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Opportunity knocks for Thai tech start-ups

Telecom giants run boot camps, competitions put entrepreneurs in contact with global communities to incubate and groom their businesses

The tech start-up trend is certainly flourishing in Thailand, with boot camps continuing to be run and a growing number of pitching events being held.

Apart from the camps regularly held by Advanced Info Service (AIS), Total Access Communication (DTAC) and True Corp, there is the worldwide start-up competition run under the Seedstars World (SSW) banner, and contests run by Hubba and MSeed Asia.

These competitions offer opportunities for Thai start-ups to get in touch with global start-up communities in order to incubate and groom their businesses for expansion.

Seedstars Bangkok

This is the second time SSW has organised a Seedstars event here in Bangkok, after the success of the first contest, which culminated early this year.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, and founded by Alisee de Tonnac and Pierre-Alain Masson, the competition is supported by the venture-builder, Seedstars.

After a successful first edition last year across 20 cities, SSW expanded its competition massively to more than 30 countries.

Regional winners are invited back to Geneva to pitch for an equity investment of up to US$500,000 (Bt16 million). The regional events feature up to 20 start-ups, who must prove their worth in six minutes of pitching time and withstand questions from a local jury of experts, and an SSW representative.

SSW chief executive officer de Tonnac described the Thai start-up scene as very vibrant and very unique. For example, Bangkok does not feature many start-up accelerators or incubators, but is heavily driven by co-working spaces.

SSW's partner Hubba and similar locations are also well-known for their entrepreneurship events, like "Start-up Weekend", and really make up the beating heart of the start-up ecosystem here, she said.

SSW is not focused on any specific industry at the moment. However, she said, it senses that e-commerce, payment and the shared economy are currently some of the hottest industries in emerging start-up scenes.

"Seedstars is focused on emerging markets and fast-growing start-up scenes. We aim to bridge European investors with high-quality start-ups in emerging start-up scenes. Our main difference is that we are investors, which means we look to invest into the start-ups we select, and not just offer a cash prize.

"We aim to build long-term relationships with the start-ups we select. We are building a global network of the best entrepreneurs in emerging markets," said de Tonnac.

She added that the Thai start-up landscape was very diverse, especially culturally. Many expats are attracted to Thailand thanks to the low living costs in cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

With the high penetration of mobile phones and a large percentage of the young population using Facebook and other social networks, the Thai market presents many opportunities for ICT start-ups, she explained.

"Last year, the majority of the start-ups featured at Seedstars Bangkok were expat-led. However, that has changed with a mostly Thai chief executive officer-driven line-up for 2014. We look forward to seeing their take on the local problems, and expect to see social networks leveraged and lots of mobile apps," said SSW's co-founder.

However, when compared to other countries, she said, it is much more difficult to get funding here than in Singapore, South Korea and Japan, while India has a huge accelerator infrastructure.

Also, government support of entrepreneurship is stronger in these countries. However, the Thai start-up scene strikes her as "more open and easier to bootstrap" than in some of these countries.

"The ecosystem may be nascent, but it is already vibrant, as I'm sure Seedstars Bangkok will prove," said de Tonnac.

Last Friday, 16 Thai start-ups pitched in Seedstars Bangkok. One regional winner per country will fly to Switzerland to join the Seedstars World final event.

The main award is a free trip to Switzerland to pitch to European investors, and to win up to $500,000 investment from Seedstars. There are also $50,000 worth of in-kind prizes for the top three start-ups.

Start-up Weekend: Women's Edition

Hubba Coworking Space recently organised a "Start-up Weekend Bangkok 2014: Women's Edition" to connect and showcase the talents of women and aspiring female entrepreneurs.

Pitches were women-only, and mentors and judges also were female-heavy.

Like all of the company's Start-up Weekend events, this edition followed the same basic model. Anyone is welcome to pitch their start-up idea and receive feedback from their peers.

Teams organically form around the top ideas, as determined by popular vote, and then it is a 54-hour frenzy of business-model creation, coding, designing and market validation.

The weekend culminates with presentations in front of local entrepreneurial leaders, with another opportunity for critical feedback.

