At Echelon Singapore 2012, Asia's biggest competition for start-up businesses, it was an unlikely winner - a small Thai company called Builk - who took first prize, beating out 250 competitors from around the region, including from such tech-savvy countri
The only start-up from Thailand to compete, Builk developed a Web service for the construction industry, registering more than 4,400 users from 1,400 construction firms in a short time span. After this major coup, founder Patai Padungtin reported that offers from venture capitalists flooded in, with some 40 VCs offering to invest.
Builk’s win was all the more remarkable as Thailand is not known as a fertile breeding ground for internationally acclaimed tech stars. Not to suggest that the Internet and mobile revolution have bypassed Thailand. Bangkok was recently named Facebook capital of the world, with as many as 9 million users. When location-based mobile app Foursquare first gained popularity in 2010, a wine bar in Bangkok quickly popped up as the third most checked-in place on the planet. Thailand is also considered a leader in the online gaming arena, with one of Southeast Asia’s most active communities.
The Land of Smiles certainly boasts success stories in other industry segments. A prime example from the food sector is Red Bull, whose visionary founder Chaleo Yoovidhya created a highly successful international business selling energy drinks. Red Bull now dominates the world energy-drink market with an estimated 40-per-cent market share.
This begs the question why Thailand has yet to produce a globally recognised tech company. The hardware is available in the form of access to the Internet, computers and mobile devices. The Thai government is on a mission with its “One Tablet Per Child” policy. While there is no shortage of resources, one of the key issues seems to be the lack of proper education in computer science. Unlike some other countries in the Asian region where computer science is a standard part of the national curriculum, Thailand has yet to implement similar measures. To the lucky few who do receive some degree in IT education, the information is often poorly presented or outdated.
The success of companies like Samsung is no coincidence given the fact that South Korea is a pioneer in computer science education, teaching children as young as six the basics of technology. Another glowing example is Estonia. This former Soviet state constitutionally declared Internet access a basic human right. As a consequence, Estonia has a thriving tech sector, producing the likes of Skype and more start-ups per capita than any other country in Europe.
Another area not to be underestimated is internationalisation. Tech hotbed Silicon Valley would not be where it is today if it didn’t embrace its international workforce and perspective. Closer to home, Singapore’s open-door policy of allowing non-Singaporeans to start tech companies has made it a tech leader in Asia. Similarly, Thailand could greatly benefit from allowing direct investment from international tech companies. It would both develop the expertise of the Thai workforce as well as showcase innovative technology from Thailand to the world. An obvious starting point would be to tap into the readily available pool of experienced international workers already residing in Bangkok.
Mark Zuckerberg famously started Facebook out of a school dorm with minimal investment. By comparison, Facebook is currently worth more than double that of gas and oil conglomerate PTT, Thailand’s largest corporation. To one day proudly be able to recount how a now wildly successful Thai company was started from the humble beginnings of a shophouse, it’s vital that we lay the foundation for start-ups to thrive today.
Ville Kulmala is the chairman of Mobile Monday Thailand and the managing director of Mobile Spark. He also lectures at Rangsit University about mobile and electronic commerce. Twitter: @villekulmala