In this episode we have Leon Yip, whose career spans firefighting to now working with startups as they develop solutions for public safety and security. 

Leon Yip

Call 159 | From Firefighting to Deep Tech Startups with Leon Yip | Academy Afterthoughts 

In this episode we have Leon Yip, whose career spans firefighting to now working with startups as they develop solutions for public safety and security. 

We are back with another Academy Afterthoughts episode, where we go on call with alumni and mentors of Insignia Ventures Academy’s programs, primarily the Certificate in Venture Capital course which is open for applications to its 7th (March) and 8th (June) cohorts! Talk to our program manager Jiaway Koh and learn more here:

In this episode we have Leon Yip from Cohort 2, whose career spans firefighting to now working with startups as they develop solutions for public safety and security. 

In Part 1 of our conversation, he shares about his time at the Singapore Civil Defense Force, going from the frontlines to innovation development at headquarters. Then we talk about his experiences and takeaways from his 12 weeks at Insignia Ventures Academy, and how that impacted his personal and professional development. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 next Monday, where we talk more about deep tech solutions for public safety and security across various use cases, especially in light of Singapore’s greater push for more global activity to find its place in the country, from Asia stopovers for global artists like Taylor Swift to becoming a hub for more digital asset transactions in the region.


(00:00) Introduction; 

(02:36) Leon’s days at the Singapore Civil Defense Force (SCDF);

(06:29) Leon’s Insignia Ventures Academy experience;

(15:50) How Leon’s IVA experience impacted his career post-program, leading up to his work with deep tech startups at Hatch;

About our guest

Leon Yip is an alumnus of Cohort 2 of Insignia Ventures Academy’s Certificate in Venture Capital course. Prior to IVA he had built a career in the Singapore Civil Defense Force, from frontline responder to part of the headquarters’ innovation development team. From IVA he was exposed to philanthropic capital at Plans and Development of the Temasek Foundation. Currently he bridges the gap between lifesaving and the startup ecosystem at the Home Team Science and Technology Agency’s Hatch, which curates and accelerates impactful deep tech innovations to thrive in the public safety and security domain.

The content of this podcast is for informational purposes only, should not be taken as legal, tax, or business advice or be used to evaluate any investment or security, and is not directed at any investors or potential investors in any ⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠Insignia Ventures⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ fund. Any and all opinions shared in this episode are solely personal thoughts and reflections of the guest and the host.


Paulo: Going into our guest for today, he’s an alumnus of Insignia Ventures Academy VC Accelerator for Cohort 2. And he’s had quite an interesting journey, which is why I’m having him here on this episode. He’s none other than Leon Yip. 

Leon, thanks for coming on the show. Maybe you can give a brief introduction to what you’re doing now to our audience.

Leon: Thanks, Paulo, for having me. 

First and foremost, I am a public servant. I’m currently working in the government with an agency in Singapore called the Home Team Science and Tech Agency. So this is abbreviated to HTX. It’s a long story with a lot of deep meaning behind it. We won’t go deep into it now, but HTX is where I currently am. So that is my current state. 

But I think across my career of about eight years so far, I have primarily been around the public sector. I started off with a career in the Singapore Civil Defense Force. 

For those who might not be familiar, these are your firefighters, paramedics, and other rescuers who handle emergency response and incidents, real incidents that we actually have to handle. Not a boring day in the life. 

And now I am with HTX specifically, in a team called Hatch, that looks to discover deep tech startups with technologies that have potential applications in the public safety and security space. 

I kind of went a little bit full circle and now I’m back to finding ways to impact frontline response again but this time from the police force to the firefighters, the paramedics, your prison services, your central narcotics bureau, and ICA, among other home team departments that might be familiar to at least a Singaporean audience that you have.

Paulo: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty amazing journey of going full circle, still very much a public servant, but approaching it from a different angle. I wanted to dial back a little bit into your civil defense force days. 

And you mentioned a couple of interesting stories there. You mentioned there are a couple of roles within the civil defense force. What role were you preoccupied with specifically at that time?

Leon: I think talking about the Singapore Civil Defense Force (SCDF) and my experience there, I think I want to maybe take the opportunity to share a bit more about what it is and what it’s not. 

So I think that there are different dimensions to life in SCDF as a first response or emergency response agency. 