Amarit Charoenphan, co-founder of Hubba Coworking Space, said Startup Weekend is a not-for-profit organisation. All the organisers, including himself, were working as volunteers.

"We work with the facilitator and coaches team to structure the delivery of our advice around Eric Ries's 'lean start-up' methodology, using the 'lean canvas' to help participants structure their businesses around hypotheses that can be validated over the course of the weekend," he said.

"There were 52 attendees, 23 ideas pitched, and nine teams formed. The winner is VeMove, the first runner-up is Share2Chare, and the third runner-up is Salute," he added.

MSeed accelerator

MSeed, a subsidiary of MLink, recently allocated an initial budget of Bt100 million for the promotion of Thai developers, helping them to grow and succeed in the global gaming market through the MSeed Accelerator, which the company claims to be the first game-development accelerator in the Kingdom.

Prasit Srisuwan, chief executive officer of MLink Asia Corp, said this was an attempt to promote the Thai gaming industry in the belief that it still has plenty of room for growth.

The project aims to help Thai developers compete in the global market, and to form partnerships with foreign investors at a matching event this coming October.

The top 10 Thai developer prospects under the MSeed Accelerator programme will each receive Bt100,000 in funding. They will join a boot camp for three months, learning from world-class gurus from the global gaming community, in order to find the "one true great Thai game".

"We can expect to see Thai games competing in the global market by the end of this year," said Prasit.

Saiyai Sakawee, project manager of MSeed Accelerator, said that this is considered to be the first accelerator project for gaming in Thailand.

It has attracted gurus of every field to share their knowledge with the developers. The project first began in May with more than 50 teams participating, 22 of which were short-listed for the initial round.

Ten of these teams were selected for boot-camp tutoring from game gurus from Electronic Arts, Zynga and Ubisoft, she said.

Telecom operators' projects

AIS is continuing its start-up competition, called "AIS The StartUp", which is now its third year.

The goal of the annual contest is to search for incubated content partners for the cellular giant.

This year, AIS enhanced its degree of support and redefined the competition to invite start-ups with products on hand and ready for commercialisation to submit works in three categories: online and digital content, corporate solution and social business.

The three winners were the GolfDigg team in the online and digital category; the Nugrean team in the corporate-solution category; and the Local Alike team in the social-business category.

Besides cash prizes and business-support tools, the winners get the opportunity to do business with AIS.

Pratthana Leelapanang, senior vice president for Digital Product and Services, said the fast-growing start-up trend was a worldwide trend, while in Thailand start-up evolution has moved from the initial stage to a growth period.

"We support the winning teams to nurture product development and business marketing planning for scale-to-market, and launching in the real market," said the executive.

DTAC, meanwhile, this year also continued its start-up event - "dtac Accelerate" - with the aim of encouraging the Thai tech start-up community and pushing them to go global.

Andrew Kvalseth, senior vice president for Corporate Strategy and Business Innovation, said this year's goals for the event were to focus on creating new innovation in the mobile Internet ecosystem.

The contest this year categorised applicants into two groups: incubation and acceleration. Incubation is for those who have ideas but have yet to create a product or business model and have time to attend training throughout the programme, while acceleration is for those who have developed a product and a business model.

The five finalist teams - Anywheretogo, FastinFlow, Piggipo, Drivebot and Storylog - have been attending an intensive 90-day boot camp in preparing for Demo Day on Thursday this week.

The country's other telecom giant, True Corp, yesterday kicked off the latest edition of "True Incube", its incubation programme for Thai tech start-up companies aimed at jump-starting their business, with the support of its global partners.

True Corp plans to invest at least Bt250 million in each of the start-ups taking part in the programme, which is in its second year.

Apart from the various start-up competitions, a further sign confirming the flourishing trend for domestic start-ups is the recent establishment of the Thailand Tech Start-up Association.

There are also the business-to-business matching sessions held by the Economic and Trade Office of the Embassy of Israel in the "IIT-SEA Mobile Forum: The 1st Israeli Innovation Technologies Day" in Bangkok, at which Thai start-ups and Israeli tech firms were brought together earlier this year with a view to forming partnerships.


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