Founding CEO of SGInnovate
With over 25 years of experience working in the technology industry in Europe and Asia, Steve Leonard has amassed a wealth of knowledge that he now draws on in his current position as the Founding CEO of SGInnovate, a private limited company wholly owned by the Singapore Government that helps entrepreneurs build deep-tech products by connecting them with mentors, venture capitalists and access to science and technology research. Prior to this, Steve was the Executive Deputy Chairman of Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) where he was responsible for overseeing and regulating the telecommunications marketplace and building the tech industry in Singapore. Over the years, Steve’s hard work and ingenuity has had a huge impact on shaping Singapore as the vibrant tech and innovation hub we know it as today.
If you were to go to University today, what major would you choose?
I’m torn between two answers. One is physics because I think anything that helps you understand how the world works, especially in quantitative terms, is going to be important for the future. The second is philosophy because thinking critically about humanity and how societies work is important, especially as we enter this brave new world of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics.
At the opening speech of Slush Singapore, you said Singapore was built on innovation. What should the world know about Singapore and innovation?
Firstly, Singapore is physically bigger than it used to be because of land reclamation. In terms of engineering, the underground MRT was built in an area that was reclaimed. Digging through original earth is one thing, but digging through recently reclaimed earth is more difficult. Water purification is another challenge that Singapore has overcome. But really it’s Singapore’s economic model that the world should know about. In 1962, Singapore had a per capita income of roughly 500 USD and today it's about 60,000 USD. No other country in the world has had an increase like that in such a short period of time. So from that perspective, innovation is not so much inventing as it is creating a nation that has been able to provide better education, healthcare and standards of living for its citizens.
What will a Smart Nation look like in twenty years time?
For me Smart Nation is a mindset, not a thing. It’s about whether we are able and willing—willing being the keyword—to tackle things that we don't know the outcome of in advance. The most classic example of this is the moon shot in the US. Kennedy said they were going to send a man to the moon and back safely at a point in time when no US astronauts had done this before, so there was no experience to base that sort of ambition on. For me, a Smart Nation doesn't have to aim for a moon shot, but rather a solution to a problem where we can call on universities, entrepreneurs, and corporations to work together and contribute to making the solution happen. It may not work out each time, but we're going to carry on until we achieve what we've decided is the outcome of a particular desire. That to me would be a Smart Nation in twenty years, where the capability and confidence to try something new is what drives people forward.
How would you do this on a country level?
I think it starts with having a statement. I was in Helsinki a few days ago for a Slush event with thousands of people, and on a big LED wall it said ‘Singapore Smart Nation’. One of the multinational companies that was showcasing there had decided to use that. I took a picture of it and sent it to a few of my friends here and said, “Hey we're getting publicity in Helsinki, and that's good.” It makes a powerful statement about how political leaders, corporate leaders and academic leaders are sharing a common vision. In 2014, the Prime Minister stated that he wants us to aspire to be a Smart Nation, so off we went and now there's a Smart Nation program office overseen by several different ministers. It’s important to continue rallying behind that so people become excited about it and say, “Oh, this is what it means. This is what it might mean for my children's education.”
In your opinion, what qualities are the most important to cultivate if you want to be successful?
Curiosity, courage and confidence. It’s good to be curious, but you also have to have courage to pursue things that you may not necessarily know about. Confidence can give you some courage. I'm a confident person, but not because I think I'm going to succeed at everything. It's just that I know if something doesn't work out, I'm still going to be okay.
There is an old adage dating back to the Roman Empire that says when you go to a new place, you should burn the boats. That way if something doesn't work out, there is no way back and the only way forward is progression.
Think about when a corporation says, “Let's experiment with this, but if it doesn't work out, that's okay. At least we tried” versus the start-up that says, “I only have three weeks worth of cash left and I've already spent all my savings and my parent’s savings, so I have no choice but to find an answer.” That's normally when the real breakthrough happens because you're 100% focused.
Are there any companies that you've seen doing this well?
If you look at the mindset issue, I would give credit to Piyush Gupta over at DBS because he puts a lot of effort into DBS being innovative. He gives speeches on innovation and talks a lot about the mindset, and he has actually followed through, living his words by creating innovation labs and hiring a Chief of Innovation. He is very sincere and committed to innovation, so he’s a great example.
What is your biggest ambition for SGInnovate?
For me the meaning of ambition and success is the same thing. We want to do everything we can to be useful to the founders and entrepreneurs who want to tackle tough problems. I use the word useful because I don't like the words nurture or support. To me those words imply the need to help with a weakness. I prefer to be useful to a person or team that wants to attack a specific problem. If their company grows and provides a solution to certain market that people are benefiting from, that would be a huge success for us and that is ultimately our goal.
What books are you currently reading?
I read a lot in small bursts throughout the day. Some of my main go-tos are CNBC for financial markets, the Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, The New York Times, BBC, and CNN. I also subscribe to Medium and spend a lot of time on Quartz and TechCrunch.
Can you tell us about a book that has had a huge impact on you?
I can’t think of one particular book, but I can tell you about something I read a long time ago that that has impacted me. It basically said that it's important to think of being paid or compensated in two ways: cash and experiences, and that you should pursue experiences over cash. I’ve always taken that seriously, which is why I've lived in different places and worked in different roles. If I were only pursuing cash, I would have been better off staying in the technology industry, but it's been a much richer experience doing what I do now and meeting the type of people that I've had the opportunity to work with, including founders, business leaders and political leaders that want to do new and interesting things. My advice to everyone is to pursue experience, see where it goes, see what you learn and see what you can do.
What are you going to learn in the year ahead?
I'm trying to learn more about different religions because I like understanding the history of religions and how they form and how people fit together. Right now there is so much tension in the world, so I'm trying to understand other perspectives. From a historical perspective, you can go back to the point where Christianity, Judaism and Islam were all sort of reasonably well aligned, and you can still see some common themes and connections. So I'm interested in this idea of how people fit together and hopefully whether people can continue to fit together.