Snapping into Place
You’ve read about IP analytics platform PatSnap’s elevation to unicorn status after raising US$300 million in its recent Series E round. Now read about its humble beginnings — and the pivotal role played by the University in its rise — through the words of its founder Mr Jeffrey Tiong (Engineering ’07).
WHO HE IS
Mr Jeffrey Tiong is the Founder and CEO of PatSnap, one of the world’s leading innovation intelligence platforms. With a passion for IP and R&D, he has scaled PatSnap into an organisation that currently serves over 8,000 customers globally. Named a Top 50 SaaS CEO of 2020 by The Software Report, Mr Tiong was awarded the SCS IT Leaders Award in 2019 and Ernst &Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2018.
When I was younger, I thought businessmen just spent a lot of time drinking and entertaining — stuff that you would see in old Hong Kong dramas. Then I attended the University of Pennsylvania on the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) work-study programme, and it opened my eyes to tech entrepreneurship, which went beyond the usual buying-and-selling, to creating something almost out of nothing through research and development. Meeting tech entrepreneurs at Wharton Business School during my NOC stint also made me realise that building a business is not just about making money, but making an impact on the world. If you have an idea and a product that generates value for others, and put in the hard work
to develop it, the revenue will eventually come.
To quote Robert Frost’s poem: “I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” I was offered a student exchange in Washington, but chose to take up the NOC programme because I felt that the business aspect of it was something different from what I had been exposed to as an Engineering student. I was also among the first batch of Engineering students to choose biomedical engineering as a specialisation, and it was really fun. I would be doing signalling class with the Electrical and Electronics Engineering students, anatomy class at the School of Medicine, and pharmacology classes with Life Science students — all in one day! This penchant for going down the lesser-travelled path has also guided my business decisions later on, such as deciding on which new markets to enter.
If you have an idea and a product that generates value for others — and put in the hard work to develop it — the revenue will eventually come.
Some might say that my Biomedical Engineering degree has no relevance to what I am doing now, but biotech and life sciences is one of the key verticals of PatSnap’s business today — and having that foundation helps me to handle this sector of our business. More importantly, my bioengineering background was how I got to this space in the first place.*
NUS has supported me since day one. When I decided to venture into China in 2009, we leveraged the connections of the NUS Suzhou Research Institute. When the facility was set up in 2013, we moved in too. Also important was NUS Enterprise’s investment in PatSnap in 2010, which was a breakthrough for us. We wouldn’t have survived without that injection of funds then.
The latest round of fundraising might have pushed us to unicorn status, but internally, it is business as usual. Other than more cash on our balance sheet, nothing has changed, and we still need to work harder. With or without the funds, our plan remains to grow and increase our presence globally and innovate our products. One of these helps to serve financial institutions, such as banks, so that they can identify high-value tech companies through our database. Traditionally, banks would evaluate a business based on its asset balance sheet or cashflow. This makes tech companies without physical assets harder to evaluate. Our model helps by consolidating information, such as the patents held by the company, to give an indication of the business’ performance and standing.
CUTTING THROUGH THE NOISE
The idea for PatSnap came to Mr Tiong during NOC: while working at a medical device start-up in Philadelphia, he had to conduct due diligence on registered intellectual property. He had to search through massive sets of public information using legalese and technical terms. The tedious task — which was often expensive to execute especially if companies wanted to access private databases — inspired him to create a cost-effective tool that was simpler to use. He founded PatSnap with $55,000 from MDA’s student start-up grant through NUS, and in 2012, the PatSnap Global Patent Database was officially launched.
PatSnap has been on the same path since day one,
which is to grow into a global company and eventually lead to IPO. But how we arrived at different junctures has been very different from what I had in mind. In fact, at some point I am not even sure how we got to a certain point in our journey! It’s full of surprises. For example, we gained global presence much sooner than expected. While it is a very good ‘problem’, managing an international team spread across the world means dealing with a lot of cultural differences. In my leadership team alone, we have people of many nationalities.
Dealing with human relations has been consistently difficult for me,
but it is something that I need to work hard on. I believe in the Chinese saying “天时地利人和” (to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right conditions, and with the right people). We now enjoy market leadership advantages and a favourable international and domestic environment with the increased need for market intelligence; we also have the resources and capital. Now it’s up to us to achieve harmony between the right group of people so that we can all help each other and head towards the same direction.
Did I pay a personal price for my success?
To a certain extent. Because I am so busy at work, I spend less time with my wife and three daughters (who are aged five, three and one
). But I believe anybody who is passionate about their craft or work would have to sacrifice something.
I don’t really get a huge sense of achievement from building PatSnap.
My mind is simply focused on moving from one milestone to another, and each day I am still putting out fires, each bigger than the last as the company grows! Yet if I can serve as an inspiration to others, that’s something I can feel good about. I read a lot of biographies while I was growing up: from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison to Zheng He and Yuefei. And as a youth who loved basketball, I would learn all about Michael Jordan. People need role models, and if people can look at me and say, “Wow, if a normal dude like Jeffrey Tiong can do this, maybe I can, too!”, then I would have contributed to the local landscape.
A curiosity to learn and an excitement about all things new keeps me going,
and my education at NUS has equipped me with the skills to continue my lifelong learning. One of the professors I interned with in NUS told me that the university is a place to learn how to learn. Indeed, while we might forget what has been taught once we pass our exams, the critical thinking skills — from how to identify and solve a problem, to ways of gaining relevant, reliable information — stay with us for life.
NUS also taught me the value of relationships.
When I was rejected for NOC at the end of my third year, one of my tutors, Professor Casey Chan, noticed that I was down and asked me what the matter was. I told him about the situation, how I would soon have to start on my Final Year Project, and would thus have no further opportunities to go for the NOC programme. This was pivotal as Prof Chan made a personal recommendation to the NOC director and eventually helped get me into the programme. I realised the impact one can make on the lives of others — this is why I continue to work hard. The company is a collective — if I can look back and say that I built meaningful relationships, and we had a good fight, then it’s worth it.
I always say that PatSnap goes around with a “Made in Singapore” stamp.
But there’s a “Made in NUS” stamp on it too. From giving me the skills to lifelong learning, opening my eyes through the NOC programme, to investing in PatSnap in the nascent stages, NUS has played a critical role in the evolution of this company. I dare say that PatSnap would not have existed without NUS.