So on the one hand, you have life at the front lines. And this is where I was for around two years, just shy of two years leading a team of professional emergency responders at Alexandra Fire Station, which is one of the biggest fire stations in Singapore. 

And I would say that the experience is really a dynamic one. You literally have to be prepared to face anything. So for example, during my first weekend on duty, I was actually activated to an incident where a giant tree collapsed during a busy symphony event at the Botanic Garden. So tragically, there was a fatality as a result of that. That was literally like my second or third duty in the station, and immediately, you are just hit with something with so much gravity and so much weight on the shoulders of the responders. I thought that was quite reflective of life in the SCDF. 

Among a bunch of other fires I attended to, I’ve actually gone on to fight one of Singapore’s largest oil tank fires. I’ve rescued people from all sorts of crazy situations, from road traffic accidents to meat grinders, to even being stuck in a high-rise rubbish chute of one of those public housing apartments and it’s really all in a day’s work. 

The folks at the fire station also go about with other tasks, such as fire investigation, auditing buildings to ensure safety and regulations are complied with. Every shift was pretty darn hectic, really. 

But I think on the personal and professional level, it really made me very aware and conscious of the unmet and underserved needs of different segments of the population, even in a place like Singapore. 

A common denominator is that when you meet an emergency, the same kind of thoughts run through your mind: Is everyone safe? Are things going okay? What’s happening in my home? What’s happening to my loved ones? So I thought that this was actually quite an interesting take on how emergencies are actually a social leveler and how the fire services actually play a part, regardless of whatever segment of the population you find yourself in. So I think that was quite interesting. 

Then there was also a whole new dimension in the headquarters where I was posted to, subsequently, where you really start to see things at a systems of systems level, you really start to see things holistically. I was doing innovation development for a good part of my career in SCDF. And I would like to make a couple of observations. 

I think firstly, the government has a part to play in seeding innovation. There are many different schools of thought on what the government’s role should be. Should there be more intervention or more government-led activities in the economy, or should not the kind of invisible hand of the economy just have its way to dictate things? I think that the answer should always be somewhere down the middle and more contextualized. 

So it probably depends for SCDF specifically because it is so niche, at least in Singapore, the innovation does really have to start from within the government because in this case, who else will innovate for you if there is no market to speak for? 

I think that my role is in developing that ecosystem, that interest for startups, for tech companies, for investors to be interested in technologies that could serve the firefighting, paramedicine, disaster management world. I thought that was an interesting take on entrepreneurship and innovation. 

So life in SCDF, the good, bad and ugly. Not for the faint-hearted but I think 11 out of 10, I would try it again if I were to relive that part of my life.

Paulo: Yeah, no, I think you really ran the whole gamut of experiences at the Singapore Civil Defence Service from, as you mentioned, frontline responding to the more holistic kind of systems view from HQ. 

And it was there that you actually began thinking about more of the innovation side, like how you could improve things from a technology standpoint and how things could be more bottom-up in terms of innovating things from the government point of view. 

So that leads into your experiences at Insignia Ventures Academy or IVA. So at what point did you decide to actually take this course and jump into this new world, right?

Leon: So just to pick up on your last couple of words — a new world — I think that was really my interest at that point of time when I was leading the innovation practice in SCDF, to find a new world of innovation and entrepreneurship for firefighting and life-saving in general. 

We had at that point of time worked quite well with various parts of the ecosystem from our big systems integrators from our universities and research institutes. But I think that we haven’t really quite cracked the code on how to work effectively with startups. We didn’t really have that many networks or inroads into the startup ecosystem. 

So I think one thing was to bring the epitome of risk-taking and courage and boldness in entrepreneurship and in innovation to the Singapore Civil Defence Force. 

I was looking out for ways to actually learn about venture capital because I saw venture capital as a real mover, a shaker of innovation. I think at that point of time Insignia Ventures Academy was really new. I was actually searching for courses in venture capital and most of the courses, unsurprisingly, were actually based in the U.S. and based online, except for this one. 

It was a website with a lot of “coming soon”, and that was Insignia Ventures Academy. And so out of curiosity and also finally identifying a relatable Southeast Asia focus platform to learn about entrepreneurship and startups in the Southeast Asia and Singapore context, I didn’t hesitate long before reaching out and getting in contact with the program. 

