Singapore – where start-ups come when they want to scale

Geralyn Samia
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Singapore is a great hub for innovation in Asia, but for the past year it’s been the centre for innovation across all the Telenor group, says innovation chief Vegard Aas

Vegard Aas 680

It may come as a surprise that the global head of innovation for Norway-based Telenor is based, not in Oslo, but Singapore. 

Vegard Aas has been with Telenor for three years, first as strategy director and then as head of innovation – at which point he moved from Norway to Singapore a year ago. 

But why Singapore? “It’s a great hub for innovation in Asia, and it’s where start-ups come when they’re ready to scale, from Thailand, the Philippines and the rest. It’s a great place to be for start-ups, and there’s lots of talent here.”

Telenor has had an office in Singapore for 20 years: it’s where the company runs the management, legal affairs and human resources for its Asian operations. “But we’re also starting to run procurement for the whole of the Telenor group from here, and we have a new digital business vertical, covering the internet of things, financial services and advertising technology,” says Aas. 

He heads Telenor’s innovation in all its 13 markets, from Norway and Denmark to Malaysia and Myanmar, and the company has a presence in the US, both in Silicon Valley and, through an innovation fund, in New York. The head of innovation for Telenor Norway, and other branches around the world, answer to him. 

“We have an innovation accelerator in Asia,” he adds, “and we use it for both piloting innovations and for distribution – for example, to our customers in Thailand.” Once they’re tried out, “we can help distribute them to other customers in Telenor”. 

“One of the things we do in Telenor is promote internal innovation and entrepreneurship,” he says. “Our staff know our customers best and our entrepreneurship programme gets great engagement from our employees: they bring ideas to life.”

Each year Telenor issues a call for ideas to all its employees. “This year we had 500 submissions and we asked 30 of the best to pitch their ideas in front of a jury.” The final rounds have been held in places such as Bangkok and Singapore, “and the next will be in eastern Europe”. 

This year eight ideas were shortlisted and five of those have already been taken forward. “One of those is now at beta test stage with customers – and that’s after just eight months.” 

Applications have come from all business units, “and even from across business units, and that’s very cool”. He adds: “We’ve have very high engagement in Asia.”

Telenor also uses its Singapore hub – where it is not a local operator – to seek out investments in innovative projects. “That’s one of the tools we use, though in Singapore there is almost too much capital available, and that drives the price up. It’s more important to get pilots and distribution going.”