James Chan is a prominent community member in the Southeast Asian technology startup ecosystem. Having managed Neoteny Labs with Joi Ito out of Singapore, James has seen the US$5 million fund invest in 24 startups over the course of two years. In December 2012, he announced that Neoteny Labs Pte Ltd, the Singapore-based operations of Neoteny Labs, would be undergoing its rebrand to Silicon Straits.
Silicon Straits is what James envisions to be the “Internet of organisations”. Drawing on his experiences at IDA, Neoteny Labs and Startup Roots, James hopes to create the ideal organisation for a startup to be in. James is in talks with several investment partners for Silicon Straits, two of which were also investors in the original Neoteny Labs fund.
James hopes that Silicon Straits will become synonymous with open innovation across Southeast Asia, starting with its co-working space at Block 71. “I think co-working spaces in Singapore such as the Hub and Kennel are awesome for social, design and creative entrepreneurs to interact, huddle and create from. It is the tech entrepreneurs and developers that have been underserved.” He sees the current state of interactions between investors and entrepreneurs as being too transactional and short on sincerity and openness, and thinks that there sometimes can be too much of an us-versus-them mentality between individuals and organisations. “Open innovation is about innovating with partners and sharing risk and reward. The boundaries between an organisation and its environment has become much more permeable; innovations can easily transfer inward and outward. It’s no longer about win-lose, but about win-win-win.” Silicon Straits hopes to form and shape the collective of like-minded individuals and organisations that come together to work on ideas, projects and companies, and in so doing marry the three key components in the ecosystem – investment, space and community.
Silicon Straits, in its initial phase, will take the form of an incubator. James is setting up shop at Block 71, the startup hub jointly set up and managed by MDA, NUS Enterprise and SingTel Innov8. With design work already underway, James hopes to turn 2,000 sq ft of bare industrial space into a co-working and events space that is compelling to tech startups and innovators. “I’m hoping for its (co-working space) largest differentiators to be our design, tenants and events,” says James.
The most immediate tasks James is faced with is to complete the space, grow the team, put together its investment network and close its first few investments. James counts Neoteny Labs as the first investment partner of Silicon Straits and is working on adding other investment partners that are closer to home. His six years of experience in industry development, venture capital and tech grassroots activism has taught him the importance of blending idealism with pragmatism. “At 31, my relative youth is a disadvantage for my profession in Southeast Asia. The only way I’m going to go the distance is to have an inclusive vision backed by solid execution.”
Silicon Straits will be focusing on the Southeast Asian region in verticals such as Internet, mobile and open hardware. Despite managing Neoteny Labs under the guidance of Joi, James shared that he was actually given a lot of autonomy. “I’ve been a one-man band for the past three years at Neoteny Labs. There’s a limit to how much I can achieve by myself regardless of how I optimize my processes. I think it’s time I took what I’ve learnt from my mentor, make my first few hires and build my own tribe henceforth,” said James wistfully.