Durwin Ho is the Chief Executive Officer of StartupX and Director of Startup Weekend Singapore 2021. Startup Weekend Singapore recently hosted Seeds of Tomorrow, a sustainability-focused hackathon that was held from April 23rd to 25th. Seeds of Tomorrow resulted in around 30 ideas, with a common goal of tackling challenges arising from the climate crisis.

TechNode Global caught up with Durwin for a Q&A regarding sustainability, innovation, and the nuances of such themes relevant to Southeast Asia. Here are the edited highlights of our interview.

Durwin Ho, CEO of StartupX
Durwin Ho, CEO of StartupX

What are the trends driving the need for more sustainable business practices?

Government plays a big role in regulation, such as with the recent Singapore Carbon Tax program.

Activists and ambassadors are calling for more to be done, like Greta Thunberg, Mark Ruffalo, and George Clooney.

There are implications in optics and pressure from investors, which is the driving force behind all the sustainability reports and goals set.

Meanwhile, there is also pressure from consumers from more developed markets–especially in more developed countries where the public is educated enough and cares about the sustainability of the products and brands that they consume & support (carbon labeling, zero-waste products, etc.).

At the end of the day, however, businesses are businesses, and they do things for revenue and growth. There are definitely organizations that are set up with their leadership having convictions toward being sustainable. However, the reality is being sustainable is not an easy endeavor and one that is also highly costly. Take for example sustainability audits.

The point is that opportunity comes from many directions. There is no shortage of challenges that can be addressed through innovation.

What are three key challenges that innovators need to overcome in addressing regional and global sustainability concerns?

Awareness and education of the general public

There is a lack of awareness and interest, and this comes from the bulk of consumers especially in this region. It’s not enough to be aware. After awareness comes education. There need to be constructive steps. We need to be critical in observations and discerning about what we do–this should be the case from individuals all the way to big corporates.

Regulatory differences

Every country’s challenges and backend processes and structure differ. For example, waste management systems differ between all countries in SEA. There are also differences in issues between developed and emerging economies.


At the end of the day businesses remain to be businesses, especially during these times of uncertainty brought about by COVID. The importance of still having a strong business case is key. After all, “sustainability starts from having a sustainable business model”–this is also what most impact investors will tell you.

Are there any sustainability challenges unique to Southeast Asia? Can these be addressed through global solutions, or will we need localized efforts?

As earlier mentioned, there are nuances that differ between developed and emerging economies across the globe. In Southeast Asia, for instance, there is a huge over-reliance on plastic grocery bags, unlike our counterparts in Europe and the US where the situation is getting better. But even in Southeast Asia, different countries have their challenges that are unique to each.

For instance, food waste management and sortation is a big concern in Singapore.

Meanwhile, backwards waste management systems are a huge problem in Southeast Asia, and this also accounts for our contribution to the ocean waste situation with more than 60 percent coming from this region. The inability to properly dispose of, manage, and treat our waste is a systemic problem here.

Unfortunately, all these require highly contextualized solutions in light of the differences in regulations and infrastructure across different countries in the region.

Global solutions can definitely introduce new perspectives and technologies but will have to be adapted to local processes to truly make an impact.

Another global vs. local challenge is making education and healthcare accessible to many parts of Southeast Asia.

The region is very fragmented in terms of culture, income, language, etc. This makes it difficult to have a one size fits all solution. Thus, localized efforts will be key to unlocking the potential in this region.

One thing is sure: The Pandemic has shown the inadequacy of our systems.

How is StartupX contributing to sustainability efforts?

We are enablers who provide the resources needed for people to connect, develop and build solutions to tackle sustainability-related issues.

To some extent I always tell my team, we are amplifiers. We amplify the message, the signal, the ways we get to inform, reach out and target as many people as possible in the ecosystem to know about sustainability and that you don’t need a PhD or have a love for the environment to do the right things.

Innovation and sustainability come hand in hand. For sustainability to truly be sustainable, it actually requires the presence of a vibrant ecosystem that is able to introduce new technologies and perspectives to address the challenges we face today.

This is especially so given the importance of contextualized solutions to address sustainability challenges in each country, to which home-grown solutions would be particularly key on this end.