And I think after a couple of interviews, learning a bit more about the program, I decided to actually just go for it out of my own pocket because I think that it was still a foreign concept for the government. 

So I thought that, okay, if I want to start investing, why not start investing in myself? So I took that upon myself to start getting that exposure and learning. And so that’s how I actually joined cohort two at that specific time and space.

Paulo: I really like what you mentioned about investing in yourself and really taking that initiative. Especially since, even from your perspective, all this was pretty new. 

I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into your experience over these 12 weeks and ask you like, maybe you can share with the audience which team you joined and how you ended up in that team. 

Because for those who don’t know the academy, once you enter the program, you’re assigned into these industry-specific themes. And from there, that’s the basis of types of startups or founders you’re more exposed to throughout the program. And where you get to really bond with the other venture fellows within that team as well. 

Which teams did you end up in and how did that affect your experience?

Leon: That’s interesting. I remember when I was looking at the teams that we could actually state our preferences for, there was only one that stuck out to me at the time, which was InsurTech. 

And I thought that this was an area that was quite relevant to my area of work because insurance and its implications on safety, health, life, I thought that I could draw the linkage to what I was currently doing from a more practitioner and also a more government point of view. 

So I think among the different, very interesting verticals that were showcased, like I think femtech was showcased, gaming technologies, entertainment tech, and other few verticals out there, including foodtech, I remember. 

But for me, InsurTech was one that I was most interested in. So I had no doubt. I only put in one option out of two or three. So I was quite keen on that and wanted to really pursue that.

Paulo: So you’re in the InsurTech team and then you go through this program. 

What was the most memorable experience out of the program? Because there are many things that the venture fellows do apart from attending the sessions. 

There’s also this whole experiential aspect of it of going out into the startup ecosystem, talking to founders, learning more about what these different innovations are and then learning how to communicate these in an IC meeting. 

So which was the most memorable part of this program for you?

Leon: For me, I think there are two moments that were particularly memorable. 

The first one was when one of the mentors or lecturers actually appeared. And I believe it was Jolyn that was giving the legal workshop. And actually she is a batchmate of mine back in junior college. 

I didn’t make a fuss of it then, but I was like, “Whoa, there are people around my vintage who are deep into the world of venture capital and entrepreneurship. This is really inspiring. It’s accessible, we used to be classmates and now look at how far she has come.”

And it’s also the element of motivation that I could one day also lend my experience and expertise to future leaders who want to go into entrepreneurship and learn more about venture capital and startups. So that’s experience number one that left a deep impression within me. 

Experience number two was outside of the actual lessons or workshops. I think the first time that my team spoke to an entrepreneur, when the startup founder appeared on screen, it was very surreal for me. 

Because I think things really became very real only then, before that it’s all just quite academic, talking about how you should interact with founders. What are some pitfalls, what are some things that you could focus on. 

And then when the entrepreneur actually appears and you realize, “Oh my goodness, the clock is ticking because someone has actually taken valuable time off her schedule to come and sit down with us.” And this is the real deal. 

I can’t exactly remember what went down during the meeting. But I think I kept the feeling with me how, it is important to know that whenever we are talking about startups or venture capital, especially when we’re in terms of startups, it’s serious, and we need to take it seriously and we can’t take it for granted. 

It’s not a game of cards. It’s the real deal and livelihoods of a lot of people. So I think that really struck me, to get things together before the meeting, make sure that there’s discipline in preparing beforehand, make sure that you are also worth the person’s time. So I think that was the experience. 

Content-wise, it was great. But I think content is dynamic. It evolves. I think the content today, because of the situation that we’re in economically, will be very different from the content a few years ago. So I think the content-wise based on the delivery at the time and space was great. But I really took away these very tangible experiences with me from the program.

Paulo: I really appreciate that you talked about your interactions with founders and emphasizing the value of time as currency for founders. 

Because I really think that’s really one of the things that we want to impart, regardless if the Venture Fellows do go into the space after the program or not. 

I think it’s to really take startups more seriously and really think about what potential they could have and what cross-pollination could happen regardless of what industry you’re coming from. 

So you did talk about some of the learnings that you learned from mentors, some of the realizations, to your first interaction with a founder, so how about your cohort mates? 

What was the biggest learning or the most impactful moment that you had with your core mates? Could be within your team or from other teams within the cohort.

