How Block 71 helps Southeast Asian startups launch in the USA

In the final week of August, btrax sat down with Voon and Jasmine, the program and community managers of Block 71 San Francisco to talk about the story behind the biggest launch pad for Southeast Asian startups in the US.

btrax CEO Brandon Hill encountered Block 71 while visiting Singapore as a speaker for the Tech in Asia Singapore Conference earlier this year. Through this, we arranged an interview to learn more about Block 71’s origin story and their goals for the San Francisco office.

How did Block 71 get started?

Blk71 (abbreviation of Block 71, same pronunciation) was part of the Ayer Rajah industrial estate in Singapore, housing the light-manufacturing industries way back in the 1970s.

Before Blk71’s became what it is today, it was slated for demolition and redevelopment in 2010. At the time, NUS Enterprise was looking for a place to house its growing startup community, and Blk71, within close proximity of the NUS campus, was a good choice for location.

Hence, NUS Enterprise, in partnership with Singtel Innov8 and with the support of MDA, came together to save the block from demolition and at the same time, aggregate the startup community which was previously dispersed all over Singapore.

Block 71 in Singapore. Photo credit: comprock/Flickr

NUS Enterprise has been in partnership with Singtel Inov8 from way back then and we still work together today. In Singapore, you know you’ve made it when you can get into a taxi and tell the driver you’re going to “Blk71,” and he or she immediately knows where to go.

Moving forward from Singapore’s Blk71 success, NUS Enterprise partnered with Singtel Innov8 and IIPL to continue helping startups in their expansion, particularly overseas, and this was how Block 71 SF began.

What is the mission of Block 71’s SF office?

Our mission is to provide a space for Singaporean startups to get started in the US. Our other intent is to help US companies understand what Singapore is all about. For example, when we host events, we want people who are interested in Singapore to come and network with us as well as other attendees. When Stripe opened an office in Singapore, they came to talk to us as well.

How many startups are there in the SF office and how long do they usually stay?

There are 34 startups in the San Francisco office. Their length of stay depends on the needs and objective of the startup. This can mean anywhere from one month to three or four months. Most of them come from our Singapore office. Some startups feel they are ready to break into the US market and want to get in sync with the local area. Some companies remain in the States after they leave Block 71, and others go back to Singapore. Some come to raise funds, and others want to build a local sales team. Occasionally some of our startups move on to other co-working spaces.

What are some interesting startups at the SF incubator right now?

Some interesting ones are Rotimatic and Carousell.

Rotimatic’s product is a Roti bread-making machine that is easy to work with, customizable and easy to clean.

Carousell is a C2C selling platform and is the top selling app in Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

And I want to mention Zopim, the startup that inspired us to create Block 71 in Singapore. Zopim provides customer service live chat technologies and were acquired by Zendesk in 2014. The founders used to work every day in a small pantry on campus at the National University of Singapore. Seeing them there every day made us realize that there’s a startup community in Singapore that needs support and we can do that by providing a space for them to work. That’s Block 71 today.

What are some of the biggest challenges for Southeast Asian startups looking to launch or find opportunities in the US?

Just like any other startup from outside of the US, when they get here, they realize how big the market is. On top of that, they’re faced with strong market incumbents. Not to mention it’s difficult to find cross-market investors because investors here want to focus on startups that are based here.

That’s very similar to some of the challenges that Japanese startups face. We’re quite familiar with that since we host a Japanese startup demo competition called JapanNight every year in Tokyo and San Francisco and look for startups with global potential. In addition, many of our Japanese corporate clients face similar challenges when tackling the US market.

So given these challenges, what are some key ways Block 71 helps Southeast Asian startups in the US?

Earlier in June, we hosted an event called the SEA Tech Scene Panel. The event featured investors from Southeast Asia and the founder of Geeks on A Beach, Tina Amper. The event provides a space for US investors and startups to connect with Singaporean Startups and find information about Southeast Asia.

In July, we concluded our first Startup Weekend Asia-America. A student from the National University of Singapore put it together. They encouraged Asian startups and interns to join the 54 hour hackathon in which the goal was the create hacks that were applicable to the Southeast Asian market. There’s an added element of learning more about Asia.

How is the San Francisco office different from the Singapore one?

The demand is much higher in Singapore, and there, we have some permanent desks unlike the free address concept we use in SF that’s first come first serve. The requirements are also more stringent since we have something like 300 startups.

