Making their mark: How young Asian entrepreneurs are creating a better future

Making their mark: How young Asian entrepreneurs are creating a better future

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 15 November, 2023


I believe that young people are more willing to take risks. It is the youth who are willing to make a pitch with their revolutionary ideas. They are less afraid to fail as they have less to lose. However, it is important that they take on calculated risks, not reckless risk.

David Ding

Associate Professor of Finance (Education), Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. Youths play an active role in solving global challenges. Their success is driven by their grit, metacognitive ability, receptiveness to feedback and an ability to build partnerships.
  2. Many youth-led startups have gone on to win international awards, major grants and raised millions in capital for their innovative solutions in sectors such as medtech, and sustainable construction.
  3. Young entrepreneurs benefit from starting early, allowing them to learn from failures at minimal cost and leverage the resources and opportunities available to them

This article is featured in Special Feature: Nurturing Tomorrow's Innovators

History has shown that youths are not afraid to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. From making healthcare accessible to building sustainable cities and reimagining education, lists like Forbes 30 under 30 reveal that youths can and do have an active role to play in improving and empowering society - be it through their activism efforts or unique business models.

The promise of the next generation can be seen in the book, “Pioneering A Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Future: Founder Stories and Business Models” by Associate Professor David K. Ding, Assistant Professor Chiraphol N Chiyachantana and Associate Professor Tamas Makany. It features the personal and business journeys of the founders of nine startups looking to make their mark on the world. These young entrepreneurs were finalists in the 10th edition of the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC) organised by the SMU Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) in 2021.  

With anecdotal stories and market and operational details, the authors paint a picture of the highs, the lows, and the challenges that the founders faced on their journey. The book provides aspiring entrepreneurs with potential roadmaps on how they can discover market opportunities, organise their resources and achieve their own versions of success.

Despite their diverse business models and fields, ranging from robotics, biosciences, food security, agriculture to manufacturing, the featured founders possessed a group of traits which the authors identified as the key drivers for their success. These were: grit, metacognitive ability, receptiveness to feedback and an ability to form coalitions of support.

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The benefits of starting young 

Most of the start-up founders highlighted in their book started their ideas in their youth, many during their university days. According to Assoc Prof Ding, being young allows them to fail and restart, and, in the process, avoid the pitfalls of their earlier failures. 

He gives the example of Dr Jonathan Ng who was so struck by the dismal healthcare facilities of Cambodia, which he had visited in his youth, that he decided to dedicate his life to medical and business training. He eventually became a healthcare entrepreneur, and in 2017 founded Iterative Scopes, now known as Iterative Health, which specialises in computational gastroenterology and uses AI technology to provide doctors with quicker detection and diagnosis for their patients.

Iterative Scopes emerged as the winner of the LKYGBPC Beta Prize in 2021, a category reserved for pre-revenue start-ups, and Dr Ng went on to raise a total of US$182 million that same year, followed by US$150 million in Series B financing in 2022. Dr. Ng’s charitable foundation, Children of Cambodia, also went on to open the country’s first neonatal ward, and he brought experts from the United States to train local medical professionals, as part of his mission to expand access to high-quality healthcare. His story demonstrates the level of impact youths can achieve when they are driven by the right motivation and are equipped with the right qualities, opportunities and support structures.

The 11th edition of the LKYGBPC in September 2023 saw a record-breaking 1,000 submissions from 1,100 universities compete, based on the theme “Innovations Beyond Boundaries - Reimagining a Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Future”. With participants offering deep-tech solutions in key areas such as healthcare, manufacturing and urban solutions, the competition revealed the next generation’s readiness to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. 

Here are three examples of young start-ups in Southeast Asia that are already leaving their mark, the stories behind the founders’ journeys, and the qualities driving them towards success.

Castomize: Creating better healthcare experiences 

Founded by SMU Business alumnus Abel Teo, Eleora Teo and Johannes Sunarko, Castomize is a medical technology (medtech) company that has created a series of orthopedic casts that are more comfortable and convenient for patients than traditional casts, while also being more accurate and easier for doctors to apply and remove. Despite only being founded in 2022, the start-up has already received multiple international awards and garnered grants from prestigious institutions such as the National Research Foundation of Singapore. 

