Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak is right to be praising the Science and Technology Ministry for its success with “Startup Thailand 2016”.
Last weekend saw over 10,000 young people per day crowd into the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre. Many were civil servants, there to keep abreast of a scene revealed by local and foreign speakers. But some were actually startups – new companies marrying innovative ideas with modern technology to scale up their business.
Some of the most interesting insights came from the showcase of startups’ groundbreaking ideas.
Anyone seeking the best personal-loan deal would have been drawn to “ABorrow”, an app that compares loan rates from different financial institutions and saves the user from having to trawl the Web or the high street. The app’s developer makes money from charging a fee to the financial institutions that succeed in clinching deals with its users.
Seeing an opportunity in Bangkok’s notorious traffic woes, a number of startups are offering speedy delivery services by motorcycle. Among them is Skootar, a personal messenger service that charges full price for one-way trips but half price for any item the messenger then picks up at the destination point. From the original pickup point, it offers 10 stops on the return trip.
Car owners should love Drivebot, an app that turns your smartphone into a vehicular-health monitor – keeping a watch on everything from the engine to battery life.
Another innovative idea comes from Santabox. Over five months, the company got around 10,000 people to fill in a questionnaire on consumer satisfaction. This database is in turn being used to attract companies, particularly SMEs that don’t have big budgets to test markets. Samples are delivered to target groups and their feedback is displayed, allowing the producers to adjust their products before actually putting them on the market. Santabox earns money from the feedback.
Manning the booths at “Startup Thailand” were a young crowd mostly aged under 30 and offering enthusiastic explanations of what they were offering. The energy was palpable – something rarely experienced at other fairs or exhibitions.
A banker at the fair noted that Thais have plenty of ideas, but the national ecosystem is not fully supportive, especially when compared to Singapore.
The most attractive part of the event were the sessions in the Ballroom. Here, startups touted their fresh ideas while investors indicated which might win their financial support.
Hundreds attended each session, though fewer than 10 identified themselves as startups. In one session, when asked to show three investors what they had to offer only one young man came forward. He was given one minute to describe his product. It was an English-learning app, called Academia, which hooked up learners with native speakers. His product apparently needs improvement, but he scored 10 out of 10 for courage.
Many young Thais are aspiring to become entrepreneurs these days, but if they are seeking someone else’s money, they need to be more confident in their products and more courageous in selling their ideas. Otherwise the business scene will remain dominated by rich kids.
The government is eager to cultivate new ideas, convinced that this would help boost an economy that relies too much on exports of conventional goods. As such it recently announced that a Bt20-billion fund will be set up to support SMEs, including startups. The news certainly excited youngsters at the fair, but doubts remain over how the money will be distributed.
Dave McClure, founder and partner of 500 Startup, suggested the government spend the money through accelerator schemes – created by companies to screen the best ideas from startups.
Nuttawut Peungchareonpong, founder and CEO of Ookbee – Southeast Asia’s largest e-bookstore – noted that strenuous efforts must be made to ensure the sum is spent wisely. If funds go to companies that don’t have good business plans, the money would be wasted.
“Startups do need support, but not just financial support,” he noted.
Some speakers discussed the need for regulatory changes to promote startups. Others expressed doubts about other aspects of the Thai ecosystem, chiefly the education system.
On the first day of the event, Barak Sharabi, head of the Israeli Embassy’s Economic and Trade Mission, proudly revealed that his young country is now among the top five in the world in terms of innovation. He credited the government’s success in encouraging companies to set up some 300 research and development centres in the country.
Though Israel has a population of less than 10 million, some 1,200 startups are launched there each year. Sharabi also revealed another cultural nugget that should be of interest to Thais. In boardrooms in Thailand, directors rarely venture to speak unless first asked to by the chairman. In Israel, junior staffers are encouraged to tell the chairman if they think his ideas are wrong.
Sharabi says the ecosystem here could be more vibrant if Thai students were encouraged to ask more questions.
The Science and Technology Ministry has done a good job in sparking such huge public interest in startups. But it remains to be seen how many of the suggestions and recommendations floated at the fair will be applied in the government’s agenda.
Visiting the event, Somkid praised the private sector for boosting exports in the first quarter without government help. Ten years from now, if today’s startups are left to fend for themselves without any support, will they be receiving a minister’s praise?