BLOCK71 SF brings camaraderie and opportunities

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BLOCK71 San Francisco is a launchpad for Singaporean start-ups into the US, and a gateway to Southeast Asian market for Silicon Valley companies

NUS Engineering alumnus Arun Thampi co-founded chatbot analytics start-up Botmetrics about 18 months ago in San Francisco. Since real estate was expensive there, he decided to work out of BLOCK71 San Francisco, an initiative by NUS Enterprise, Singtel Innov8 and SG Innovate.

Arun was attracted to BLOCK71 San Francisco because it provided an environment where like-minded people met and shared experiences.

“Entrepreneurs go through hard days. Knowing that the people sitting next to me had also similar experiences made our entrepreneurial journey less lonely. We motivated each other. It’s the camaraderie that you can’t replicate,” said Arun, who was part of the third batch of students to have gone on the NUS Overseas Colleges programme in Silicon Valley.

He also found the frequent sharing sessions with entrepreneurs and investors valuable because they allowed him to keep up with developments, learn new things and meet new people.

It was a great relief to be part of the BLOCK71 community, he said, because as a young start-up with many business problems and challenges to solve, issues like office space and trying to get the Internet connection to work were a distraction. BLOCK71 San Francisco took care of these, which allowed him to focus on his business. In July, he sold his start-up to bot software start-up Howdy for an undisclosed sum.

Since it was set up in 2015, BLOCK71 San Francisco has hosted more than 70 start-ups. Its 560-square meters premises in the South of Market neighbourhood of San Francisco is a cool place to be in amongst tech entrepreneurs. Its neighbours include household tech names such as Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants.

Any entrepreneur from the NUS, Singtel Innov8 and SG Innovate networks, as well as Singapore, can use BLOCK71 San Francisco as a base to explore opportunities or raise funds in the US. At any one time, there are about 15 to 20 companies registered there. No payment is needed but start-ups can be based there for up to six months. Each week, companies may look forward to one or two talks or sharing sessions.

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Regular sharing sessions and events at BLOCK71 help its community stay plugged-in to the start-up scene in San Francisco

NUS Arts and Social Sciences alumnus Paul Yang, founder of Singapore social video start-up Lomotif, likes the sense of possibility he experienced at BLOCK71 San Francisco.

Serendipity is an invisible and very important element that is hard to quantify, he said. Without BLOCK71 bringing together different people in the start-up ecosystem, he could have missed many opportunities.

For example, a contact he made at BLOCK71 San Francisco introduced him to StartX, a start-up accelerator meant only for Stanford University students. “I’m not a Stanford student but because of this introduction, I got into the programme and our network has become bigger.”

The new friends he made at BLOCK71 have also let him sleep on their couches. “I’ve not paid for accommodation since the first time I arrived here,” he quipped. Being an entrepreneur living on a tight budget, this was useful. The US is his biggest market and Paul is currently raising a funding round for Lomotif, an app which lets people add music to their video moments.

This unique confluence of ideas, people and opportunity that Arun and Paul experienced at BLOCK 71 San Francisco is not mere happenstance, as Dr Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise shared. “We consciously curate and create opportunities for members to benefit from interactions with each other. BLOCK71 supports entrepreneurship development in Singapore and beyond by catalysing and aggregating the start-up community.”

Entrepreneurs go through hard days. Knowing that the people sitting next to me had also similar experiences made our entrepreneurial journey less lonely. We motivated each other. It’s the camaraderie that you can’t replicate.

As part of a network of similar communities in SingaporeJakarta, and soon Suzhou, BLOCK71 San Francisco has created greater awareness for Singapore and its start-ups. Many US venture capitalists have found Singapore through this initiative.

BLOCK71 takes its name from its birthplace — the Blk71 building within the Ayer Rajah industrial estate in Singapore. It is there that NUS Enterprise, along with Singtel Innov8 and the then Media Development Authority of Singapore, averted the fate of a disused building through championing the aggregation and growth of the local technology start-up community. It has since rapidly transformed into a thriving entrepreneurial hub.

Dr Chan envisions the BLOCK71 network as an ecosystem builder and global connector, linking start-ups from Singapore and Asia to the US and vice versa. She said, “The combined experience and resources of our global networks will enable entrepreneurs and innovators to kickstart their entrepreneurial journeys, gain access to international markets, ultimately creating a richer ecosystem for the start-up community.”

By Grace Chng, a veteran tech writer.

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