Recognising sustainable innovations and the technopreneurs of tomorrow at the 11th Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition
Sustainable innovations and the technopreneurs that are pushing for the future won the major prizes of this year’s Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC). Currently in its 11th iteration, the prestigious biennial event is organised by the Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship (IIE) at SMU, and is one of Asia’s largest university-led startup challenges.
Over the years, LKYGBPC has evolved into a platform that attracts disruptive and transformative youth-driven innovations that have the potential to shape industries, address complex urban challenges, and generate positive societal impact on a significant scale. Finalists from previous editions over the past five years have collectively raised more than US$845 million (over S$1.151 billion), which stands as a strong testament to the real-world impact and investment potential of ventures that are recognised at the LKYGBPC.
This year’s iteration was themed “Innovations Beyond Boundaries – Reimagining a Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Future”, and aimed to empower young founders to tackle urgent global challenges through deep-tech solutions. The competition saw over 1,000 entries from 1,100 universities from 77 countries, including Argentina, China, Germany, the United States, Ukraine, Japan, and Indonesia.
These submissions were put through a rigorous judging process that involved 200 international industry experts and thought leaders, and a total of 53 exceptional teams, including 10 from Singapore, were selected for the finals. These teams gathered at SMU from 11 to 15 September 2023 for BLAZE Finals Week, where they competed for S$2.5 million worth of prizes.
Sharing her hopes for the LKYGBPC at the opening of BLAZE, SMU President Professor Lily Kong said, “In the spirit of our competition theme, ‘Innovation Beyond Boundaries’, may the LKYGBPC continue to be a launchpad for new collaborations, strengthening our innovation and entrepreneurship communities. May we boldly pioneer new pathways to redefine possibilities that lie beyond our knowledge today.”
Lucrative prizes that will spur the growth of exceptional startups
The competition was divided into two categories: the BETA category, which covers pre-revenue startups, while the INFINITY category covers startups that have started generating revenue and are in the early stage to Series-A (this marks the beginning of venture capital [VC] investment, where shares of the company are offered in exchange for capital) stage.
Out of a total of eight grand finalists, half hailed from Germany, and it was one each from the United Kingdom, the United States, China, and Singapore.
MEDEA Biopharma won the Lee Kuan Yew BETA Prize, while PlasticFri clinched the Lee Kuan Yew INFINITY Prize. Each winner walked away with S$100,000 in cash and S$75,000 of in-kind prizes, as well as the opportunity to be mentored by some of the more notable VCs in the innovation and entrepreneurship space for expansion in the region. Both are from Germany.
BETA Prize winner MEDEA Biopharma from the Technical University of Munich University, Germany, is a startup developing a new generation of sustainable and eco-friendly antibacterial solutions, as compared to the more traditional chemicals and potentially problematic antibiotics, copper and pesticides that are used. Founded by Rüdiger Trojok, Dr Elene Kakabadze and Giorgi Khubua, the firm entered the “Urban Solutions and Sustainability” category.
Giorgi said the LKYGBPC has been “very competitive.” He added: “This is my second company and I have entered over 50 business competitions, and I am struck by how the judges were very well-prepared. They obviously had studied the companies at a very high level of scrutiny.”
PlasticFri from Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology clinched the INFINITY Prize with its breakthrough technology that turns agricultural waste into eco-friendly products such as cups, straws and packaging that can be used to replace plastics. To date, the company has sold more than 30 million products, saved more than 52,000 litres of water, 170,000 kg CO2 eq. and eliminated 29,000 kg of plastic waste.
Max Mohammadi, a Swedish co-founder of PlasticFri, said the LKYGBPC is a very high-quality competition. “The best part for us is the mentorship we found immensely valuable as this is not something every company offers. To win from among 1,000 companies has been a very humbling experience.”
Another 29 student startups also received prizes across different categories, including NEU Battery Materials, a local startup which won the Maybank Young Entrepreneurship Shield and SMU Chancellor Cup, awarded to the most promising student startup in Singapore.
Said Bryan Oh, the CEO of NEU Battery Materials: “Winning the SMU Chancellor Cup is an honour for us at NEU Battery Materials. We learned about the LKYGBPC through the startup community, and it's clear that this competition holds a remarkable reputation. The global network of LKYGBPC offers has opened doors to valuable connections worldwide, inspiring us to push even harder towards our goals.”
Last but not least, one of the eight grand finalists was Castomize, a startup that focused on using proprietary 4D printing technologies to create medical devices. One of its co-founders, Abel Teo, is an SMU alumnus. “I felt really proud to be standing up there representing SMU on the global stage,” he said. “We managed to stand out against top universities from all over the world, and to me it feels like a testament of how versatile and capable graduates from SMU can be.”
A platform brimming with opportunity
The opening ceremony for BLAZE on 11 September was graced by Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, Mr Heng Swee Keat, who held a lively fireside chat with student founders and VCs on how Singapore can foster research, youth innovation and entrepreneurship with the best talent around the globe.
DPM Heng also witnessed the launch of the Marina and David Su Protégé Ventures Fund II by Protégé Ventures, Southeast Asia’s first and Singapore’s only student-led venture fund and training programme.
This fund is made possible by the generosity of Mr David Su, founding managing partner of Matrix Partners China and a member of the SMU Enterprise Board and marks a milestone in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in tertiary institutions in Singapore. It permits more investments to be made in early-stage technology startups that are founded by students or recent graduates of Singapore’s polytechnics and universities, which are seeking pre-seed to seed funding.
Besides the prizes awarded at BLAZE, it also served as a vital platform, giving close to 50 Singapore-based startups the opportunity to leverage VC Office Hours, Southeast Asia’s largest gathering of senior VCs, to accelerate their professional development and grow their ventures.