Our role is to support the development of this innovation ecosystem, and provide the support for entrepreneurs to have the capability to innovate and develop solutions to address these challenges.

Educating the corporates and governments we work with on how they can do more, coaching and nurturing the startups on how they can grow and scale faster, and being the bridge between the two.

How do you define impact, from the perspective of sustainability?

It’s very challenging to define that. Even the governments, regulators, and domain experts have long argued on how to measure, quantify and define “impact.”

There are metrics such as IRIS+ that impact funds use to measure impact, but this remains to be tricky in implementation for a few reasons:

  1. Availability of data. In certain countries across the globe like in Asia, benchmark data are not readily available.
  2. There is also what they call secondary effect. How many layers do you go about measuring the impact you made? If you changed up a business process that reduced carbon footprint, but further down the supply chain causes more carbon emissions, how do you measure that and where is the end point? So this is a hard question, and one that is also costly to engage in.

So I would say this is something that remains to be seen, and from a layman’s perspective, I would say that impact is achieved when you can tangibly or intangibly observe the positive effects of the things we are doing to help sustainability.

Now on the topic of making an impact: I would like to share an interestingly disturbing thought exercise.

Example A: You have a passionate environmentalist who attends rallies, educates others, cycles to work and lives a very sustainable lifestyle, recycling as much as one can, reusing everything and reducing all that one can.

Example B: You have a normal human being–nothing fancy or not really going out of his/her way to live a 100 percent sustainable lifestyle, but not excessively wasteful or wanton in consumption.

But Example B donates $100 million to offset carbon emissions and fund large-scale research centers that are developing a new form of breakthrough renewable energy.

Who is logically the more sustainable one? Who should we “correct”?

Do you think that sustainability issues should necessarily be addressed by drastic or disruptive changes, or can we do incremental solutions that will contribute to an overall improvement?

It depends greatly on the nature of the problem which can help decide on the urgency to which it will become unstoppable. Certain problems have to be met with drastic measures, like hunting ivory and illegal dumping of toxic waste. These are man-made problems that have devastating effects on the natural world around them and endanger lives unnecessarily. Other things like solving poverty, engineering novel renewable clean energy and educating the uneducated, take patience and large movements in government, policies, resources, and manpower.

When you have a hammer, everything is a nail. Certain issues require restraint and strategic allocation of resources to achieve maximum impact. Do not adopt a mindset that everything can be solved with one solution, or that all is doom and gloom, or even that we have plenty of time left. We have to be smarter, recognize, prioritize, and take strong, steady steps towards a more sustainable world.

Some technological advancements have had a negative impact on sustainability, e.g., power consumption by certain blockchain technologies. How can we balance out the negative effects of increased consumption with the benefits of innovation?

It’s not entirely conclusive. BTC and crypto mining does consume large amounts of electricity, and Bitcoin’s energy use this year will rival that of all data centers globally. But there are ways to manage that and there are groups working hard, accords being set up to monitor and encourage mining to shift to more renewable and clean energy.

What we have to understand is that everything is a trade-off–sometimes it’s just basic science. There is often a price that we pay for innovation. For instance, we can’t go faster without dealing with wind resistance. We all have to deal with gravity regardless of where you are on earth. When it comes to incredible innovation, sometimes there are rough times at the start. However, with constant motivation, we will be better able to manage and regulate these technologies toward better sustainability.

There are two extant ways to solve that. One is by reducing carbon emission–literally taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint, switching products and consumption to more sustainable methods, and ensuring overall sustainability. The other is by carbon offsetting which is pretty popular especially to companies who have tried their utmost to lower their carbon emissions but still cannot achieve net-zero carbon.

We cannot change basic science just because of what we want to happen in terms of being sustainable. Sometimes it’s a matter of how to balance the negative aspects of technology with the positive impacts of innovation.

Another point is holistic product development by hiring people across different skill sets, in order to take into consideration various factors in the development of products. This is a practice increasingly taken by more established corporations when engaging in innovation efforts.

Replication of small-scale successes is often the most secure way to grow [Q&A with Yann LeMoël for Startup Weekend Singapore 2021]


Featured image credits: Unsplash