Education Ventures Thrive in Singapore

Click here to read the article on the Nikkei website

SINGAPORE — Education-related ventures are booming in Singapore, in both the domestic and international markets, as these companies win over parents and schools eager to give children exposure to the country’s excellent education system.

This, in turn, has drawn a flood of money to Singapore, with investors keen on the education sector’s growth potential. Startups are helping to fulfill the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s twin vision of a country that thrives on education and exports.

“Hello, how are you today?” says a headset-wearing elementary school student to her teacher, an employee of VivaLing, a language learning service. The two are conversing over the Internet.

The service resembles the online English conversation lessons that are catching on in Japan. Many such services are available but Bernard Golstein, CEO and co-founder of VivaLing, says his company is focused on children’s education and has a business model that differs from its competitors.

VivaLing works hard to hold the attention of children, who get easily bored. In one lesson, a teacher wearing an eye patch and a pirate hat starts improvising, calling on children to go on a treasure hunt. For girls who like Disney, dresses are a teaching aid. VivaLing offers customized classes tailored to the individual interests of its young students.

The starting price for a 55-minute lesson is $28 — not cheap, but Golstein seems confident the pricing is appropriate and says parents want their children to have a high-quality education. In Singapore, where education is a top priority, the idea of going to cram schools and hiring private tutors is common, even for young children. Many parents are willing to splash out to have their kids learn a foreign language, believing this will help them find good jobs in the future.

Sell what you know

Singapore, which has a population of 5.5 million, offers limited prospects for growth, so companies typically try to secure a foothold in the domestic market, while branching out overseas. VivaLing is looking to China and Southeast Asia, and will allocate $375,000 it raised from Singaporean investors to tap those markets. By the end of the year, it will launch its service in Japan and South Korea as well.

Kungfu Education and Technology Group, operator of Kungfu-math.com, a website that teaches math through games, is another Singaporean company that is expanding overseas. It has 100,000 customers, 70% of whom are in other countries, according to Foo Pau Choo, who co-founded Kungfu and is in charge of its curriculum development.

The company gets kids hooked on math by having them create a character who moves through the course playing games and earning virtual prizes. Students interact with their characters, honing their math skills and having fun at the same time.

The company also sells its product to schools in Vietnam and other emerging economies. Singapore’s worldwide reputation for educational excellence gives Kungfu extra credibility. It is also expanding in Thailand and Cambodia, and hopes to have 1 million learners within three to five years, mostly outside Singapore.

Strategic advantages

Learning Analytic teaches Indian-style arithmetic, which, when mastered, allows the learner to multiply numbers of two or more digits in one’s head. Lokesh Tayal, the company’s CEO and founder, says that personnel costs are high in Singapore but that the business environment is good because the government actively supports ventures.

Lokesh was born in India and became a Singaporean citizen. Learning Analytic has an office in a co-working space set up on top of a public library in the center of the city-state. The government has been encouraging people to start new businesses and created the co-working space to foster ventures.

Singapore has the added advantage of being surrounded by countries with relatively low labor costs. EduSnap, which operates a home-learning service, has many developers in Vietnam. Because Vietnam and Singapore are just two hours apart by air, employees can shuttle back and forth easily.

Chia Luck Yong, co-founder of EduSnap, says the company leaves most of the development work to countries with low labor costs, while Singapore concentrates on sales and marketing, and improving service.

Global investors have taken notice of Singapore’s vibrant venture market, with education attracting particular interest. In early May, Tech in Asia Singapore 2015, a startup event, was held. Several dozen new companies set up booths. With middle-class populations rising throughout Southeast Asia, education is one of the most promising areas for investment.

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