Profile: Professor Wong Poh Kam

He increasingly advocates investment in projects which can create a beneficial impact on society. He is helping to organise the first social Impact Forum on 25/26 June Singapore, called Igniting Capital Markets for Social Good, bringing together people and global experts on social entrepreneurship and sustainable development. The angel investor, who has been a godfather to dozens of start-ups, now wants to do a good turn in more ways than one. Read More


By Grace Chng in Sunday Times (20 May 2012):

People outside of tech circles would find him an unfamiliar face. With his greying hair, goatee and slightly diffident air, he would pass off as any self-effacing academic.

Inside tech circles, however, Professor Wong Poh Kam, 60, is the godfather.

It’s a tribute to how he has used his instincts, contacts, knowledge and money to further the growth of technopreneurship in Singapore, say industry insiders.

Not only has he mentored and advised many a start-up founder over the past decade, but he has also taken on risk as an angel investor, dispensing precious seed money to about a dozen companies here as well as in India, China, Malaysia and California in the US.

He sees his role as someone who identifies gaps in the entrepreneurship ecosystem and initiates activities to plug them.

Insiders say the Ipoh-born son of a herbal tea hawker is the go-to man for advice or connections to the tech start-up industry in South- east Asia.

According to Singapore-based investor and technopreneur William Klippgen, Prof Wong is so plugged in that any foreign tech investor or corporate executive interested in start-ups in South-east Asia would want to meet him when they are in Singapore.

His picks are usually taken up by fellow investors because of his track record, said Mr Klippgen.

Prof Wong has used speaking arrangements at conferences and sabbaticals in California’s Silicon Valley to build an enviable global network of angel investors, venture capitalists, recruiters, corporate executives and tech entrepreneurs.

As a member of the International Angel Investor Institute, a by-invitation-only community of accredited investors, he attends their events in Silicon Valley as well as meetings organised by other angel investment groups.

He seeks out others like himself who can make a vital connection happen.

‘They are the people who can refer me to the movers and shakers,’ he said. ‘It’s difficult to know everyone, so you link up through the connectors.’

He taps his wide network to steer money, talent, ideas and advice to start-ups here. His connections also let him see the latest technologies, visit promising new companies and meet new founders, serial technopreneurs and venture capitalists.

Angel investors like Prof Wong provide initial seed money, usually ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, to kick off a start-up. About 5,000 new tech start-ups have been registered here each year since 2006.

Prof Wong learnt early the pressures of running a small business. His father owned four herbal tea stalls in Ipoh, in the Malaysian state of Perak, and all his seven children pitched in to help. Prof Wong is the youngest.

“I did the accounts and learnt how much he paid his employees, what he paid for tea, and so on,’ he said. ‘But the key lesson I learnt was that cash flow is king for a small business.’

It was a lesson Prof Wong would never forget.

He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and graduated in physics and electrical engineering before teaching at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang from 1974. He pursued postgraduate studies and obtained his master’s degree and doctorate in computer science and regional planning respectively.

But the call of entrepreneurship was strong and he left the university in 1984 to start an IT company called Seres with an MIT classmate in Kuala Lumpur. When the two men disagreed on the company’s direction, he left, moving to Singapore with his wife in 1988.

His wife, Madam Ong Huay Siang, 55, works for a multinational corporation. Their son, Ming Yu, 22, is in Oxford while their daughter, Hui Yu, 18, is attending the School of the Arts.

Colleagues and business partners describe Prof Wong as introverted but generous with his time, willing to hear out those who have new ideas or problems.

Perhaps it helps that he knows first-hand where an open door can lead.

He himself joined the National University of Singapore in 1988 because he was assured he would not have to give up entrepreneurship.

This led to him setting up a Centre of Management of Technology (CMT) to promote entrepreneurship for tech start-ups.

Things snowballed. He created and helped teach the first postgraduate programme in technology management in 1992.

‘I’d always wanted to be an academic but I was still interested in entrepreneurship,’ he recalled.

In 1998, he was asked by then- NUS vice-chancellor Lim Pin to head a task force to promote entrepreneurship. From there, the CMT became the NUS Entrepreneurship Centre – which Prof Wong is still director of – to seed start-ups. To date, it has supported and mentored about 170 companies. Around the same time, he himself started investing.

His years in both academic life and industry have lent him a special advantage, say his peers.

He is sought out for his advice because he can combine business theory with real-life angel investing experience. It is one of his greatest strengths, said Dr Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the university, and Prof Wong’s boss.

She said: “He has the ability to see beyond the business plans and the experience to spot the entrepreneurs in young teams, and these are attributes of good angel investors.”

Ms Audrey Tan, co-founder of PlayMoolah, recalled Prof Wong’s detailed questioning when she approached him last year for angel funding for her financial literacy site for children.

“He grilled me on why I was working on this start-up. The ability to see through intentions is key to evaluating a start-up,’ said Ms Tan.

Immediately, he knew what was needed when he heard her business plan, she said. ‘He highlighted the need to engage a game designer in our early stages to design a game that would engage kids.’

He invested in Playmoolah, she added.

Prof Wong, who meditates every day as he says it clears his mind, said he has invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in each start-up, either on his own or with others. Finding a co-investor with different expertise from your own is a good idea for angel investors, he said.

Angel investors know that nine out of every 10 investments will probably fail. Like other investors, Prof Wong does not like to talk about the ones that got away. He also ploughs any profits from one company into investments in another.

Despite his workload in teaching and running various initiatives, he continues to research and publish papers in respected academic journals.

And after nearly 14 years championing technopreneurship, he is expanding into social entrepreneurship, hoping to do for it what he did for technopreneurship.

‘There’s a need to educate people in this new area,’ he reasoned. ‘I’m looking for investors who are not looking at huge financial returns but are prepared to accept smaller returns or incur no loss in the investment if their projects can create an impact on society.’

He will organise the first social impact forum on June 25 and 26. Called Igniting Capital Markets for Social Good, it will bring together people and global experts to discuss social entrepreneurship. He is co-organising this with Impact Investment Exchange Asia, a regional group that promotes social entrepreneurship.

Still, Prof Wong is not ready to quit the tech start-up scene just yet. There is still much to do, for example, in mentoring and getting investors to fund larger sums, he said.

‘I’ll only leave when there’s vibrancy in the tech ecosystem, meaning every start-up here has all the support needed to make it as big as it can go.’

That’s good news to young technopreneurs who say he lives up to the ‘angel’ part of such investing.

Mr Darius Cheung, co-founder of TenCube, a mobile security firm started in 2005, recounted how he had asked Prof Wong for a loan some years ago to settle a cash flow problem.

‘I told him honestly I wasn’t sure if we could repay him,’ said the 31-year-old entrepreneur. ‘He loaned us the money anyway.

‘He’s the only investor I know who would do this. It’s like he invests in people at the expense of his own profit.’

TenCube was acquired by software security firm McAfee in 2010 for an undisclosed sum.



One Response to “Profile: Professor Wong Poh Kam”

  1. Malka Bellessa Says:

    That is great news.Congratulations for the googling thing!

Leave a Reply