Unveiling Southeast Asia’s Digital Startup Landscape: Opportunities and Challenges

As Southeast Asia emerges as a newcomer to the investment landscape, Openspace, a venture capital firm dedicated to funding companies in the region, explores its potential and strategies for navigating the startup terrain.

By Shane Chesson, Founder and General Partner, Openspace and Freddie Luchterhand, Vice President, Brand Impact,, Openspace

 

Southeast Asia’s venture ecosystem, though only a decade old, has often been unfairly compared to its more developed counterparts like China or India. However, a more accurate assessment acknowledges the significant progress made in a relatively short span, despite facing challenges such as the recent pandemic and economic downturn.

 

Empowering Innovation: Digitising Essential Services in Southeast Asia

In 2014, when Openspace began investing, it was among several firms aiming to bring structure to the region’s startup landscape, which had been characterised by scattered efforts. While demographic trends presented opportunities, organised capital was crucial for realising them. As interest grew, both local and geographically diverse investors joined in, some deeply involved while others operated from a distance. Investing from a distance is not a tactic that works in Southeast Asia. What was required were operators who made the region their sole focus. Having teams on the ground, where the action is unfolding, was a foundational principle for Openspace, and it was through the eyes, ears, and intuition of localised teams that the first wave of local tech leaders was discovered.

These emerging businesses primarily aimed to address fundamental societal gaps by digitising essential services. The impact of technologies developed by companies like GoTo, Grab, and SEA Group has been profound, expanding access to vital services, the impact these technologies have already had on society and the ecosystem cannot be overestimated. For instance, in Indonesia, where there are only 0.4 doctors for every thousand residents, access to healthcare is limited. Halodoc, founded in 2016, has now simplified that access through technology, delivers medicines in under 60 minutes and surpassed 20 million monthly active users last year. It also played a vital role in leveraging its platform to bring vaccines and tests to people during the Covid pandemic. In the Philippines, Sarisuki’s technology helps people become their own business owners, earning an income by selling produce to their local communities, with 65% of these Community Leaders now female.

Moreover, the success of these ventures has equipped a new generation of founders with the experience and local knowledge to pursue innovative solutions. This has led to a shift in the startup landscape, with many now offering globally relevant solutions from the outset, leveraging deep tech, AI, and Software as a Service (SaaS), and developing Intellectual Property-driven businesses. This ever-increasing level of sophistication of fit-for-purpose tech is surprising people in a positive way, and encouraging a rethinking of the capacity, capability, and creativity at play in our corner of the world.

 

Navigating Challenges: The Road to Sustainable Growth

Despite these advancements, challenges persist, notably in the exit environment. Local stock exchanges have yet to significantly contribute to exit volume, compounded by global market downturns disrupting potential merger and acquisition activities. However, there are signs of progress, with companies focusing on exit strategies and prioritising corporate governance and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles from inception.

Equally, with the right structural changes and marketing, local exchanges like the Singapore Exchange (SGX) could become an increasingly credible Initial Public Offering (IPO) destination for Southeast Asian tech. Being in a strategic location, Singapore is well positioned to attract the demand-side capital to match the supply-side strengths of a well-developed venture and Private Equity (PE) landscape, possessing an extensive list of companies that provide a solid foundation for growth and innovation.

 

Southeast Asia: An Investable Region with Promising Prospects

Despite challenges, Southeast Asia emerges as an investable region with promising prospects. The ecosystem’s rapid evolution, driven by experienced founders and favourable political environments, underscores its potential. Embracing free market ideals and prioritising corporate governance are pivotal for sustainable growth.

Ultimately, the region and its startup ecosystem are still taking shape. Every coming-of-age story is punctuated with challenging moments, but that must be seen as the price of growth. As of today, we find ourselves at a promising time, where experienced founders are developing world-beating innovations in a regional political context that largely remains stable, more coalesced and embracing of free market ideals.

At Openspace, we are poised to seize the opportunities of the next decade, recognising the challenges as integral to growth.

 

The views and recommendations expressed in this article are solely of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views and position of the Tech for Good Institute.

 

About the writers

Shane Chesson is Founder and General Partner at Openspace, a Southeast Asia focused multi-stage venture capital fund finding and backing transformative companies where tech meets life.

Freddie Luchterhand is Vice President, Brand Impact at Openspace, where he works with their 45+ portfolio companies to help them drive value through brand.

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.

 

Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.

 

As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.

 

Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.