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.
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?
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.