Leon: In general, I was very impressed by how bold people were. And I think that’s also very apt for Insignia Ventures because I think you guys have — I wouldn’t really say a slogan — but you guys have a line that you always say you are backing the bold. 

And I think that’s really the ethos that I took out of, people who want to be in the entrepreneurship space. You cannot sit back and be meek. You need to make your voice heard. You need to make your opinions matter. 

And I think that’s what I learned most from my cohort mates, how they made their opinions matter, how they made their voice matter, even though they might not be subject matter experts but they would be able to provide some kind of perspective on issues and critique meaningfully. 

So I thought that I wouldn’t say that there’s one single learning point, but I think in general, that boldness to actually have your thoughts articulated and expressed and conveyed and delivered. I thought it was actually very telling, that these are people that I could learn more from.

Paulo: I really like what you mentioned about there being diverse perspectives. 

And I think the openness is something that is characteristic of the ecosystem as well, to be able to learn from different perspectives, even if it may not come from within that same industry, for example. So I think that’s really something important and something that we try to cultivate within the program as well. 

Now I wanted to also talk about what happened after the program, finally made it through the 12 weeks. What were your thoughts at that time and how did that impact the decisions that you made afterwards? You already talked about this a little bit earlier, but going more into the thought process behind it.

Leon: Again, I go back to the objectives that I wanted to get out of the program to start with was to see how I could really try to bridge the gap between life-saving as well as startups and innovation. 

So I think in the immediate aftermath it helped me frame the ecosystem, the different parts of the ecosystem that actually need to be moved, or needs to be shaped in order for there to be a vibrant entrepreneurship in the sector of what SCDF does. 

It’s not just about the startups, but it’s also about helping to nurture interest amongst venture capitalists, making sure that there is assurance that there is a scalable market for solutions and products in this space. And of course, to ensure that the customers, which are your end-users in the different agencies, are also ready to actually use new technologies and innovation. 

So I thought that this helped me frame my actions towards being more intentional in engaging startups. Initially more for learning purposes for sharing with my colleagues, that, “Hey, this is an interesting startup. Don’t treat them as a normal vendor. Hear what they have to say. They have a unique value proposition. Their technology may look strange. It may look a little bit prototype-ish, but that’s the nature of things. It gives them a chance if, let’s say, it matches your requirements and most importantly, don’t lead them on. If you’re not keen, move on to the next.” 

“People can take it. I think startup founders are bold. They also have thick skin hopefully. You just need to be honest and candid with them and that’s how you move on. You don’t expect the startup to turn their world around just for you. Because they have other considerations and other things to do.”

Again, I think the main thing is that they are not like your other traditional partners that we have been used to working with. So I thought that mindset was something that was very important to inculcate in the immediate term. 

So the mindset change that I had was also quite important for me personally and professionally. I think I started to look at things from a more investment point of view, to look at how to see whether or not technology is able to be developed into a new capability whether or not that capability is able to be scaled up, and how it can be scaled up and adopted, whether or not there’s product-market fit, and, whether or not the supply chain is robust, and what are the different potential blockers or enablers of such a product to thrive. 

So I think I managed to see not just startups, but I think projects and programs or any kind of innovation — how they can be scaled up effectively and sustainably and I think most importantly also is who’s the team behind such innovations or new initiatives. 

I think one thing I also learned is that you can already have an A-star team with maybe a B or so idea. And that will actually have maybe a higher chance of a better result than really like a C team and an A-star idea. 

So I think that I’ve learned that execution at the end of the day is everything, and the team is very key. So finding the correct champions to actually push through good ideas or ideas, and let them make the ideas from good to great. I think that was a very important takeaway for me even as I progressed, from SCDF to now in my capacity at HTX and Hatch.

Paulo: I think that mindset of thinking about things from an investment or even just, thinking about things from a scalability, commercialization perspective as well is something that I think is really important, especially within your context, coming from public service because that way, you’re able to have a stronger kind of like conversation, between the public and private sector. 

On that note, we’re going to take a break and continue this conversation in the next episode. So do stay tuned for that where we’ll dig a little bit deeper, more into the deep tech work that Leon is working on. And if you like this conversation, give us a like and subscribe and follow us wherever you’re tuning in and see you guys in the continuation of our conversation.

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