Cradle's Nazrin: The unsung hero of Malaysia’s startup ecosystem

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 14 Jun 2018

THE phrase “sent shockwaves through the industry” may sound trite and overused, but it is apt in some cases. In a few rare cases, it does not even do justice to the impact some events have.

The tragic and untimely death of Nazrin Hassan, chief executive officer of Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd, is certainly one of the latter.

Nazrin, 45, died in his sleep after his bed caught fire at his Mutiara Damansara home on Thursday.

He leaves behind his wife Samirah Muzaffar, a senior executive at the Malaysian Intellectual Property Corporation (MyIPO), and their young son, three stepchildren, and a son from a previous marriage.

Update: Cradle’s Nazrin killed by shrapnel from handphone explosion

The news has spread like wildfire on social media, and most converge on a few points: Malaysia has lost a great son. His family has lost a loving husband and a devoted father. The Malaysian startup ecosystem has lost its loving midwife.

If “midwife” sounds like a weird description of a man, it’s how he saw his role at Cradle: To help in the birth of great Malaysian entrepreneurs and startups.

There were many misses, but the hits were great. It was Cradle that first saw their potential and gave grants to successful startups like ride-hailing pioneer Grab, from its days as MyTeksi, and fintech startup iMoney.

Nazrin saw his and Cradle’s role as nurturing startups, not spoonfeeding them, to an extent that they could be successful in their own right,

But his impact on them was deep and abiding – so much so that some in the ecosystem referred to these startups as “Cradle babies”.

“To be the only people to believe in talented entrepreneurs, before anyone else – I still get a kick out of that, and so do the rest for the Cradle team and our partners!” he once told local technology news portal Digital News Asia.

Cradle is the Ministry of Finance company that manages the Cradle Investment Programme (CIP), which provides early stage funding for startups. It was originally a programme under Malaysia Venture Capital Management Berhad (Mavcap) before being spun off in 2007, with Nazrin being named as its first CEO.

Previously an entrepreneur himself, he was an early member of the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM). He was one of the key drivers of the Angel Tax Incentive and the Malaysian Business Angel Network (MBAN), and a member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum’s (WEF) think-tank.

He also served as a board member of the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) from its inception in April 2014 to February 2015.

His credentials shine brightly, but his impact on the startup ecosystem shine even more brightly.

Posting on Facebook, Joel Neoh – previously a senior executive with US-based Groupon and now founder and CEO of fitness-sharing platform KFit – said that Malaysia’s startup ecosystem has lost one of its bravest leaders.

Former Cradle employee Joanne Timbuong said that if Nazrin had one fault, it was that he loved Cradle as if it were really his baby.

“He was always thinking of ways to reinvent Cradle, which wasn’t just a place where entrepreneurs could go and seek funds, it was also a place where they could learn how to bring their startups to the next level,” she added.

Timbuong, who is also a journalist, noted that Nazrin worked hard to “wean Cradle” off public funds.

He struck strategic partnerships with private investment funds to ensure that the startup ecosystem was not a burden to the Malaysian taxpayer, and this led to the creation of Cradle’s venture capital arm, Cradle Seed Ventures (CSV).

Many of his friends and colleagues also point to his many poetic and philosophical Facebook posts, which if they weren’t about his loving family or his beloved Arsenal FC team, were about how Malaysia needed greater transparency and accountability in its governance, and how important it was to allow freedom of expression and the right of dissent to flourish.

All this before May 9, when it became more fashionable and safe to say such things if you worked for the Government. He never wavered from his principles.

He also never backed down from a fight, and loved it when journalists asked tough questions at press conferences, going so far as to complain if he wasn’t challenged.

Still, his hard-edged intellect was more than tempered by his gentle soul. Most of the tributes on social media, from so many entrepreneurs, investors, journalists and friends, also point to his warm personality and his quirky humour – he even cut a dashing figure of the swashbuckling Zorro at a Hollywood-themed costume party thrown once by the investment community.

“I still cannot believe it. It feels like I have lost my own brother,” said Dr V. Sivapalan, cofounder and chief evangelist at Proficeo Consultants, which runs that Coach & Grow programme, aimed at entrepreneurs, for Cradle.

“A very good man died today. An honest, decent, caring human being. It’s a huge loss to his family and friends, and to the country,” he told The Star.

His death “is a big loss to the startup ecosystem,” said Dhakshinamoorthy ‘Dash’ Balakrishnan, president of the Global Entrepreneurship Movement.

“We have lost a great friend and a good human being! I can’t imagine what his family will be going through now,” he added.

Indeed, many people in the startup ecosystem shout a great deal about the little they have done. Nazrin never even whispered about all his achievements in building up the Malaysian ecosystem over more than a decade.

He was more than happy to let his “Cradle babies” get the limelight, proud as any parent.

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