Last Friday, JFDI.Asia (JFDI) held its Demo Day showcasing the latest batch of 12 new startup teams from its flagship JFDI accelerator programme.
JFDI’s programmes and operations comprise mentors including Golden Gate Ventures, Innov8, and Jungle Ventures and successful startups like Klinify. With these 12 teams, JFDI now rounds off its portfolio to 50 global startups, a week shy of its fifth-year anniversary.
The participating teams included entrepreneurs from Europe and across Asia, all seeking to impress an audience of VCs, angel investors, mentors and the press with their products. JFDI has invested US$18,675 in each of the 12 startups, in addition to more than US$1,11,200 worth of intangibles — technical facilities, office accommodation, intensive mentoring and connections to more than 100 early-stage investors.
The startups featured this year were at a significantly later stage of maturity compared to previous batches, which contributed to a more varied and competitive application process.
In this interview with e27, Co-founder and Chairman of JFDI.Asia Wong Meng Weng, and JFDI Mentor and Operating Partner of Jungle Ventures Thomas Gorissen discuss how the accelerator sizes up startups, and the role of JFDI and Singapore in the SEA’s startup ecosystem.
Tell us about the new startups.
Meng Weng: They have potential to become billion dollar businesses. If these teams didn’t have the scale, the global impact to change lives of millions of people, we wouldn’t accept them into JFDI. They all have traction in one form or the other; some have significant revenue. One or two of them have already closed their seed round. Two of them have already raised collectively over US$1.5 million in funding, which is different from previous batches.
Thomas: Some pitches were not as polished as the teams in previous batches, but in terms of achievements, this batch is strong. I don’t want to give away too much, but I thought pitches that were very well delivered were from Geckolife, QLC and Silent Eight.
With some of these startups achieving success independent of JFDI, how does JFDI come into play in nurturing them?
Meng Weng: We help with traction — get them from 100 users to 1,000, or from 1,000 users to 10,000. Sometimes teams with just an idea apply to us and we say we can’t accelerate you. Such teams go to our pre-accelerator programme.
What are the attributes that qualify startups for the accelerator programme?
Meng Weng: We’re looking for a strong team that has domain expertise and innovation insight. We want to see that the team has the ability to build the product and has some early traction with customers and users. So much these days depend on design, which depends on taste. They need to have what is called “the secret”. What do you know that other people don’t? What do you believe that others don’t? But in eight months or five years, everybody will begin to know it and agree with you. For example, the idea of people wanting complete strangers to sleep in their beds. Everybody thought it was a crazy idea. The idea turned out to form the basis of two enormous startups — AirBnB and Tinder.
Some startups with great potential fail to live up to it. How does the performance of a team affect your decision-making process in mentoring or nurturing?
Thomas: It’s very organic. It springs out of conversations and out of what I see. I would never invest in a product where I didn’t see the product working or haven’t used it myself. I like listening to ideas, but I put that aside, so I can judge them on their performance. I’m a bit more cautious currently.
Where does JFDI fit in the startup ecosystem of Asia?
Meng Weng: We are beginning to develop a specialisation in platforms, and platforms serve multi-sided markets, which tend to have chicken and egg problems. We need to bring together startups, investors and mentors. It’s a very delicate dynamic, which is the heart of Silicon Valley, and every other successful ecosystem globally. People are giving back to the next generation. Audience with their own successful startups are now angel investors investing in our startups. VCs, who are here for an early sniff, write the US$2 million dollar cheque in eight months.
Thomas: JDFI, to me, has defined the culture of how entrepreneurship and innovation works in this region.
How, according to you, will startups be changing the economy and culture in Singapore?
Thomas: At a conference in Panama, where I was speaking, one of the ranking officials made a comment that usually was along the lines of “We want to be the next Silicon Valley”, but specifically he said, “We want to be the next Singapore”. And that’s a level up. Now the path is not to be the next Silicon Valley, but to connect to what Silicon Valley is, learn from it, and not just impersonate it.
Meng Weng: At the end of the day, it comes down to the F word — freedom. Silicon Valley is where a startup is a form of self-expression. People have the freedom to go to Silicon Valley and start a business that really expresses some fundamental aspect of their insight on the world. If you’re George Lucas, you make Star Wars. If you’re Lady Gaga, you put out a bunch of albums. If you’re a nerd, you go write some software, and you create Facebook. All these things are an expression of freedom to follow your passion. This is going to happen in Singapore, and it’s going to be pretty exciting to see how that plays out.
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