Tech talent – The reason why AI startup Adatos chose Singapore

Singapore Economic Development Board

Find out why the founders of Adatos chose to develop cutting-edge artificial intelligence solutions from Singapore, and why the country attracts global tech talent.

In 2015, retired American intelligence officer Mr Drew Perez and British financial markets expert Mr Jonathan Paul met at a dinner event in Singapore. Four years on, the unlikely duo have become firm business partners.

Combining over 46 years of experience, the pair co-founded an artificial intelligence (AI) startup, Adatos.AI – not in San Francisco, London, Beijing or Bangalore, but right here in Singapore.

Adatos builds artificial intelligence solutions for satellite remote sensing in sectors including agriculture, forestry, food security and sustainability. Since its set-up three years ago, Adatos has been leveraging Singapore’s strategic location to tap client and talent networks across the region.

They tell us why they chose to make Singapore home.

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Why did you choose to set up headquarters in Singapore? 

Mr Perez: Access to capital and efficient mechanisms to launch a company are big in Singapore, particularly for early-stage startups. At a tenth of the cost to operate in Silicon Valley, we can do it here. This is a community that encourages collaboration, mobility and networks. In a country built in 50 years, there is an entrepreneurship sentiment at a national level which definitely makes it conducive for start-ups. I would do it here all over again, over any country in the world.

Mr Paul: What we do, real-world applications of AI-driven intelligence analytics, is something very few people in the world have done, much less at the scale that we are doing it at. Why we are able to do that in Singapore? Because we have a fantastic team, and because we have access to the best resources available. We have enterprise incentives and international investors, and there is no question about quality infrastructure. Can we access high-performance computing when we need to? Of course we can. Day-to-day challenges we might face in capitals around Asia – such as sitting in traffic for an hour to get to the airport – we just don't face here. We have been asked by investors if we would consider moving our operations elsewhere, but there is no question in our minds that the business needs to be headquartered here.

How does Adatos source for talent in Singapore?

Mr Perez: To be frank, Adatos was constrained by scarcity in the worldwide tech talent pool, which is not Singapore-specific, but made more acute when you have a smaller population. We brought in talent from outside, but because of the conditions and the convenience of living and working in Singapore, it is much easier to attract people. The ease of launching businesses and the social fabric makes Singapore extremely attractive for foreign talents to relocate, do business and raise families here.

Mr Paul: I think there are really two ways of looking at talent – on a local and a global scale. There are definitely advantages in attracting global talent to Singapore because it is a fantastic place to live. There is a multitude of reasons for people like me to be here – the quality of life, the MNCs here, and capital. You attract people who could be living in Silicon Valley, London, or Sydney, but want to live in Singapore.

What is Adatos’ current team like? Do you have Singaporeans on the team as well?

Mr Paul: We have a very mixed team – a Sinhalese Singaporean, two Chinese Singaporeans, there is Drew who is American, I am from the UK, and we have a New Zealander. People here have broad-based skills, which I think is important for any business. My impression of Singaporeans is that they take their work very seriously, and there is a lot of trust. We don’t micro-manage people and resources, and we leave people to get on with their work. We’re results-oriented – it’s not how long you are in the office, but what results we get out of it.

Mr Perez: We were very fortunate we were able to recruit a number of key employees that are Singaporean – the cream of the crop in many ways. Singapore’s human capital is much better equipped in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics]. We are a deep technology company, so we are dependent on staff with solid fundamentals in STEM, and since we apply artificial intelligence that builds artificial intelligence, the right mathematical foundation is critical. Singapore may be at a disadvantage in pure numbers, but it’s much more likely that you will find quality mathematicians here. There is a huge competitive advantage in the education system here, which creates an environment – although extremely competitive and arguably unforgiving – that nurtures quality talent.

What does Singapore offer to tech companies interested to grow in South-East Asia?

Mr Paul: Singapore is not a low-cost location, but the benefits vastly outweigh the costs, particularly for a small and nimble business. There is no question about support and IT infrastructure. For the practical side of doing business, the bureaucracy here is minimal. You want to focus on running a business – we have no desire nor time to do things in duplicate. It’s true what people say – it’s an easy place to do business. We love it here.

