Digerati50: Conceived in Malaysia, born in Singapore, ready to take on the world

  • Goh Seok Mei flips a software looking for a problem, to smart city answer
  • Helps city planners better understand smart cities, to make them inclusive

Goh Seok Mei: ""I think we want to be a global organization with a heart. We want to do something that is for the betterment of people."

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.

The following article is an expanded version of the print edition.

3D Visual Intellingence startup, Graffiquo, may have been barely 18 months old, when CEO Goh Seok Mei casually announced a drastic change. "Personally, I don't want to be running this company for a long time," she proclaimed. "I foresee that if everything goes very smoothly, I will run (it) for three years."

And why is she setting herself this deadline? "Because within one year we've really gotten so far."

In fact it took slightly over a year for this Malaysian founded and led Singapore headquartered startup to step into the spotlight as a partner to a United Nation's initiative, by helping them make sense of data in their city. Lots of data, in fact.

"We are actually looking at the whole Smart Cities environment," said Goh, everything from smart living, to smart working, and smart governance.

Graffique works with partners who supply the data for infrastructure in a city, including aerial drone photos, and it analyses and organises it to present as an interactive 3d model.

Take for example their work in Cauayan City, Philippines, where flooding is a constant problem, so authorities want to understand elevation changes in order to predict where the greatest threats are. "We took a photo of the Cauayan City where there's a big river," said Goh.

"Instead of them going on site to measure the banks of the river, we can (now) digitally measure changes, identify and tag how many people are in that place. And when the river floods, what is the equipment needed and who do the authorities need to save."

Its capabilities are impressive but it didn't exactly start that way.


Conceived in Malaysia, born in Singapore

When a former colleague, George Tang, connected with Goh in 2018, it was for a solution looking for a problem. Tang had created software to read and manipulate 3d models used by engineering companies. His idea was to make the software cheap and accessible, but it wasn't getting traction. "(George) is technical, but he was trying to market an engineer's work," recalls Goh.

By then Goh was already a seasoned executive who had run three IT-related companies, as well as worked for IBM and HP before that. She felt confident she could do something with George’s product.

"Instead of looking at (the software) purely for engineering purposes, I took it out of context and wanted to bring this application to the business users." Goh became the CEO to implement this plan, and Tang, the founder, became CTO to focus primarily on R&D.

Next, Goh looked at the company's ambition. "I told him that to do this globally, we have to do it out of Singapore." In February 2019, Graffiquo was launched in the island state.

Things moved pretty fast after the Singaporean government understood the value Graffiquo had to offer. They were awarded an IMDA (Infotech Media Development Authority) grant, and got the opportunity to present their work at Innovfest Unbound conference and exhibition in June 2019. "From Innovfest, we managed to get into Smart Nation, part of the Smart Cities charter."

But it wasn't just the Singaporean government that was quick to recognise the value of Graffiquo. Two Malaysian government agencies, quickly followed up with financial support via grants. Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd gave them a grant of US$84,400 (RM350,000) in the first half of 2019 and Malaysian Technology Development Corporation followed with a US$1.2 million (RM5 million) grant in the second half.

Bolstered by the support, Graffiquo then represented Singapore as part of the Smart Nation contingent and went to the Smart City World Expo in Barcelona in 2019, where they got into contact with the United Nations. This then led to Graffiquo becoming a partner to the "United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities" (U4SSC) initiative. "It all happened within the year," reiterated Goh.

And then, Covid-19 happened.


A global company with a heart

Until that point, Goh had been criss-crossing the world trying to coordinate partnerships. Apart from the work with US4SSC, Graffiquo has collaborations with universities in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ireland, Austria, and the USA.

"One year, I was running around like crazy," said Goh. But the pandemic put a stop to that.

Crucially, they couldn't meet investors either. "We were looking at VCs, we were looking at investors, but after Covid happened... we all pengsan (fainted)!"

But the pause in running the company enabled Goh to focus on Graffiquo's role as a social enterprise. "Because we are partners with U4SSE, SDG 11 is one of the charters for us to work on." (UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 is about making "cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable".)

They are now working with the National University of Singapore (NUS) on a program to help with people with disabilities and special needs, considering the challenging job market that Covid-19 has caused. "What we are trying to do for this group of people, is see if it's possible for us to upskill them."

This is very much in line with Goh's vision for Graffiquo. "I think we want to be a global organization with a heart," she said. "We want to do something that is for the betterment of people."


A team like a family

This was the motivation behind Goh’s decision to stop working on the business side of Graffiquo after three years. "I will leave that for my second liners to run. I want to focus on getting the Graffiquo Foundation up."

This confidence in the team is a testament to how tight a ship Goh runs is (some have been with her for twenty years), and how she's brought them from project to project. "Over time, we have become like a family," she says. "They are the people that I can trust, and they know they can trust me."

The tight team she has built helps relieve the stress as well because it is shared," she says. "When things don't work out, we get together, we huddle, we makan (eat) and we laugh!"

While she says this, Goh is also welcoming the possibility of more stress. They have just gotten shortlisted (May 2020) for a global incubator network programme in Austria, one of seven selected from Asia.

"We have an opportunity to start up a company in Austria which they help fund," she shares. "I'm learning German."

That’s good because Goh is someone who gets bored easily. "I cannot be stagnant," she explains. Fortunately the Graffiquo journey is proving to be quite exciting for Goh.

Digerati50 2020/2021 is proudly sponsored by Maxis - Powering Malaysia's 5G era.

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