Singapore defence investments arm backs decade-old university project

The Business Times

ENGINEERS Grace Chia and Goh Eng Wei were part of an 8-person undergraduate team that built an autonomous underwater robot nearly 10 years ago, at a time when interest in autonomous vehicles was still nascent.

Their project shone at local and international competitions and was kept alive even after the founding team graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS). In late 2018, it spun off as a commercial entity called BeeX after winning consultancy and project contracts for oil and gas clients.

The startup now has its eye on further expansion after scoring a 7-digit seed funding round led by Cap Vista, the strategic investment arm of Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency.

Cap Vista, an early-stage backer of tech like artificial intelligence and quantum sciences, saw the potential of BeeX for both defence and commercial applications. Its investment comes as governments around the world increasingly lean on the private sector for research and innovation, an area once led by government expenditure in key sectors such as military enforcements and space exploration.

BeeX’s product is essentially self-driving cars but underwater, said Chia, the chief executive of the startup. “The problem we’re trying to solve is how to keep marine infrastructure safe without risking human lives out at sea.”

Large-scale underwater inspections are often done in dangerous conditions. People either physically dive in, or are mobilised on large vessels to deploy human-controlled robots.

Other investors in the company’s seed round include the maritime fund of ShipsFocus-Quest Ventures, Enterprise Singapore’s SEEDS Capital, and NUS. BeeX is also the maiden portfolio company of IMC Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of the Tsao family’s shipping business IMC Group.

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