Paul Santos is managing partner of Wavemaker Partners, who set up the venture capital firm’s Singapore-headquartered Southeast Asia office in 2012. Wavemaker specializes in enterprise and deep tech investments, with $180 million in assets under management across three funds. Recent exits include TradeGecko’s acquisition by Intuit, and Moka’s and Coins.ph’s acquisitions by Gojek.
What kind of Southeast Asian tech can you see making it overseas?
Most people in the region, when they think about the valuable tech companies in Southeast Asia, it’s the consumer tech stuff, the unicorns. Our boys are the B2B enterprise and deep tech stuff—the stuff that nobody cares about. They are [always] global companies, with Singapore as the launchpad. One was a Polish company, Silent Eight, that used AI to read and understand documents and surface the most relevant ones for you. And one fine day, they stumbled on the innovation office of a global bank, who said: Have you thought of using this for anti-money laundering? Now they have Standard Chartered and HSBC as their customers.
We’re not from Silicon Valley, or China, or wherever you think these guys should come. It was Singapore, Poland. And these deals were started with way less capital than you would have needed to start with in the U.S. And I would argue, therefore, much more reasonable valuations.
What would be your advice to tech startup founders in Southeast Asia as we come out of this pandemic period?
There are many paths to heaven. There are these growth-driven investments, and that’s what you saw during Covid: some are unlucky, the funding dries up and the momentum is lost. Some lost the company or took a massive hit on valuation. Then there’s value-driven. The reason I like B2B and deep tech is there’s a real challenge to make something that’s 10x better than what’s out there. Consumers can be fickle. But with businesses, there’s inertia. Once you buy a software, you’re stuck with it, because it takes so long to adapt and train your team to it.
How is the new climate tech fund you’ve started compatible with the idea that VC funding enables fast growth and returns?
About 60% of cleantech investing is electric vehicles in Southeast Asia, because that’s sexy. But from a carbon emissions standpoint, that’s only 12% of the carbon. Land use and carbon sinks, agriculture, industrial processes, electrification and built infrastructure — that’s where the carbon is actually emitted. But nobody’s looking there.
So we decided to venture-build — sitting next to experienced entrepreneurs, working through opportunities with them. [Our vision] is a model that can spit out a company that will generate $100 million in revenue, and abate 100 megatons of carbon. It’s a big dream, okay. But if we can come up with 50 100 x 100 companies, we will abate 10% of the world’s carbon. We’re trying to raise our first fund, making it small at $25 million. We hope to have our close by the first quarter.
Technology used to be seen as a specialized asset class and now practically every company is a technology company. I believe sustainability will follow the same path. In the not-so-distant future, every company will need to think about being a sustainable company as well. I’m a pathological optimist, right? That’s why I’m an early-stage VC.
*This 3 Minutes With interview first appeared in the Rest of World weekly newsletter. Sign up here.