Exclusive interview with Sinuhé Arroyo, founder and CEO of TAIGER, Singapore-based global pioneer in cognitive automation solutions, on the long start-up journey that took him from Europe to the US to Asia, TAIGER’s impressive growth over the years, his insights about raising capital, and TAIGER’s potential foray into the cryptocurrency space.
Sinuhé, could you share a little about yourself and how you came to found TAIGER in 2009?
I was born in Spain, in a little town called Segovia about 100 kilometres north of Madrid. I taught myself how to program when I was 10, after my father bought our first PC – an Amstrad CPC with 128 kilobytes of memory – as I recall. Incidentally, that was also my first year of gaming! In any case, that sparked my interest in computers, and I did my master’s degree in computer science at the University of Malaga, which is a tremendous university with strengths in AI, cryptography and a couple of other areas. Upon graduation, I went to work in the dot-com boom, but after two years, I left to pursue my PhD.
I chose Austria for my PhD because they had what was at that time the best research center for my area of interest, semantic web technology. I had the fortune to be in Innsbruck, so I was able to practice my other passion, which was skiing. I completed my PhD fairly quickly, during which I realised that I did not want to become an academic. I went back to industry, and I spent a couple of years at a security and connectivity company, where, unusually for my profile, I was able to gain exposure to IPO and M&A activity, after which I decided it was time to start my own business – and thus, TAIGER was born!
I took my research and tried to translate it into a company. To say it was not easy is an understatement. You do not become an entrepreneur just by saying you want to be an entrepreneur. The first year was really a year of discovery. Essentially, we were a technological solution looking for a problem to solve, and it took a lot of time and iteration to find the right market fit.
Eventually, we built our first product, a semantic search engine. While it was a remarkably difficult product to sell – since it is hard to demonstrate the return of investment (ROI) associated with such products – it is today one of our most successful products. We raised around EUR 400,000 in seed funding; subsequently, we moved the company from Austria to Chicago.
We selected Chicago because I had finished my Executive MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which meant I had established a strong network there. We also thought that Chicago would be the right market for us to start selling our product.
Following that, how did Chicago turn to Singapore?
Honestly speaking, our time in Chicago was not as successful as we had hoped. We spent two years there, and it was not really working for us, so we started to look around. In particular, we had realized that we needed a lot more money – a lot more than half a million – if we wanted to play in the US market, so we looked at other regions. Asia, in particular, had a lot of growth and appetite, but was underserved, so we started looking at specific countries. Countries like Japan, South Korea and China were discarded due to the cultural and language gaps, and in the end, we decided Singapore was the best location, particularly for a B2B company like TAIGER, because of its positioning within the region as well as its infrastructure and business environment.
In Singapore, I started connecting with different contacts. In particular, I got to know the Infocomm Media Development Authority, who wanted to build a virtual assistant. We had a program that fit, so we thought we would apply to the issued public tender. Everyone told us we were crazy for applying to a public tender, because in many other countries, you can only win public tenders if you have connections on the inside, and in general, the processes are not very transparent. But we knew that Singapore was a clean and meritocratic country, so we were confident that if we had the best system and the best value, we would win the tender. As it happened, we did, beating out huge corporations like IBM Watson and Nuance. That made a huge splash.
Then we won our next tender, again from a public entity, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which was worth SGD 1.5 million. Then we won a third, this time held by the Prime Minister’s Office. All these happened in the same year, so we had a tremendous 2015.
Building from that, we raised our Series A in 2017, by which point we had quadrupled the value of our company.
Just out of interest, how was the name TAIGER chosen for the company?
The answer is a little personal. My wife is Vietnamese, and she observes the Chinese Zodiac (a 12-year cycle based on the lunar calendar with each year represented by an animal). I was born in the Year of the Tiger, so her nickname for me is Tiger. I did not like the original name the company had, and so I took the word ‘tiger’ and changed the spelling to include ‘AI’ in order to represent what our company does.
How has COVID affected the company so far and what are your current priorities?
Most immediately, the markets closed due to COVID and we had to postpone our Series B fundraising. However, now in June 2021, I am happy to say that TAIGER is back to strong growth. We had a tremendous first quarter and exceeded our bookings by 200%. Revenues are also ahead of expectations.
In our business, it is all about growth. Up until COVID, TAIGER had been growing 400% year-on-year, which is truly incredible, and of course, something our investors absolutely love. Now that the initial impact of COVID has subsided, we are expecting to return to the hyper growth we used to see. That is extremely exciting and rewarding for our team as well.
Accordingly, we will be expanding as well. We currently have around 160 people and expect to increase that to over 200 by the end of this year. That means that building and fostering the right culture, the right communication, and the right motivation in the company is also very important.
