From professor to fintech entrepreneur: why David Chen of Atome decided to make the switch

by Starry

Mar 26 2021

With a PhD in Computer Science and a comfortable career as an Associate Professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, it would have been safe to assume David Chen would see out the remainder of his career in academia and groom the next generation of tech talent.

However, he had other ideas. Having been awarded with Nanyang Assistant Professorship’s (NAP) S$1 million (US$752,000) startup grant in 2009, he set out on a new career in entrepreneurship as he sought to solve real-world problems.

Since then, he has started consumer lifestyle app Nestia and career matching platform Matchimi. In 2017, he joined Singapore-headquartered AI and Big Data firm Advance.AI as a Group Partner and Chief Product Officer.

His latest venture is Atome, a buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) payments platform. Launched in December 2019, the startup has since grown to a 200-member team and claims it is expanding rapidly across the region into Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Vietnam.

In this wide-ranging interview with e27, topics discussed with Chen include:

  • Skillsets from teaching that were relevant in entrepreneurship
  • Future developments within the BNPL industry
  • How to attract more women to join the tech industry

Below are the edited excerpts from the interview.

What were some skillsets from the teaching profession that were useful in entrepreneurship?

Similar to a good educator, a successful entrepreneur is often driven by a deep sense of purpose and the desire to make a difference to the next generation. Similarly, Atome was set up to improve the lives of consumers through technology. In fact, that is what Atome stands for: Make products and services “available to me”.

My PhD speciality was in algorithm design and analysis, and data analytics. Having a background in data is certainly useful as it aids in being able to interpret them and make data-driven decisions in business.

Another teaching skillset useful for entrepreneurs is a passion for learning and knowledge sharing. When it comes to technology, it is crucial for you to keep up with the latest trends and be ahead of the curve. We can never stop learning and improving, and as we grow Atome, this mindset would be important in helping us increase efficiency across the business too.

What were the problems you were looking to solve when you set out to start Atome?

I was tracking the increasing popularity of BNPL worldwide and how it served both consumers and merchant needs. As a consumer myself, I also never understood how credit card late interest charges worked or how much I had to pay when I missed a payment.

At the same time, I knew a buy-now-pay-later version in Asia could really address the needs of underserved and underbanked consumers in emerging markets like Indonesia and Vietnam.

We had the technology to solve this as our core expertise at Advance.AI was in AI-based credit risk profiling and assessment. That’s how Atome was born — with the aim of driving financial inclusion and empowering our consumers with the ability to pursue their passions in their own time.

Younger consumers don’t like the idea of applying for products that charge interests and annual fees. Many of them like to shop but also want a way to control and manage spendings without getting into debt.


What future developments you foresee could play out in the BNPL industry and the payments space as a whole?

As BNPL understanding and maturity grows, I foresee the business model could develop in a few ways.

Firstly, BNPL platforms will become e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. Besides that, providers will extend their services through financial services such as cross-selling to banks, lending, and other financial products.

I also expect to see more regulation around payments and the fintech space in general as this concept is still nascent in many markets.

We observe that a large segment of consumers in Southeast Asia are still underserved by traditional banks, especially in markets like Indonesia where credit card penetration remains stubbornly low at under 3 per cent. Therefore, there is huge potential in this segment and we are certainly looking to capture it.

Why is it important to foster diversity and inclusion in tech and what more needs to be done to improve this?

Having a diverse team makes a business stronger because it reflects the real-world customers and society you serve. Also, constructive debate and differences in views reduce blind spots and help you do things better.

The Singapore government is encouraging more students to go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This is a welcome move and particularly important if we want to encourage more women to join the tech industry.

Equally, it’s not just about women, but also ensuring no one gets left behind by tech — the Singapore government has been very proactive and supportive in encouraging lifelong learning and mid-career switching.

What more needs to be done by tech companies to attract women into tech?

Have more women in senior leadership roles. For that to happen, we have to build and groom the next generation of female leaders through various mentorship and training programmes. We also need to develop a flexible work culture to recognise the various roles women play in the family and company.

Being a former professor, I believe it is essential to develop opportunities for women to enter into tech and would also encourage more female students to explore the STEM industry.

Could the regional tech talent crunch develop into a problem which stunts the growth of Southeast Asia?

Yes, as digitalisation across all industries accelerates, so will the need for tech talent. However, there are bright spots too. Indonesia is quickly maturing as a tech hub and several big companies there are grooming local talent. Many overseas-educated Indonesians are now returning home to support the national digitalisation drive.

Similarly, in Vietnam, we see a tech boom and several mature local startups that will only grow and regionalise, supported by a young and energetic workforce.

Singapore, of course, is a global tech and talent hub, supported initially by international talent but local talent is also quickly being groomed and developed.

What are the skill-sets you look for in prospective hires and have the educational system in Singapore been adept at cultivating these skillsets?

We look for a balance of hard skills (technical experience and skills that are core to their function), but it’s also increasingly important for talent to have soft skills such as a growth mindset and good communication skills.

One area where I think the Singapore education system needs to broaden its academic criteria is to go beyond textbook teaching and grade-based assessments, and include more real world-based learning.

The post-pandemic world also requires our students to move beyond subject specialisation to problem-based and experiential learning.

What are your top three takeaways from your journey as an entrepreneur?

Firstly, never forget your “why” behind starting your business. For me, it’s about doing something that can create value, helping people, and benefiting the community.

Secondly, find a big problem to solve. You should aim to launch a product or service that addresses relevant real-world problems. These problems should also be sufficiently large so that you would have a ready market of customers willing to pay for a solution.

Lastly, learn from your mistakes. As we expand our business, we will make bets — both big and small — and some don’t always work out. It is important to fail and learn quickly by institutionalizing that learning so organisations become more efficient and execute better.

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