Partnerships are key to Castomize’s success so far, having built relationships with orthopaedic experts in five hospitals in Singapore and South Korea to test out the casts and gain feedback.  Acknowledging the challenge of gaining the attention of such established partners, the start-up’s CEO Abel shares that the key was to find as many opportunities to network as possible, to ensure that the collaboration plans were mutually beneficial and to communicate in a clear and compelling way. 

Their innovative use of 4D-printing technology opens up new possibilities for the medical community, and the founders hope to gain credibility in the space before moving on to other medical devices such as blood vessel stents and drug delivery mechanisms.

Magorium: The road to reducing unrecycled plastic waste

Operating within the industrial sector, Magorium has developed a proprietary recycling technology that converts contaminated and unsorted plastic waste into a new construction material called NEWBitumen, which is then used to pave greener roads in Singapore. 

Founder Oh Shu Xian’s passion for sustainability developed after witnessing, at a young age, the amount of crude oil needed in the construction space and the level of waste produced. Recognising that Singapore’s recycling efforts are much lower than the rest of the world, at a mere six per cent of plastics generated, the SMU graduate was determined to find a more efficient solution. 

The start-up stands out for two reasons: the innovation comes from a decades-old family business, and in conservative industries such as waste management and the built environment, where innovation is uncommon. Shu Xian shares that innovating within a family business was challenging and that intergenerational conflicts were unavoidable due to differing priorities and mindsets on innovation. She managed these tensions by communicating clearly and earnestly about the costs and benefits of her idea, and addressed the management team’s concerns head-on.

Her persistence paid off, with Magorium receiving multiple awards for its one-of-a-kind technology. To date, NEWBitumen has paved four green roads in Singapore, and has diverted 8,000kg of plastic waste from incineration - a representation of the positive results that can emerge from years of grit and patience. The company is at its next stage of funding and plans to grow its headcount from five to 40 in 2025. 

Kinobi: Bridging the gap between education and career

Launched in 2021, Kinobi is a student success management system that is used by universities and schools across Asia. Based on the premise that a strong grade point average (GPA) is not enough to land one their dream job, the start-up aims to equip students with the experiences and resources needed to unlock and showcase their best qualities. By managing non-academic workflows such as internships, exchange programmes and mentorships, the Kinobi platform allows universities to easily track the students’ development while empowering the youths to build portfolios that make them job-ready.

Founders Benjamin Wong, Hafiz Kasman and Joshua Phua developed the idea when they
recognised the information gap between higher education and the workforce and they sought to develop a system that helps every student be fully prepared for the transition ahead. Having raised US$1 million in seed funding in 2021, Kinobi now has 60 global clients and over a million users. With their sights set on Asia, the founders are on a mission to elevate the region’s future workforce by equipping its two hundred million young people with the skills and confidence to find their first job and pave their way towards an impactful career.

Given their growing presence, Benjamin, the company’s CEO and SMU alumnus, shares the lessons learned from expanding into new markets, especially in terms of authentic relationship building. He explains that he has moved away from his earlier tendency to walk into meetings and immediately pitch his idea. Instead, he now prioritises genuine conversation and saves the product for the tail end.

Just as he has developed self-awareness and grown in his capacity as an entrepreneur, he hopes young founders can encounter similar learning experiences through their interactions with others. 

He says, “Business is about people. You can’t do anything alone and by yourself. To go far, you’ve got to find a team that fits you, furthering your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses. Moreover, most businesses fail because of a lack of trust between people. Be it clients, business partners, or your co-founders, it boils down to that intangible feeling of trust rather than the written agreements. To be able to bring people together and inspire and guide them towards a cause is a superpower.”

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Methodology & References
  1. Chiyachantana, C., Makany, T., and Ding, D. (Sept 2023). Pioneering A Smart, Sustainable, And Resilient Future: Founder Stories And Business Models Hardcover. Amazon. Retrieved from
  2. Iterative. Retrieved from
  3. Business Wire. (Jan 2022). Iterative Scopes Announces $150 Million Series B to Advance AI-Driven Precision Medicine for Gastroenterology. Business Wire. Retrieved from
  4. Castomize. Our Story. Castomize. Retrieved from
  5. Magorium. Retrieved from
  6. Chong, C. (Dec 2022). Deep tech start-up Magorium targets $6m seed funding to build greener roads with plastic waste. The Straits Times. Retrieved from
  7. Kinobi. Retrieved from