The Silicon Valleys Of The World: Asia Edition

Silicon Valley doesn't own the monopoly on being a tech development and startup hot spot: Meet the equivalent, exciting places on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

We all hear endlessly about the goings on in Silicon Valley, whether it be news about novel startups with a mission to change the world, the investors that back the projects, or the political machinations that go on in this well-known hotbed of technological innovation.

But far across the globe there are plenty of places that are also bubbling with excitement, innovation, entrepreneurial fervor and cash. Often they're the very places where the actual Silicon Valley's products actually get mass-produced. Meet some of Asia's tech innovation hotspots.

Singapore

Singapore is often feted as "Asia's Silicon Valley" because of its history as a popular place to set up an international business, its location, its low friction to doing business and its cosmopolitan nature. As an example of its growing importance, recently a new incubator fund, Golden Gate Ventures, is trying to spend its $10 million to bring successful Singaporean entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley itself to work with existing names that are famous from currently successful enterprises like YouTube.

As another example, Business Insider recently covered the interesting story of social messaging service Bubble Motion. CEO Tom Clayton explained that his company was already split 50-50 between the Valley and Singapore, with management in the U.S. and all the technical parts of the business the other side of the Pacific. After the financial slowdown in 2008 the company decided that consolidating operations in one place was better, and rather than scrabbling among other startups for money in Silicon Valley it decided Singapore was a better option--not least because it was cheaper to operate from there.

As the BBC noted, there're interesting efforts by private and government bodies in Singapore to push its tech start-up status. This includes programs like that run by the Joyful Frog Digital Incubator, which partnered with the large SingTel telco to fund a 100-day program where entrepreneurs are mentored and then pitch to investors. The government itself kicked things off in 2003 with an economic review that decided Singapore should become an "entrepreneurial nation" that is keen to take the kind of risks you need to start innovative new businesses.

The status of the nation as a great place to be an entrepreneur isn't universally accepted, however, and some voices suggest it's due to a lot of hype. Some suggest that the culture really doesn't support entrepreneurial risk-taking, and that angel investors are too wary of risk.

That doesn't seem to worry billionaire Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin who, slightly controversially, chose to make his official home in Singapore just before the Facebook IPO. He's reportedly keen to invest in startups in the nation, and is said to be promoting a more Silicon Valley-style of investment.

Korea's Daejeon and Digital Media City

Daejeon, according to its Wikipedia entry, was just a small village at the start of the 20th Century, but the arrival of the railways quickly formed it into a transportation hub. Now the city of 1.5 million people, roughly centrally located in South Korea, is sometimes called Korea's Silicon Valley. It's still a transport hub for road and rail (Seoul is 50 minutes by high-speed train) but it's also where much of South Korea's science and technology development happens.

Everything from biotech firms to green science happens here, and it's home to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which develops robots we cover from time to time. These firms and educational research establishments spin off young companies from time to time, and events like the Daejeon Startup Weekend help. It's a 54-hour "intense" affair where participants try to build a mobile or web product in one sitting, and which promotes networking and actually new companies.

Recently Bosch invested $100 million in the city to build high-tech diesel cars, and earlier this year a group of 28 prominent companies formed a new 30 billion won ($26 million) fund called Daekdock Investment to spur growth of startups here.

Korea also has Digital Media City, which is billed as the first "high tech complex" for digital tech in the world. Built on a landfill site near Seoul from 2002, and covering over six million square feet, it's home to firms like LG Telecom and facilities like the Korean Film Archive. It's also the site for the Digital Media City Landmark building, currently under construction and due to be the third tallest in the world at completion in 2015.

China And Shenzhen Industrial Park

China may not be the first place you think of in terms of startup activity--tight government control and giant mega-corps probably come to mind. But the nation is quite definitely sponsoring entrepreneurial spirit. The annual two-day ChinaBang conference, held earlier this year in Beijing, resulted in 16 firms that TechCrunch notes are ones to keep an eye on. Inc also covered seven new Chinese firms that may hit the headlines in 2012.

The statistics show that Beijing is home to most of the nation's startups (some 5,100-plus companies) but that the startup culture is beginning to spread to other parts of China.

Perhaps the best-known high-tech concentration in China is the Shenzhen Hi-Tech Industrial Park. Before 1979 it was just a small village in Guandong Province nearish to Hong Kong. Then it became the first of China's Special Economic Zones--regions which are afforded an extra degree of freedom and investment compared to other parts of the nation--and it's flourished. It's now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, attracting billions in investment, often from foreign firms.

Big name firms like Huawei have facilities in the area, alongside huge manufacturing facilities owned by companies like Foxconn. But there's also a quiet but growing startup culture and another Startup Weekend is scheduled for November 9th in the city. And there are ongoing efforts like the HAXLR8R startup incubator, trying to stir up interest in entrepreneurial activity.

Japan

While you may think of Japan mainly in terms of mega-corporations like Sony--undoubtedly high-tech, but hardly a startup--the nation quite definitely has a startup scene. Back in April the New Tech Japan Night IV saw a list of innovative new Japanese firms presenting their ideas and attracting media interest.

Japan has made some big efforts at promoting innovation in science and technology, and the Kansai Science City (near Kyoto) and Tsukuba Science City--which was modeled on, among other places, Palo Alto--seem successful efforts at concentrating business and education into small regions. Tokyo itself is a startup hub, with efforts like the Open Network Lab (a very Y Combinator-like incubator/investor) serving to boost startups in the city.

Some doubts have been cast on Japan's risk-averse entrepreneurial spirit, especially in the aftermath of the earthquake disaster in 2011--with the Huffington Post commenting that some young Japanese entrepreneurs are taking their Japanese education and expertise to Silicon Valley itself to try to get their ideas off the ground.

Other sources point out that some Taiwanese investment firms are targeting Japan as a hotbed of innovation, with the Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute pulling together two funds. The $100 million Golden Asia Fund, in particular, is reportedly aimed at investing in smart Japanese firms.

[Image: Flickr user Ben Raynal]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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3 Comments

  • James Norris

    I'd take it a step further. Singapore could become Asia's Social Silicon Valley (SSV). To be clear, by social I mean social impact.

    From 2009 to 2011 I spent a massive amount of time "on the ground" studying Singapore's potential as a SSV. I spoke to over 250 people in or involved in the sector, learned about their perspectives, and ultimately developed a case for Singapore: www.jamesnorris.org/singapore-....

    The five key factors that seem to matter most are: access to talent, access to funding, access to markets, good business climate, and a supportive culture. Singapore ranks reasonably well across each domain, although available talent is the weak link right now.

    It's still very early in its development as a hub, but time will tell what can come of it.

  • Baskar Ganapathy

    Is there any place in India which you would consider for this list? Why or Why not?

  • Differentspeak

    A lot of hype has been created about SG being an entrepreneurial friendly nation, fact is while the govt gives lots of sop for the new establishments which make it easier for the VCs from the original Silicon Valley to funnel in huge investments for the startups , major chunk of funds are swayed away in the name of value added business or rather newly created buzz of social networking. While the funds keeps on flowing , actual ROI targets keeps eluding them, leading them of no choice but to keep supporting them till they loose every penny invested or finally auction them in scrap to the big fishes. Hence the end results does not seem to change from the point where they have started.