Partnerships are also critical. We want to partner like there is no tomorrow.
Last but not least, we also want to keep having fun!
What are the growth drivers for TAIGER?
We want to add new sectors, new markets and new clients. Our tools and platforms are really language- and sector-agnostic, so we are open to all and any new projects.
The core of our team is currently in Singapore, and we have a presence in Dubai, Spain and Mexico. In Spain, we have a sales and main office in Madrid and an R&D lab in my hometown of Segovia, where we partner with the regional government to create high-quality jobs.
We are also constantly working on new projects, many of which we keep very tightly under wraps. That being said, we do also take part in many publicly funded projects, which allows us to participate in the latest research and technology development and to incorporate them into our products to the benefit of our clients.
How do you assess the AI talent ecosystem in Singapore?
There is plenty of talent, and plenty of resources and training programs, from the universities to the polytechnics. If someone wants to learn about AI, it is very easy to find a program or a course that suits them. Data science is such a hot field nowadays, even though I think it is probably oversaturated as it is.
In general, Singapore is very serious about investing in sectors it believes to be the future, such as biotech, quantum computing and, of course, AI. The government has outlined a road map and is making a tremendous effort to attract more companies and talent into Singapore.
The job market is currently extremely competitive for employers. There is so much demand for engineers and data scientists that the candidates have so many options, which is obviously driving prices up. Many people move simply for a bigger salary, and that is an issue. However, at TAIGER, we believe that we can attract strong candidates not only through money but also our culture and our technology.
If we talk about AI, we can look at the now, the later, and the long-term future. Our needs depend on what problem we want to solve and in what time scale. There are broader aspects of AI and advanced technology in the longer term whose needs are not currently well-understood or met. That being said, I think the Singaporean government is on top of this and trying to future-proof the economy and the workforce as much as possible.
With AI being such a hot field, did that affect TAIGER’s fundraising experience, in terms of investor experience or oversaturation of AI start-ups, for instance?
To be quite honest, many investors do not really understand AI technologies. Their role is to bet on the company and their projects. They do have to be informed about the sector and know a bit about it, but they do not need to understand the technicalities of the technology itself. Fundraising is about the founding team and maybe the product in the early rounds, and growth in the later rounds.
AI is very hyped up these days but investors are also smart enough to discern between start-ups that have developed their own proprietary technologies and start-ups that simply add the word ‘AI’ to their pitches. You are not an AI company just because you use AI technologies.
At the same time, I have also met investors who asked me whether our AI was from IBM or Google. That can be a bit frustrating but I think the overall awareness of AI is improving. I always explain, for instance, that AI is not just machine learning. To be honest, when I started TAIGER, I did not even know anything about machine learning. But nowadays, I think there is more awareness that there are limitations to the current AI tools and that they cannot solve all the problems we have, but there are new AI technologies are being developed that might be able to. There are still not as many deep tech AI companies as I would like, but things are improving slowly.
What are your longer-term aspirations for TAIGER? Say, in the next five to seven years?
We plan to keep building and growing in the medium term, and then after that, well, you either keep expanding, get acquired, or IPO, right? We are open to all of these options. If we grow to the right size, we might start acquiring companies of our own to scale up faster, and then eventually look at the possibility of an IPO. That would be the cherry on top of the cake, but it is not our end goal, necessarily. Public financing is very different from private financing, and running a public company is very different from running a private company. Having been on both sides of the equation, the stresses and requirements are completely different.
On a more personal note, having gone through academia, corporate and the start-up worlds, do you have any insights or learnings you would like to share?
I do believe that the success of any company is directly correlated with the ability of the founder or CEO to learn and understand the world. If I had known three years ago what I know now, the company would have grown much faster. If you ask me the same question three years later, I will definitely tell you the same thing!
This is why it is so important to have the right mentors and the right board of director to guide you. This is even more true as the company grows, because the founder is very involved with the running and operating of the company at the beginning when the company is small, but once the company grows larger, the CEO has to lead and motivate instead of doing everything himself. My job now is no longer about doing. I am not sitting and programming, I am essentially talking to people the entire day. I have a team of people to run the company so that I can focus on leadership and value creation.
A last question: what are you currently reading?
I am reading a lot about cryptocurrency. I have never been as excited about anything as I have about crypto, ever since I started looking into it in the past year or so. I genuinely think it will change the world. The next Google or Facebook will come from the crypto space, and it will disrupt the way we do anything in the world. People have compared the crypto boom to the dot-com boom, but to me, the crucial difference is that crypto does not rely on private investors, at least not exclusively. The wealth comes from the tokens themselves. Even if they make mistakes, which is normal, the sector can sustain itself.
I am actually trying to find ways to take TAIGER into the crypto space, and I already have a couple of ideas we are working on, so stay tuned!