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The rising tech start-up scene in the Philippines

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By Robert A. Vergara, Jr., Digital Reporter

IN 2016, 22-year-old Charles Lim established his own company Veer Immersive Technologies, Inc. (Veer), dismissing a possible corporate career in line with his background in computer science.

Lim, who hails from a family of Filipino-Chinese businessmen, established Veer that develops software content focused on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), banking on the growing trends of emerging technologies.

To date, his company’s clients include Philippine Airlines, to which it provides VR-enabled training for its cabin crew.

“Right now we want to focus on the airline industry, to create a really good system that would revolutionize cabin crew training for any kind of airline, be it in the Philippines, Singapore, US or Europe,” he said.

Veer is just among the booming technology-powered start-ups in the Philippines. Since 2012, the country has witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of new and innovative businesses mostly led by ambitious young entrepreneurs like Mr. Lim.




According to the first study profiling the Philippine start-up ecosystem by PwC Philippines and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), there are currently more than 300 start-ups in the country and over 200 of them are actively operating.

INCUBATORS
With this came the interest of the private sector to support startups by investing in them through business incubation, providing selected enterprises with mentorship, funding, and office spaces, to name a few grants.

For example, IdeaSpace Foundation, Inc. — established in 2012 with the help of companies, including Smart Communications, Inc., PLDT, First Pacific, and Meralco, among others — has received a total of 4,386 entries for its annual start-up incubation program since it opened. A total of 50 start-ups have undergone the program.

Kickstart, a venture capital firm under telecommunication giants Globe Telecom and backed by Ayala Corporation and SingTel, has been investing in tech start-ups in different funding series. Today, its portfolio of investees is comprised of 24 companies, including Wattpad, Zalora, coins.ph, and Kalibrr.

Lim and his company benefited from such initiatives. Veer had undergone the incubation programs of organizations like LaunchGarage and BrainSparks.

“Incubators are a huge help for businesses that are starting out because of the support and community that they provide. The years’ worth of experience and network that mentors can provide prove to be invaluable to businesses in their infancy as they learn to get their feet off the ground,” he said.

GOVERNMENT ROLE
The public sector, on its part, has also launched several initiatives to support these businesses.

In 2016, DTI and the Department of Science and Technology partnered with IdeaSpace and J.P. Morgan Foundation to establish QBO Innovation Hub, which aims to develop the local start-up scene.

Located at the DTI International Building in Makati, QBO has served as a mecca for start-up founders and budding entrepreneurs seeking network and education through weekly forums and free business 101 classes.

In 2017, the Department of Information and Communications Technology, in partnership with the private sector, launched the first Philippine Roadmap for Digital Startups, laying out strategic plans to develop the country’s start-up community.

In October of the same year, DTI held ASEAN Slingshot, a convention that gathered more than 80 tech start-ups from across Southeast Asia, including Mr. Lim’s Veer. During the event, at least 20 foreign angel investors were also invited and introduced to participating start-ups.

Just this May, a bill dubbed as the “Innovative Startup Act” had been passed on final reading in the Senate. Once enacted, the policy will direct the appropriation of a P1-billion venture fund, on top of other support like tax exemption, expedite processing of business permits, and free access to government services.

Katrina Chan, director of QBO, believes that the government plays a crucial role in developing the local start-up ecosystem.

“There’s so many things that the government can do, but at the end of the day it’s not the government’s job to create start-ups. The government’s role is to create that enabling environment where start-ups can thrive,” she said.

“The more that the government creates this kind of environment, it’s easy to start up, it’s easy to invest, and a lot of it will happen so start-ups can compete with the big guys.”

FUNDING
The current developments in the local start-up ecosystem have yet to transcend outside the Philippines. While Southeast Asia has pulled in more money from investors since 2012, only a small chunk of it went to the Philippines.

According to data from CB Insights, the country is far from its neighbours when it comes to outsourced funds. From January to September 2017, for example, the country has pocketed just $18 million, far from Singapore’s $3 billion, Indonesia’s $2.9 billion, and Malaysia’s $352 million.

However, the data showed that the Philippines had a significant deal activity despite the low funding, closing a total of 100 deals over the years.

For Mr. Lim, the development of the country’s startup ecosystem lies no longer just in business attributes, but in culture.

“I think we need to address the crab mentality and the mind-set that people are always out to get you. It’s too common that I see a person refusing to disclose their business idea fearing it might get stolen,” he said.

“We need to better develop a culture of collaboration and support for one another. We’ve taken steps in that direction, but some of the overarching issues are pretty deeply rooted in Filipino culture.”