TOKYO — A Singaporean venture capitalist who spent nearly three decades investing in cutting-edge technology companies in Silicon Valley and helping them expand in Asia now looks to move high-tech Asian startups into the global arena.
Venture capital firm iGlobe Partners, founded by Soo Boon Koh, has invested alongside U.S. heavyweights like Sequoia Capital and Silver Lake Partners, even if it lacks the name recognition. Though its financial muscle is smaller, iGlobe offers the ability to help its portfolio companies enter new markets through connections and mentorship, Koh said in a recent interview.
“Innovation is everywhere,” she said. “The challenge for Asian companies is how to go global.”
The firm recently began talks with investors in Japan, Singapore and other countries to form a $100 million fund targeting early and growth-stage startups. Though this iGlobe fund will invest in startups in the U.S. and Europe, it will focus on backing regional expansion by Asian companies. Koh looks to tap big businesses in Asia that want to invest in startups but lack the experience to find good deals.
Koh, a former senior manager at DBS Bank, calls herself an “accidental venture capitalist.”
In the late 1980s, she followed her husband to Silicon Valley where she worked for industrial group Singapore Technologies to set up its venture capital arm. The appointment made her one of the first Singaporean women to break into Silicon Valley. For the next few years, Koh was at the forefront of the technology transfer of Silicon Valley engineers for Singaporean companies.
She formed iGlobe in 1999, with its first fund sponsored by Singapore’s Economic Development Board. The fund later drew interest from Southeast Asian family-led conglomerates that feared technology would disrupt the traditional businesses from which their wealth derives.
Koh’s firm reaped lucrative returns by investing early in U.S. startups like game engine company Unity Technologies, which was valued at $3 billion last year.
The iGlobe founder sees a “lot of interest in Southeast Asia,” but she has no wish to follow the money flooding into the region’s fast-growing markets like Indonesia and Vietnam. “There is huge capital in the market chasing too few quality deals,” Koh said. Booming e-commerce and logistics startups in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam “cannot be brought to Japan.”
Instead, her firm focuses on more mature markets like Singapore and Japan, where she thinks startups with technology can compete globally. iGlobe looks to ride the wave of Asian governments hoping to establish a global foothold in emerging industries. Singapore is strategically nurturing smart-city technology as a new driver of economic growth. Fintech and extended reality will be iGlobe’s other key areas of investment.
Through an existing fund, iGlobe invested last year in Swat, a ride-sharing startup that specializes in on-demand carpooling. Later that year, Swat won a tender by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority to run trials of on-demand public buses in the city-state. The company plans to export the technology to Japan and other markets that want to boost the efficiency of their public transportation systems.
The Singaporean firm also invested in Japanese drone maker Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory, which went public in 2018. ACSL already works with Japanese e-commerce group Rakuten in testing drone deliveries. Demand exists for similar services in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, Koh said.
The strategy pursued by iGlobe will test how easily advanced technology can cross borders as governments like China increasingly invest to develop their own core technical abilities. Finding growth in new markets is especially crucial for startups in Singapore, which has a population of less than 6 million, and Japan, which is grappling with an aging workforce.
Investments in startups by Japanese companies surged 91% last year to 133 billion yen ($1.19 billion), according to M&A advisory firm Recof. But the growth has been driven by local startups, and caution toward other parts of Asia remains.
“[Venture capital] in the U.S. started 40 years ago. It is early days in Asia,” Koh said. “If your boss gives you money to invest in startups, you will have a black eye in five years. That is my concern.”