories, which bring private and public sector researchers together for win-win collaborations. 

Taken together, it explains how Singapore has moved up the ranks of WIPO’s Global Innovation Index. In 2023, we are ranked #1 in Asia and #5 in the world. 

These are positive signs, yet we must always remember that Singapore is an inherently small ecosystem. We must turn small into beautiful.

An advantage that we’ve deepened given today’s global climate is our positioning as an open and neutral node for collaboration. 

Our small size works to our advantage, since we are unlikely to pose a threat amid strategic competition among the larger economies. 

Our strategic location at the heart of ASEAN, coupled with our sound infrastructure and strong global linkages, have attracted businesses and talent from the region and across the world, to work in and through Singapore. 

We continue to build on and strengthen our positioning as a Global-Asia node. 

Yet when it comes to resources, we will always be constrained as we cannot compete on the basis of size and resource availability. 

Our RIE budget of $28 billion, while impressive in the local context, would be considered modest compared to other innovation nodes. 

So how can Singapore secure our edge and play alongside larger, more resource-rich countries and nodes? 

Let me suggest three ways to harness Singapore’s compact ecosystem to our advantage and play to win, especially in the deep tech space.  

Play to win

One, to fully harness the potential of our strong research base, we must nurture a pervasive culture of innovation, by transforming mindsets and pathways 
to gear all parts of our ecosystem towards translation and commercialisation.

Last year, I visited the US and Switzerland – two countries which are ranked ahead of Singapore on the Global Innovation Index. 

I mentioned earlier how the startup culture was strong in their universities. 

More importantly, there was great porosity between academia and industry. Professors routinely took some time off to run their startups, before returning to academia again. 

And in so doing, they also mentored and inspired students to embark on similar paths. 

For a pervasive innovation culture to take root, the pathways between academia and industry must be open and inviting. 

It is not simply about urging our researchers and professors to think about translation and commercialisation. 

Using reporting and incentive structures to drive such outcomes may yield results but can also be self-limiting. 

What we want is for our professors and researchers to develop an instinct for, and feel empowered to turn their research outcomes into impactful solutions for society.  

Dr Yeo Joo Chuan did his graduate research in microfluidics and subsequently co-founded Microtube Technologies, which develops stretchable sensors for healthcare, defence and aviation applications. 

Microtube Technologies participated in the 2019 GRIP and managed to close a seed funding to commercialise their sensor technology. 

Dr Yeo highlighted the impact that his supervisor Dr Lim Chwee Teck had on him, in terms of mentoring him to think both like a scientist and an entrepreneur, and providing spur and encouragement for Dr Yeo to bring his product to a global market.  

This is the sort of mindset and culture shift that we would like to see, and NUS’ new Innovation Fellowship and Venture Creation Awards seeks to catalyse this among its researchers and faculty members. 

It is a signal that beyond research excellence and academic output, we value professors like Dr Lim, who have an entrepreneurial slant, play an active role in mentoring students in their innovation journeys, and lead by example in helping to build startups. 

I hope that over time, this will broaden and move us towards a culture like the Americans and the Swiss, where faculty members toggle between academia and industry, and where the “scientist-entrepreneur” instinct is pervasive and celebrated. 

This leads me to my second point. Just as porosity between research and industry is important, we must organise ourselves well and foster more collaborations across institutions, to maximise the advantages of our compact ecosystem.   

I earlier cited our corporate laboratories as important platforms that strengthen the  academia-industry bridge. 

For deep tech in particular, breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of different disciplines. We must therefore organise ourselves in a manner that sparks new ideas. 

NUS’ eight integrative research clusters are a good example of how we can create hubs for innovation and collaboration, by specifying challenges such as ageing and sustainability, and pulling in different expertise to contribute and interact with one another. 

We will also leverage the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) to bring together the best talents all over the world to work on global challenges like sustainability. 

Our IHLs have done well to integrate efforts across your respective ecosystems. You must now do even more to deepen collaboration with one another, and uplift the overall ecosystem. 

BLOCK71 is a good example of this. It started out as NUS’ effort to support its student founders, and later expanded to serve the broader Singapore startup community. 

Since 2011, the BLOCK71 ecosystem has supported nearly 1,600 startups globally. The recently launched BLOCK71 Silicon Valley will further bridge our ecosystems and increase network support for deep tech startups.  

There is also scope to consider whether successful programmes like GRIP and Lean LaunchPad could be expanded or aligned across the different IHLs to achieve even greater scale and impact. 

We should also foster deeper collaboration across our IHLs to strengthen translational capabilities and value capture. 

For example, Cellivate, a deep tech startup by a GRIP alumni Dr Viknish Krishnan-Kutty, partnered Temasek Polytechnic to scale up its proprietary cell-growing technology in Singapore. 

With every IHL having pockets of expertise and networks, I hope that we will be even more intentional about leveraging one another strengths to grow our ecosystem together. 

This brings me to my final point. Given the inherent challenges of deep tech, we must be intentional and proactive about venture building. 

Venture building is about bringing together market insights, mentorship, capabilities, and funding so that promising ideas can lift off and scale. 

Venture capital firms are usually the best purveyor of market insights and investment opportunities. 

GRIP 2.0’s strategic partnerships with its three venture capital partners will bring valuable expertise, mentorship, and resources for the GRIP teams, to build market relevant and globally competitive products. 

SOSV, Legend Capital, and Vertex Holdings collectively manage more than US$10 billion in assets. I hope that this partnership will also enable our partners to nurture and harvest the brightest of our startups, and bring them to the world. 

Funding is often the derailer for deep tech startups, so the enhancement to funding for successful GRIP teams, which Eng Chye just announced, will be much welcomed. 

This complements ongoing efforts like Xora Innovation’s $75mil pilot across NUS and NTU to accelerate the commercialisation of deep tech ventures. 

I’m also glad to see NUS being more intentional about leveraging your 350,000 strong alumni network, who can offer market expertise, funding, and innovative ideas. 

Finally, successful deep tech ventures require a range of talent to succeed – from technical expertise to business development and product development support.

SGInnovate plays the role of deepening and connecting talent to our deep tech startups. 

Through apprenticeship programmes as well as sector-specific talent training programmes such as the Helix Immersion Programme for biotech startups, the goal is to bring together the right elements for our deep tech startups to succeed. 



Let me conclude. Deep tech is a tough niche, but one that offers great hope for addressing today’s global challenges. 

To nurture a successful and dynamic deep tech ecosystem, we need to mobilise different players and bring efforts together more intentionally across our compact ecosystem. 

The government will continue to build our deep base of scientific research and capabilities.

I encourage more researchers and faculty members to embark on exciting entrepreneurial journeys to create more impactful outcomes and solutions from your research. Do tap on all the resources and support that NUS has provided to support you in this long and rewarding journey.

And to our VC partners, I am confident that your mentorship and guidance for our promising entrepreneur-scientists will be invaluable in shaping commercially viable startups that offer meaningful solutions for Singapore, and for the world.

Thank you and I wish everyone the best.