Mr Perez: Singapore does have a certain credibility. Clients are looking at what's being developed here because of our lead in technology. Ten years ago, you would try to find out what's being developed in Silicon Valley, but now, we hear: “What's being developed in Singapore, and can we adopt it?” Singapore is more of a leader in artificial intelligence, and the idea is this: come to Singapore to get familiar with the technologies in this field.

On a personal note, what is your favourite aspect about life in Singapore?

Mr Paul: That there is completeness in the Singapore experience. I have been here 15 years. Both my children speak Mandarin. What my wife and I do for leisure ranges from visiting comedy clubs to horse riding. A two-hour plane ride gets you to Laos or Cambodia. Here’s something else that’s exciting for us. My wife, who is a writer, published a book called Olivia and Sophia about Stamford Raffles’ two wives, and two companies are in talks for a television production. It’s a great place for her as a writer because there is a lot of history in the region. This complete package is hard to find just anywhere. Drew and I could choose to live anywhere in the world, and we choose to live here. It shows what we think of the opportunities – it’s a great place to live.

Mr Perez: Convenience. It’s efficient and clean, and I don't worry about crime. Let’s say you are a parent. Do you want to equip your child for the best future? You do it here. If you are to place a bet on where to live to thrive in the future, you’ll want to be in Singapore. The education system here – you can't beat it. Now, if we can only shift the orientation of Earth by 35 degrees, then we will have four seasons, and it will be perfect!


Sizing up Singapore’s artificial intelligence ambitions

Singapore Economic Development Board

Singapore’s status as a premier destination for investment in artificial intelligence (AI) is rising — and shows no signs of stopping.

Speaking at an MSNBC event in San Francisco in January 2018, Google CEO Mr Sundar Pichai had this to say about the future of tech and humanity: “AI is one of the most important things humanity is working on. It is more profound than electricity or fire.” 

As one of the biggest employers of AI researchers in the world, Google is not the only player taking notice of AI’s power to disrupt and transform. Many other companies made strides towards capturing opportunities. In a 2017 report by McKinsey Global Institute, the potential value pool created in ASEAN by proactive AI adoption is estimated at S$1.2 trillion (US$897 billion). 

Countries want to help businesses capture AI-driven business opportunities in the region. City-state Singapore is currently leading the region in AI experimentation across multiple industries, investing heavily in a bid to become a regional giant in AI innovation and adoption.

“The future is exciting. Every member of ASEAN is already engaging in some level of AI research and publicly committing to working collaboratively to advance technology adoption,” says Ms Xiangwen Liu, Senior Director of Alibaba Technology Strategy Department.

A hotbed for AI talent

Apart from multinational superstars, top AI professionals and innovators have also found themselves a home in Singapore.

Veteran intelligence expert Mr Drew Perez is CEO of Singapore-based Adatos.AI. With 26 years of intelligence experience with the United States Department of Defense, Mr Perez specialises in mapping AI-driven intelligence analytics to real-world applications. 

Through genetic programming, or more simply, AI that builds AI, Adatos creates data analysis algorithms that outperform humans in speed and accuracy, enabling data-driven investment decisions in diverse industries. The company is focusing its efforts on improving productivity in agriculture and forestry through precision agriculture.

Co-founder Jonathan Paul says, “Whether you are a North American pension fund with a million spruce trees or an Indonesian palm oil company, both can make more informed decisions with better data about what is happening with their soil and their plants.” 

“For me, Singapore is one of the best countries in the world,” Mr Perez says. “There is a willingness to lead in helping incubate technologies.”

Singapore may not be known as an agricultural powerhouse, but this did not stop Adatos from picking Singapore as its launch pad for global strategic resource intelligence solutions. 

“We incubate the capabilities here, and the beneficiaries are our neighbouring countries and the rest of the world,” Mr Perez explains. “We cannot be constrained by thinking that Singapore is only this size of a country, and that we cannot influence at a really global level. Yes, you can. Singapore can make an impact on global problems such as food security and the global community.”


