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From NUS engineering student to billionaire: How this self-made S’porean built his IoT empire

Teo Swee Ann billionaire

He is Singaporean, and his love for engineering made him study the subject, work in the sector, and eventually build his own engineering startup.

This 46-year-old man is none other than Teo Swee Ann, the CEO and President of Espressif Systems.

The self-made billionaire has a knack with technology and making devices, and has created a robust ecosystem for the Internet of Things (IoT) space, thanks to his mini semiconductor chips that are as small as a five cent coin.

Image Credit: CNX Software

This year, he also made it on Forbes’ Singapore 50 richest with a net worth of US$1.55 billion (S$2.10 billion), supported by the share price buoyancy of his company due to the pandemic-driven demand for chips.

This “normal” self-made Singaporean is now one of the richest people in the country, and his net worth is in close ranks with old money families the Liens (owns a minority stake in United Overseas Bank) and OG department store owners the Tays.

How did this average Singaporean rise up to reach billionaire status? We take a look at his journey.

Image Credit: Espressif

Just a local boy who went to local schools

When Swee Ann was eight years old, he was already tinkering with tech. He “poked around” the inner workings of his Apple II computer.

The Primary Two kid started looking at the code written for existing programmes in his computer and tried to figure out how it worked. 

Like bees to honey, he was drawn to the tech world and was fascinated with engineering and biology. The young version of him already knew that he wanted to be an engineer when he grew up.

He eventually went to study at Hwa Chong Junior College in 1992 to 1993, before heading to the National University of Singapore to pursue a degree in electrical engineering.

Image Credit: Peatix

Swee Ann then carried on to undertake a masters in electrical engineering and completed it in the year 2000.

The entrepreneur who had interned in British Telecoms previously, went to work with bluetooth chip maker Transilica Inc as his first full-time job in March 2000 as a RFIC Design Engineer.

A year later, he then moved on to US firm Marvell Semiconductor to work as a Senior Design Engineer for three years.

In 2004, he changed jobs and went to Chinese semiconductor firm Montage Technology as Engineering Director and worked there for slightly over three years.

By then, Swee Ann was getting bored of building chips, he wanted to challenge himself to make chips in a smarter way. He wanted to automate the chip-making process and that sparked the idea to create Espressif.

Early mover in IoT trend: Espressif

In April of 2008, Swee Ann founded Espressif Systems. Espressif started off designing software for analogue circuits, at one time it was even a chip design consultancy, until Swee Ann settled with the decision to make his own chips.

At that point, Swee Ann realised that computing power was increasing, and with an increased power more processes could run on the chip. The entrepreneur decided to jump on the IoT trend, which was a topic of interest for some in the tech community.

The famed ESP8266 microchip was his fruit of labour. He developed it in 2011 and took it to production in 2013.

Image Credit: Lucadentlla

The low-cost Wi-Fi chips caught the attention of makers globally, including in the US, and commercial clients started contacting Swee Ann for orders.

Today, his tiny ESP8266 has amassed a cult following from tech hobbyists. Measuring just a few millimetres, the Wi-Fi chip has made creators come up with products like smart devices – temperature and air humidity sensors – and even complex wireless web servers and robots.

Swee Ann also made his fortune in China and worldwide subsequently selling the company’s flagship ESP32 chips which now power goods such as speakers, wearable devices, and home appliances.

Since 2017, the brand has been listed in Forbes’ 20 IoT ranking as one of the most innovative firms. It has also ranked first in the Wi-Fi MCU market for three consecutive years.

Other than being a chip maker, Espressif also builds software that supports the development of IoT applications.

Going public, hitting billionaire status

Espressif listed in the public market in July 2019 on the Sci-Tech Innovation Board, commonly known as the STAR board, of the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

It debuted with a stock price of $155.95 yuan (S$33.16), which skyrocketed to $283.00 yuan (S$60.17) in just seven months by February 2020, supported by chip demand in the ever growing IoT world and the internet boom induced by the pandemic.

The stock has since receded to $186.50 yuan (S$39.65) a piece (as of Nov 17), but its market cap remains in the billion-dollar range, at $14.94 billion yuan (S$3.18 billion), keeping Swee Ann on Forbes Singapore’s 50 richest list.

Image Credit: Espressif

The stock surge has seen Swee Ann’s net worth leap from US$990 million in August last year to US$1.55 billion in the same month this year.

Even with the recent boom, the semiconductor company owner is not resting on his laurels. 

Last year, Espressif told shareholders it has plans to launch four chips with improved performance and lower power consumption. ““We have built the most comprehensive ecosystem for IoT developers,” he claimed.

Hiring and expanding the team, growth plans

Today, Espressif has tens of thousands of clients globally. They include manufacturers of everyday electronics, such as coffee machines and light bulbs, as well as providers of smart city and automation solutions.

Image Credit: Miro

The company has its headquarters in Shanghai, China and is shown to have more than 200 employees on LinkedIn. It also has offices in India, Brazil, the Czech Republic, and Singapore.

According to LinkedIn data, most of the employees are working in China and India, while a small team is based in Singapore.

After toiling overseas for more than 14 years, it looks like Swee Ann is returning to the homeland to build on the business’ capabilities here.

Image Credit: PBS

It is currently building up a presence in Singapore, and has plans to hire 80 engineers for this year and the next for a research and development centre.

Espressif is actively hiring with 30 job openings, including Singapore-based jobs like a Technical Marketing Manager and a Senior Design Engineer.

Looks like we’ll be seeing more of Swee Ann in the country.


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Featured Image Credit: Espressif, Embeddedasia

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