Offering IoT start-ups something different: a big fat ecosystem

SparkLabs Group has launched a new start-up accelerator in Singapore for IoT, smart cities and PropTech. What makes SparkLabs Connex different from all the others? A carefully curated global ecosystem of partners and an emphasis on collaboration.

Photo by Jez Timms

In Singapore, start-up accelerators are almost becoming as common as 7-11 stores, and more often than not they focus on IoT solutions, usually for smart cities. But that hasn’t stopped SparkLabs from launching a new start-up accelerator in Singapore focused on IoT, smart cities and PropTech. The differentiator – apart from SparkLabs’ international pedigree – is the partner ecosystem it’s assembled to ensure start-ups not only have a market to sell to, but can foster the level of collaboration that the overall IoT ecosystem desperately needs to thrive.

The basics first: SparkLabs Connex – which officially launched on Thursday – will use the same accelerator model as SparkLabs’ other nine accelerators around the world. It aims to fund one one cohort per year of up to 15 start-ups, with each cohort lasting six months. Connex is tentatively hoping to put together the first cohort in Q3 2020, though that will depend greatly on how long the coronavirus outbreak and its subsequent economic impact lasts. Connex hasn’t publicly disclosed the total amount of the fund, but the idea is that Connex’s VC partners will invest up to $100,000, with ownership up to 7%.

SparkLabs Connex’s VC partners include industry players with C-level experience from Bosch, T-Systems, Avaya, M1, Tata Communications and the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA). Connex has also recruited Charles Reed Anderson – founder of Singapore-based IoT/smart city advisory firm CRA & Associates – as managing partner for the accelerator.

The start-ups – which need not be based in Singapore – will focus on specific technology enablers that underpin B2B IoT, smart city and PropTech solutions: connectivity (5G, NB-IoT, eSIM, etc), analytics and AI, and security. However, the overall objective is not just to develop tech solutions, but to connect start-ups with the vendors, enterprise customers, cities and relevant industry groups that represent the IoT/smart city technology ecosystem.

Navigating the ecosystem

For now, the partner ecosystem includes Nokia, True Digital, Beca, Skyroam, the cities of Taipei, Songdo, and Darwin, and key industry organizations such as GO SMART (Global Organization of Smart Cities) – which shares innovation and best practices with over 325 cities and vendors worldwide – and the Urban Technology Alliance, which has eight smart-city testbeds across cities in France, Spain, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Anderson explains that the partner ecosystem is the key ingredient missing from other start-up accelerators with an IoT/smart city focus, and that the logic is easy to understand if you think in terms of what it takes to bring any new IoT solution to market.

“Usually accelerators just go for tech vendors – I’m going across the ecosystem because I’m looking at how I would take a product to market to meet demand, and how it can grow from being a small start-up to actually deploying, and not just in one city or two,” he explains. “It’s really just following it on through to solve a problem.”

Anderson offers the example of a surveillance camera that runs on 5G.

“I can go talk to the people at Nokia, let them test it, and if they like it, then they could take that to market in their portfolio for their operator customers or their enterprise and public sector business. And since it’s a 5G thing, I’ll go up to True Digital in Thailand – if they like it, they can take it to their market, or to their owners, which is CP Group, which overs every vertical except for defense, basically. And then I could go across and talk to the construction and engineering side with Beca Group, but they’re in multiple countries and they don’t want to go through the hassle to negotiate contracts in every country to get an operator to put a 5G SIM inside it. So I can go to partners like Tata or SkyRoam and stick an eSIM in it, which allows it to roam across different countries and connect as a local profile.”

That would enable customers to deploy the camera anywhere they need it – to include partner smart cities like Taipei, Darwin and Songdo. The start-up can also deploy the product in the Urban Technology Alliance’s various testbeds, while GO SMART could also share the results of those deployments with its 325 enterprises.

“One of the important things about this is that start-ups could go out and do this without something like Connex, but it’s very, very difficult because they’d have to navigate all the different vendors, and when you’re working with smart cities, it can be very complex to actually find the right decision makers,” Anderson says.

“So what we’re doing is basically bringing together a group of people who want to accelerate the ecosystem and have them all just collaborate.”

The collaboration factor

For Anderson, collaboration is crucial for IoT and smart cities because lack of it has been a major barrier for the sector.

“There’s no one-stop shop that can do it – it’s all about collaboration,” he insists. “Every IoT solution involves multiple products from multiple vendors to create that one solution. The mature players are realizing it’s more about partnering and collaborating, or sometimes it’s the co-opetition model.I wouldn’t rule out any type of partnership and I’m not overly protective of this where I think we have to control it all.”

Anderson made that point clear at the end of a presentation at Bosch Connected World in Berlin in February in which he soft-launched SparkLabs Connex. “When I closed it, this is the part where everybody thinks I’m going to say come and join our model, and I basically said, don’t join it – copy this model. We need more collaboration across the ecosystem – it’s good for everyone.”

As for the obvious question – why Singapore? – part of the answer is that SparkLabs Group has been looking to expand its presence globally, particularly in Southeast Asia. However, Anderson says it’s also because Singapore is already a hotbed of IoT innovation for the region.

“Since the model is to get all the different vendors and everyone working together and connect the ecosystem, most of those people will have a presence here – apart from our city partners, obviously,” he says. “For the tech vendors, [Singapore] is a good hub. And a lot of key people, even if they’re not based here, come through here often.”