3 things you need to know about Southeast Asia startups

Mike Kim, Head of Google for Startups in APAC, shares what he’s discovered about the region’s startup ecosystem since relocating to Singapore three years ago.

By Mike Kim | 12 Dec 2022

Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I started my career at technology companies like Zynga and LinkedIn. But my dream was always to take my learnings from Silicon Valley and apply them in Asia. So, it’s a thrill for me now to be based in Singapore and head Google for Startups in APAC, empowering founders through mentorship, training and technical support. 

Over the past three years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the astonishing growth of tech startups in the region, many of which have gone through Google for Startups programmes, like the Southeast Asia Accelerator. These startups include Shoplinks, a Singapore-based platform that helps e-commerce retailers sell better through loyalty chatbots, and Advance from the Philippines, which works with businesses to provide salary advances and bring greater financial freedom to a large, underserved population of Filipino employees.

Founders Academy, a three-month programme that supports women-founded startups, recently held a Demo Day in Seoul showcasing startups such as Nalagenetics from Singapore, Krealogi from Indonesia, and Taxumo from the Philippines.

Southeast Asia is an attractive region for digital economy and startup growth. While total private funding deal activity remained relatively constant between H1 2021 and H1 2022, this year’s deal value has already surpassed last year’s by around 15%, according to the 2022 e-Conomy SEA report. But what exactly makes the region primed for growth? Here are three key things I’ve learnt about this exciting startup ecosystem.

1

High digital penetration and openness to new tech

In the last couple of years, Southeast Asia has added some 80 million users to its digital ecosystem. People of all ages – not just younger generations – are deeply engaged through technology. This, together with the rapid adoption of digital payments, has accelerated the uptake of various app-based services like e-commerce. 

The region has become a thriving centre of e-commerce and a leader in social commerce. Its financial industry is undergoing a blockchain revolution – in 2021, DeFi startups in Southeast Asia raised close to a billion dollars in equity funding.

An emerging technology and key driver of tech innovation across all sectors – whether it’s health, retail, finance or education – is artificial intelligence. Backed by a national strategy to deepen research and widen implementation, Singapore has been leading in this area and was one of five countries with the highest growth in AI hiring from 2016 to 2020.

2

Tech talent returning home from abroad

In decades past, it was common for aspiring tech professionals to leave Asia in pursuit of their careers abroad, particularly in Silicon Valley. What’s remarkable now is that we’re seeing a wave of talent returning to Southeast Asia to become entrepreneurs or join regional startups.

They are drawn to the exciting potential for innovation in this part of the world and motivated by a desire to contribute to tech growth in their homeland. This is an enormous boon for the tech scene here, since ecosystems thrive on talent, and the benefit extends not just to any one country, but also to the region as a whole.

A wave of talent returning to Southeast Asia is an enormous boon to the tech scene.
3

A hub not just for APAC, but for the world

Due to the region’s density and proximity among countries, startups in Southeast Asia tend to build for a regional or even global audience from the get-go, which is incredibly unique. The superapp Grab – the region’s first decacorn – is based in Singapore but also operates in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. 

Contrast this with other parts of APAC, say Korea or Japan, where entrepreneurs tend to build for a relatively large number of local consumers and, because of language and other barriers, don’t always have the ability to scale regionally.

What I appreciate most about working in Singapore is the ability to interface with a globally diverse mix of talent. On a daily basis, I speak or meet with people from across Southeast Asia, APAC, and beyond. This brings a valuable range of perspectives to the table and equips teams to build stronger products for international markets.

At Google for Startups, we are committed to supporting founders who dream of building something great.

Although market conditions have recently shown signs of uncertainty, what I find is that whether funding opportunities grow or shrink, great entrepreneurs rise, and they will never be deterred by a tough environment from pursuing their dream. In fact, during challenging times, entrepreneurs are often motivated to solve big challenges more quickly and inventively! 

Without question, we are witnessing a promising wave of tech entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia today and, according to our e-Conomy SEA 2022 report, Southeast Asia is well positioned as a hotbed for tech investments over the next decade. In private markets, venture capitalists remain vested in the region, with $15 billion in dry powder to sustain deals for years. 

At Google for Startups, regardless of the economic climate, we remain steadfast in helping founders sharpen their skills and build something great. Our commitment to supporting startups is long-term, and I truly believe that Southeast Asia – with its tremendous market potential and agility for expansion – is one of the best places to be for tech right now.

About Mike

Mike is a Korean-American based in Singapore and the Head of Google for Startups in APAC and Korea. Prior to joining Google, he worked in Silicon Valley at LinkedIn, Zynga and Monster. 

Connect with him here.

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