Blk 71 (Singapore) is currently home to more than 250 start-ups, while NUS Enterprise manages 5 co-working spaces at Blk71, including Plug-in@Blk71.

In both offices, there is no membership plan, but the application process is very selective.

5 things you need to know about Block 71 in San Francisco

(Image Credit: Block71 San Francisco)

If you haven’t heard about Block 71 San Francisco (Block71SF), here’s the scoop – Block 71 San Francisco is a US-based coworking space located in the South of Market area in San Francisco, just north of Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world.

Block71SF serves as a launchpad for Singapore startups into the US ecosystem (and vice versa, for US startups to break into the Southeast Asia scene).  It is a joint partnership between NUS Enterprise, Infocomm Investments, and Singtel Innov8.

Singapore tech companies exploring business opportunities in the US can leverage Block71SF to better understand the US market, set up shop, and expand their networks into the tech community, while US-based entrepreneurs, companies and investors can find out more about Singapore and Southeast Asian markets through our events and activities.

Thinking about checking out Block71SF? Here are 5 things you probably didn’t know, and should know, about the space.

1. We host both Singaporean AND US Startups

 

(Image Credit: Block 71 San Francisco)

While we do have exclusive workspace dedicated as launchpad for Singaporean startups looking to break into the SF tech ecosystem, we also have a non-exclusive hotdesking space for Singaporean, ASEAN, and US startups that are looking to learn more about the Singapore and Southeast Asian (SEA) tech scene.

We welcome all startups with a Singapore or SEA angle to hang out in our space and be part of our community.

Why, you asked? The reason is simple. We are building a community of US and SEA venture capitalists, advisors, and startup founders. A lot of organic interactions between US and Singaporean entrepreneurs happens at Block 71 thanks to this arrangement.

Alongside with pitching events and panels, we are seeing that startup founders are getting the information and startup advice that they need from other community members. With the open hotdesking space, we are seeing Singaporean startups becoming more proactive in reaching out to individuals within the community who have knowledge about the space that they are looking to disrupt.

Find out more about how this non-exclusive hotdesking arrangement works.

2. Our hotdesking space works on a first-come-first-serve basis

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(Image Credit: Block 71 San Francisco)

If you have been to Plug-in @Blk 71 in Singapore, chances are, you know how the non-exclusive hotdesking space works. Our non-exclusive hotdesking space works on a first-come-first-serve basis for registered users.

Do note that our non-exclusive hotdesking space are only open during office hours (9am to 5pm on weekdays).

If you are looking to work out of our non-exclusive hotdesking area when you are in San Francisco, email us at enquiry@block71sf.com.

3. Our meeting rooms are named after landmarks in Singapore

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(Image Credit: Block 71 San Francisco)

Would you like to have your meeting in Clarke Quay, Fullerton, or Marina Bay Sands? Those are names of our meeting rooms at Block71SF.

True to their names, Clarke Quay has a casual and open setting; Fullerton has swanky sofa seats; and Marina Bay Sands boasts a grand full board room setup.  We are not afraid to let our Singaporean colors shine through! Plus we know Singaporeans are bound to miss home when they are hustling in US.

Also, check out our colloquial banners ( It gets pretty amusing when visitors try to read them).

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4.We don’t discriminate against non-ICT focused startups

(Image Credit: Green Pea Cookie)

On top of ICT startups, we also house several hardware startups (such as Touchjet and BuzzyBooth) as well as a food tech startup (Green Pea Cookie)!

We are happy to host any startups with a SEA-US angle that are looking for a space to work out of in San Francisco.

5. We are not just a coworking space

( Image Credit: Jasmine Ho)

Block71SF is not just a space for you to work out of when you are in the SF Bay Area.

We are a great place to build your network. Don’t be shy when you are at Block 71 SF. Be sure to network with others when you are hanging out in our space. You never know who is sharing the desk when you are at Block 71SF.

(Image Credit: Block 71 San Francisco)

We can link you up with our network of local partners. One of our most distinct partners is SFAsia – a nonprofit, public-private partnership between the SF Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and the San Francisco Center for Economic Development (SFCED).We also have a community of San Francisco startup founders who hang out in the space, and venture capitalists who are interested in US-Asia cross-market startups!

Many tech events take place at Block71SF too. Since we started in January, we have organized many startup and community events to connect SG startups with the SV community. We organized VC panels, pitching and demo competitions, networking sessions, and hackathons too. Most of our events are open to public.