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How Singapore Is Jumpstarting Startup Culture

"We're not looking for the straight-A students."

William Cho / Flickr - Composite by Re/code

How does a country raise a generation of entrepreneurs?

For Singapore, the answer to that question is a National University of Singapore (NUS) program that’s actually pretty smart: It sends its brightest away. Students at the national university are assigned to year-long internships at places like Silicon Valley, Stockholm, Tel Aviv and Beijing with companies that employ 10 to 20 people.

Some 200 participants per year in the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) program are groomed to become entrepreneurs. To dissuade students from staying in the host regions, the program times the internship to students’ third year. Students need to come home to finish their final year to graduate.

Although Singapore’s educational system is admired for its discipline and rigor, it is not known for encouraging creativity and self-confidence, as its own leaders will tell you.

NUS Enterprise CEO Lily Chan
NUS Enterprise CEO Lily Chan
NUS

“We need to expand the horizons of our students,” said NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan, a professor of medicine who attributes his open-minded perspective to backpacking trips in South America, Europe and elsewhere. “We need to provide stimuli for self discovery.” Chuan explained NOC as part of a larger initiative to get NUS students to study abroad — today that number is 70 percent, up from less than 10 percent when Chuan was named provost a decade ago.

“We’re not looking for the straight-A students,” said Lily Chan, the CEO of NUS Enterprise, responsible for both the startup office hub Blk71 and the NOC program. “We have a number of lost souls.” For Chan, the most important aspect of the NOC program is that companies agree to pay students, rather than take on interns subsidized by their home university. She described much of her work as making students and startups alike earn their keep, rather than becoming entitled.

After they return and graduate, NOC graduates are expected to start companies. So far, there have been 200 startups from some 1,700 alumni, and a little over half are still active. The program’s success stories include the mobile security startup tenCube, acquired by McAfee in 2010 for an undisclosed amount, and live chat startup Zopim, acquired by Zendesk for $30 million in 2014.

The latest NOC breakout app is a peer-to-peer marketplace app called Carousell. “It’s like Craigslist for the Snapchat generation. I’m not sure they even know what Craigslist is,” explained co-founder Siu Rui Quek, whose study abroad trip brought him to Mountain View in 2010 to work as a customer support and business development intern at a startup called VSee.

Today, Quek’s bushy black hair and slight frame make him seem like he could still be a young college student, but his confidence in his vision for Carousell gives him a familiar startup guy swagger.

Carousell founder Siu Rui Quek
Carousell founder Siu Rui Quek
Carousell

Carousell is a simple app that helps people post photos and descriptions of stuff they want to sell and be contacted by potential buyers. It got its start as a “Startup Weekend” hackathon project. After the three founders won, they went home and realized they had no idea how to build an app, Quek recalled. Their parents were “really angry,” said Quek, to hear they’d be working on Carousell full time.

But despite starting with a lack of technical chops, and despite a “mobile Craigslist” concept that’s similar to many other companies that have failed, Carousell worked. It has been the No. 1 “Lifestyle” app in Apple’s Singapore App Store since January 2013. The app has eight million cumulative listings, and the average active user spends 21 minutes per day on Carousell. The app doesn’t really have an organized search function, so the appeal is more looking at pictures and browsing to pass the time, Quek said.

Carousell buyers and sellers negotiate prices between themselves, and often meet to exchange items and money in person. That leads to many frustrations and faux pas, as chronicled by a regularly updated independent Tumblr blog called Carouhell, where people submit screenshots of their cringeworthy haggling experiences.

 Carousell buyers and sellers submit their aggravating message thread haggles to a site called Carouhell.
Carousell buyers and sellers submit their aggravating message thread haggles to a site called Carouhell.
Carouhell – Composite by Re/code

With that kind of cultural stickiness in its home country, Carousell is trying to expand to other markets. But Quek told me the app didn’t immediately take off in Malaysia because it’s not as densely populated, and Indonesia was tough because the connectivity is so bad. But Taiwan, he said, is more like Singapore, and it worked right away.

Today, Carousell has raised some $7 million in funding from investors including Sequoia Capital, Rakuten Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, 500 Startups and an independent investor named Darius Cheung, who was one of the first NOC participants in 2003.

Cheung and I met up a couple of times over my visit, as he seems to know everybody and everything about tech in Singapore.

99.co CEO Darius Cheung
99.co CEO Darius Cheung
99.co

Cheung is a lifelong entrepreneur. He launched his first business as a high school student, selling video compact discs to his classmates.

After doing the NOC program and graduating college, Cheung co-funded tenCube, which made a sort of “find my iPhone” product before that feature existed. “We were one of three mobile security companies in the world at the time,” he recalled over dim sum near Blk71.

A little under two years ago, Cheung returned to the scene with a new company called 99.co, a real estate search app. It’s backed with some $2 million in funding from Sequoia Capital as well as Golden Gate Ventures, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and others. “Back then it took two years to raise $600,000 in Singapore. Today — two weeks,” Cheung said.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.