ITEM: SparkLabs Group officially launched its latest start-up accelerator Thursday morning in Singapore. SparkLabs Connex will focus on IoT, smart cities and PropTech, and while that’s not particularly unique for a Singapore-based accelerator program, the secret sauce for Connex is the ecosystem of partners its start-ups will have access to, which will hopefully enable the level of collaboration that IoT and smart city projects need to flourish.
SparkLabs Connex’s start-ups will be tasked with leveraging technology enablers that underpin B2B IoT, smart city and PropTech solutions, such as connectivity (5G, NB-IoT, eSIM, etc), analytics and AI, and security. But the overall objective is to pair its startups with the cities, tech vendors, enterprise customers and industry organizations that comprise the IoT/smart city technology ecosystem.
At launch, that partner ecosystem includes vendors Nokia, True Digital, Beca and Skyroam, as well as the cities of Taipei, Songdo, and Darwin. Other key partners include GO SMART (Global Organization of Smart Cities) – which shares innovation and best practices with over 325 cities and vendors worldwide – and the Urban Technology Alliance, which has eight smart-city testbeds across cities in France, Spain, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Also onboard with Connex is managing partner Charles Reed Anderson – founder of Singapore-based IoT/smart city advisory firm CRA & Associates – who admits that when SparkLabs first asked him to join, his first thought was: “Do you know how many smart city and IoT accelerators and incubators there already are in Singapore?”
Anderson says the key difference between Connex and other IoT accelerators and incubators is an emphasis on ecosystem-wide collaboration, which the IoT/smart-city sector desperately needs if it’s ever going to live up to its promise.
“[IoT] is not failing because of the technology – it’s failing because the ecosystem still struggles to collaborate and it’s still very fragmented,” he says. “And a lot of the partners we’re bringing in all realize we need more collaboration.”
The overarching idea, Anderson says, is to bring in as many partners from across the ecosystem that any given IoT/smart-city start-up needs to have access to if they want to succeed – with the caveat that all partners are committed to the collaboration model and serve a key role in that ecosystem.
“It’s not just logos for the sake of having logos – there’s really a purpose for each of them to be in there,” Anderson explains. “I want people who want to come in, collaborate and drive the market forward. If we do that, everyone’s going to win.”
SparkLabs Connex aims to put together its first cohort of up to 15 start-ups by Q3 2020, although Anderson cautions that’s tentative, depending on how long the current COVID-19 outbreak lasts.
“If we can get it going in early Q3 we’ll do that – if it means it’s a little bit later, that will happen as well. But eventually this situation will calm down, and we’ll have to get back to work. So I just want to make sure we’re prepared and ready to go.”
The operators are coming (soon)
One notable absence from the Connex ecosystem – at least at first glance – is mobile operators, who are banking on providing the wireless connectivity for IoT, PropTech and smart city projects, especially 5G. Indeed, a number of operators have already launched their own 5G accelerator programs or sandboxes to encourage local players in the IoT ecosystem to fool around with 5G gear and see what they can do with it.
However, Anderson says mobile operators are very much part of the SparkLabs Connex equation – not only via Nokia (which gives start-ups access to its operator customers) and SkyRoam (which provides eSIMs that enable roaming for mobile IoT apps like connected cars and fleet management), but also by signing telcos on directly as partners.
“There is going to be a couple of other operators that we’re going to be engaging on this,” Anderson says. “To be perfectly honest, it takes a long time – while I get the buy-in from these partners, it takes awhile to structure everything related to MoUs and how we’re going to engage.”
Anderson adds that from a purely pragmatic point of view, Connex is designed to be attractive to operators about to launch 5G but still aren’t sure how to make money from it apart from faster mobile broadband.
“If we go out two years from now, the operators are going to run into a situation where they’re going to be looking for solutions to help them monetize their 5G networks,” he says. “So I think they’ll be looking at programs like ours that are going to start bringing those solutions to market as the next wave of solutions that can help with that.”
The same goes for NB-IoT, the standard that was supposed to enable LTE to compete with low-power WAN solutions like Sigfox and LoRa, but has mainly seen significant deployments in China.
“There’s not a lot of solutions in the market, and a lot of the operators I work with around the region ask me today: what are the use cases, where’s the hardware, where’s the kit that we can actually deploy NB IoT solutions? It’s not really there yet outside of China,” Anderson says.
He says SparkLabs Connex start-ups could help meet that unmet demand, especially in cases where operators decommission their 2G and 3G networks as the roll out 5G. “That means you’ll need something that can support low power – maybe they’ll do some of that in 5G, or they can leverage an existing NB-IoT network, and then you’ll start seeing the ramp up and volumes there.”