Last year, a group of high net worth individuals in Singapore who bought rare coloured diamonds through an investment firm cried foul when the company’s owner went missing. Using Handshakes, a corporate intelligence platform that collates and analyses data from a wide range of sources, reporters from a newspaper discovered that the owner of this diamond investment firm was linked to several other companies both here and in Malaysia that had bad track records.
Changing The Way We Do Business
“We were really able to increase transparency,” says Handshakes co-founder Daryl Neo. This drive to lay bare the network of connections between and behind companies is at the heart of what he hopes to accomplish with this platform. “When the world becomes more transparent, it is a lot easier to do business. Deals tend to fall through because of a lack of trust. So we are here to help build trust, by speeding up the process of background checks and due diligence. With more transparency, there can be a lot more economic growth.
Daryl and co-founder Charles Poon used to be regulators at the Singapore Exchange, where the tedious process of manually reviewing corporate data inspired them to start Handshakes in 2011. The timing was right as technology had become sophisticated enough to allow start‑ups such as theirs to access powerful servers and visualisation tools that could support their analytics algorithm. Corporate structures have also become much more complex in recent years, which creates more demand for the service they provide. “These days, you can no longer understand someone’s business if you only look at one report,” Daryl explains. “The world is now more interconnected and the amount of data has increased exponentially. That pain point is the reason we could enter the market.”
"I hope we can help make Singapore known as the country
where people can come and look for information
when they want to do a deal," says Neo.
Today, the bulk of Handshakes’ clients are from the finance, auditing and regulatory industries, and Daryl believes his company has built one of the strongest artificial intelligence (AI) teams in Singapore. “Our strength in AI is going to give us many adjacent opportunities,” he reveals. “Right now, we are using it to pick up the names of people and companies across many data sources. We can eventually use it to look for themes, and extract information on what people are talking about in the news, for example. From there, we will be able to predict trends.”
That doesn’t mean that human input will eventually cease to be important. On the contrary, Handshakes’ vision of establishing a strong regional presence—it currently has staff in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China—means it has always been keenly aware of the need to hire talent who can help it expand into other Asian markets, most of which do not use English as the dominant working language. All staff have to be fluent in at least two languages, and the team includes linguistic experts who handle the translation of data.
Beyond linguistic differences, Asian countries also vary widely in terms of how developed and transparent their financial markets are. But with China seeking more global trading partners via the One Belt One Road initiative and the establishment of the Asean Economic Community in 2015, Daryl is confident that the need for cross-border transparency will grow. “We are sitting on the right side of history. Everyone is talking about doing trade across borders. If China wants Southeast Asia to do business with its companies, it has to make their corporate information known. There’s no way for Asean economies to integrate if a Singapore business cannot understand a Vietnamese business. To get cross-border trade flowing, information has to flow.”
“Our strength in AI is going to
give us many adjacent opportunities,” explains Neo.
By servicing this regional push towards greater economic integration, Daryl’s ambition is for Handshakes to play a part in making Singapore the hub for what he calls “collective intelligence”—where information from many different repositories can be accessed and analysed in tandem, to yield a clear and comprehensive picture of any given company or entrepreneur. “Singapore is looking for our next wave of economic growth. I hope we can help make Singapore known as the country where people can come and look for information when they want to do a deal. If we can help to make this happen, that would be fantastic.”