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SC Ventures doubles down on Southeast Asia, India
Investments in ‘intrapreneurs’, digital banking, AI start to bear fruit
Tom King 1 Mar 2024

Southeast Asia remains a happy hunting ground for SC Ventures, which provides a platform and catalyst for Standard Chartered to promote innovation, invest in disruptive financial technology, and explore alternative business models.

Alex Manson, head of Singapore-based SC Ventures, is confident that Southeast Asia and India have a lot to offer in 2024, although he remains clear-headed about the challenges ahead.

“I think the market this year will be tough, at least in the first half, but I think that also creates opportunities for investors like us,” Manson told The Asset in a recent interview.

He believes SC Ventures is well-placed to take advantage of the region’s strengths, particularly its ability to leverage digitization and technological innovation to drive growth.

With years of start-up experience behind him, Manson and his team are now focusing on incubating quality ventures that have the potential to reach institutional grade. He sees the current tough fund-raising environment as a period when less competitive start-ups might deselect themselves.

Any improvement in the economic environment in the second half of 2024 might also see SC Ventures exit or consider an initial public offering for one or more of its ventures, Manson says.

Digital banking development

Using its deep well of fintech expertise, SC Ventures has also been playing its part, behind the scenes, in the development of digital banking in the region, including Mox in Hong Kong and Trust Bank in Singapore.

SC Ventures is also working with Asian regulators on the development of central bank digital currencies (CBDC), offering its deep knowledge and expertise in digital assets, custody, and tokenization.

Generating revenue for the firm was not the initial driver, Manson says, as investing in ventures at first costs time and money, but overtime it adds revenue streams, as well as skills and capabilities, including legal and risk expertise, while helping to build the infrastructure for the next generation.

Manson is passionate about developing “intrapreneurs”, employees who wish to develop an innovative idea or project.

“Intrapreneurs play a pivotal role in driving innovation within the organization, and our intrapreneur programme is now a well-structured initiative aimed at fostering an entrepreneurial mindset among employees who want to contribute innovative ideas and solutions.”

The programme is open to all Standard Chartered Bank employees, and those chosen to advance their solutions have to go through a rigorous curriculum.

“The intrapreneur programme not only contributes to our organization's overall culture of innovation, but also empowers individuals to bring forward their unique perspectives and ideas. These intrapreneurs, emerging from diverse backgrounds and experiences, have also become instrumental in injecting fresh thinking into the business,” Manson says.

Continuous innovation cycle

Among its success stories is CardsPal, a Singapore-based platform offering hyper-localized rewards programme. Incubated by SC Ventures, the start-up has grown to become a robust business with an award-nominated user experience. In 2023 SC Ventures completed the sale of CardsPal to utu, a Singapore-based travel tech firm for an undisclosed sum.

"CardsPal was a great example of why we believe in the power of innovation and support our employees to have a transformational impact,” Manson says, adding that the individual who created CardsPal is now actively engaged in another venture, exemplifying the programme's potential in cultivating a continuous cycle of innovation.

In a sector where investment judgments have traditionally relied on an intimate industry network, market intelligence, and to some extent old-fashioned instinct, adding artificial intelligence (AI) to the mix could substantially enhance the process of identifying potential winners in a crowd of start-ups.

Manson believes AI will play an integral role in shaping the future of the financial industry. Very few ventures within the bank operate without a data element, and as such, AI and machine learning are part and parcel of its technology toolkit.

“The adoption of AI is not new to us, and it is not confined to a single venture or business area but is woven into the fabric of the business,” he says.

This widespread integration of AI across SC Ventures’ diverse business segments aligns with the broader trend in the financial industry, where almost all institutions are leveraging advanced technologies to enhance efficiency, analyze vast datasets, and help deliver innovative solutions.

Supply chain financing

In Asia, among the most potent applications for AI is its potential in validating processes related to trade finance given its ability to handle complex financial transactions, Manson says.

Two of SC Ventures’ investments, Olea and TASConnect, use blockchain and AI to drive efficiency and transparency for suppliers seeking affordable and convenient financing.

Olea’s rigorous risk analytics and secure platform provide a fast, transparent, and practical way to access working capital for supply chain participants regardless of size, he says.

The platform matches suppliers’ financing needs with alternative liquidity from investors seeking a compelling asset class linked to the real economy.

With deft timing, TASConnect, a working capital Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform was launched in India last year.

Through its SaaS offering, TASConnect unlocks efficiencies and economics in working capital management by enhancing scalability, visibility, and cross-border connectivity for domestic and multinational businesses.

The platform is focusing on key growth pillars of the Indian economy such as manufacturing, automotive, fast-moving consumer goods, retail, healthcare, logistics, and their respective sub-industries.

AI is also being used in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) sector, where he says it should be seen not just as a purely supportive medium but a central driving force.

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