Singapore has a new supporter for travel and retail startups in Asia

Business incubator and venture builder Gharage has landed in Singapore to pursue early-stage travel and retail startups to invest in across the Asia-Pacific region. The young company, which was founded in 2019, says it wants to support pre-seed for Series A companies.

As a subsidiary of global travel retailer Gebr. Heinemann, Gharage should have enough financial firepower to expand its investment capabilities from Europe and take several more companies under its wing.

The Asia office has been headed by Darren Soh since February. He was selected for his skills in sourcing and investing in technology companies in the region and managing a large portfolio of them while working at Singtel Innov8, the corporate venture capital arm of communications technology giant Singtel Group. Innov8 has an evergreen fund of $350 million to play with.

Gharage Managing Director Lennard Niemann told me, “Darren has a strong network in the Southeast Asian VC ecosystem and also has experience as a founder, so he has perspectives from both sides.” In a statement, Soh said, “We believe this is the time for Asia – companies are not only developing into local or regional players, but into global powerhouses in their respective fields.”

Niemann said the motivation to settle in Singapore so early was driven by the speed at which these companies were being built from scratch. He commented, “Our launch aims to unlock opportunities for founders, tap into the travel retail ecosystem that Heinemann has built globally, and bring Asia’s innovations to global travelers.”

Over the past year, venture capital funds in the region have been more cautious about investing, but Singapore led the market with almost 64% of deal value across Southeast Asia, according to DealStreetAsia.

A diverse portfolio

In Europe, Gharage – which is headquartered in Hamburg, a stone’s throw from its mother’s headquarters – has built a portfolio of quite diverse companies. Some of the best known include a new luxury retail experience at Zurich Airport called Gatezero, Highsnobiety’s first concept store that CEO and founder David Fischer deliberately aimed at a cooler, more connected and generally younger generation of luxury consumers; and a Web3 community for whiskey collectibles called Amber Island, essentially an NFT site selling rare expressions.

By far the biggest investment Gharage has made was Duffle, the digital shopping platform that is currently being tested at Copenhagen Airport but will go live at another airport in May. Other online consumer products platforms will also be tested, such as BoutiqueDrinks, a bottled, ready-to-serve cocktail site led by creative director and certified sommelier Cyrus Lorenz and world-class cocktail bartender Maxim Kilian. “With our projects, we want to bring innovation to the global traveler and look beyond borders,” said Niemann.

Heinemann operates more than 500 duty-free and travel retail shops, brand boutiques and concept stores at airports, border crossings and on board cruise ships. While most of its business is based in Europe, it also has a presence at Asia Pacific airports in Kuala Lumpur and Sydney. The company has just opened a remodeled retail space at the Australian Gate and has agreed to expand its operations into the inland terminals.

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