The retired ex-US-intel officer who started an AI business in Southeast Asia

Photo credit: Cyril Ng and SGInnovate

Photo credit: Cyril Ng and SGInnovate


Entrepreneurs are often eager to talk about their startups. Drew Perez, founder of artificial intelligence (AI) startup Adatos, seems like an exception to the rule. As I asked about Adatos, he seemed to steer clear of discussing it.

“Talking about the history of the company – that’s so myopic, right?” he says, preferring to discuss the big picture.

But it’s hard to ignore him and his company. Started three years ago, Adatos is one of the rare AI startups based in Singapore that focuses on agriculture.

Starting an AI company isn’t a typical retirement plan for most, but Perez isn’t typical. His goal is to find the right use case for artificial intelligence within Southeast Asia.

To do that, his team has automated the process of creating machine learning models – essentially an AI that builds its own AI to solve the problems specified by a human. The technology essentially takes on the role of a data analyst.

It was only in their third year that Adatos zoomed into its vertical of choice: agriculture. The startup acquires satellite imagery of farmland and processes them to produce data that can advise farmers on crop management.

Focusing on agriculture helps Adatos address a genuine need in the world — food security. With the world population rising, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimate that the number of people undernourished in the world has been on the rise since 2014, reaching 815 million in 2016. With the population increasing, farmers are struggling to keep up.

Perez thinks data can help. Farmers can use satellite data to evaluate what land to buy, or how to manage their water and fertilizer better. They can help predict potential risks to crops, such as floods or soil fertility decline.

“If we can move the needle 0.0001 percent on getting more yield out of the land, it’s more than any of us could hope for in making an impact in the world, right? It’s a huge difference.”

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Jonathan Paul at an IBM Power9 Launch held in Kuala Lumpur on 15 May 2018.

Jonathan Paul at an IBM Power9 Launch held in Kuala Lumpur on 15 May 2018.

Ex-Group Head of Risk Markets for Standard Chartered Jonathan Paul joined Adatos formally as its Chief Commercial Officer in January 2018, after acting as a Senior Advisor to the company from June of 2017.

In a new phase of growth, Paul explained that the company will be focusing its efforts on the profitable agriculture industry, balancing game-changing A.I. technology capability with sustainable intensification principles. 

"The ready availability of geospatial data to train machines, Adatos' niche expertise in GEOINT (Geospatial Intelligence) and a highly profitable market makes this a sweet spot for the company to tackle," explains Paul. "The possibilities are endless, as we move even downstream to commodities pricing and trading."

Paul brings to Adatos over 25 years of experience at some of the largest financial institutions in the world.

Paul brings to Adatos over 25 years of experience at some of the largest financial institutions in the world.

Paul will be joining Managing Director Drew Perez in the leadership of Adatos, expanding its footprint across South East Asia and beyond.

"Adatos has the potential to be a huge business. I'm excited to get involved in the company's journey."

Meet the Adatos team here.

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Many companies are in a hurry to cash in on the AI gold rush, but data-intelligence startup Adatos sets itself apart by only focusing on profitable use cases, says its Managing Director Mr Drew Perez. 


Interest in artificial intelligence (AI) is at fever pitch, prompting some venture capitalists to invest in AI companies that have little more than an idea, and large corporations to buy over AI startups that don’t even have a functional product.

“As transformative as AI undoubtedly is and will be, many people do not realise that not every problem needs to be answered with AI,” says Mr Drew Perez, Managing Director of Adatos, a company founded in 2015 to provide data intelligence solutions.

As psychologist Abraham Maslow once said: if you only have a hammer, there is a great temptation to treat everything as if it were a nail.

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Perez was one of three panelists speaking at the inaugural edition of Great Minds at The Great Room, a talk series jointly presented by The Peak and co-working space The Great Room. The discussion titled “How to be a Futurist: Connecting the Dots of Current Trends” was moderated by Rosalind Tan, director of operations of Adatos A.I. and saw Perez joined by Vinnie Lauria, founding partner of venture capital firm Golden Gate Ventures, and Violet Lim, CEO and co-founder of dating company Viola.AI and Lunch Actually Group.

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