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NIC – The Right Blend of Effective Leadership & Innovation

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Responsive leadership is what became the need of the hour when COVID-19 hit. One such institution taking the lead in these unprecedented times are the National Incubation Centers. NIC is a consortium of five independent state-of-the-art business incubators set-up in 2016 as a Public-Private Partnership by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MOITT) and other stakeholders including Ignite National Technology Fund

It was from this think-tank that the life-saving 3D printed splitter valves for ventilators were made.

RADA Technologies, a robotics and automation startup based in Lahore, has been setting a benchmark of impact for startups locally. Medical infrastructure had to be equipped in the nick of the hour and RADA has invested its time, effort and resources to support front line workers against the virus by developing much-needed products.

Why were the 3D printed splitter valves a much-needed innovation? Because the virus effects the respiratory system and as symptoms may increase from mild to strong rapidly, patients breathing need to be supported by a ventilator. Baseline information and predictive analysis pointed towards a possible shortage of ventilating equipment in Pakistan. That is where RADA's splitter valves came in handy. The product has been successfully tested at large hospitals including Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore.

Other products it has developed as a response to COVID-19 are automatic contactless thermometer and an incubator box to protect medical teams from COVID-19 patients’ aerosol. One common element in all these products is that they are simple and easy to use. This is where the role of mentorship added value.

Women: Entrepreneurs and Economic Enablers

Despite business incubators promising equal opportunity, women co-founders were only 5 percent of all entrepreneurs in Pakistan. Among the early shapers were Sidra Qasim (Co-founder Atoms) and Rameeza Moin (Co-founder Transparent Hands) among others. With women-focused campaigns by NIC during its initial stage, NIC Lahore alone has incubated 25 women-led startups in the past two years. Some successful women led startups to have graduated from NIC Lahore are Beauty HookedEDTechWorx and Edkasa. NIC Karachi has incubated women-led startups like Dot Incorporation, Maya’s Closet and TrashIt among many others over the last few years, playing their part to enable the ecosystem.

It is a step towards a ripple effect; almost 49 percent of Pakistan’s population is women, of which only 22 percent are economically contributing. There is a huge opportunity for Pakistan if its women become empowered. As more women enter the space of entrepreneurship, the concept is 'normalised' thereby encouraging other women to become economically active.

Market and Investor Readiness of Startups

NIC is an incubation space and an accelerator, implying that selected startups aren't necessarily early stage and may have entered the market with a MVP already. Another indicator of maturity is investor readiness. To date, 485 startups have been incubated, with 161 successfully graduating and subsequently creating more than 12,000 jobs and generating PKR 1.1B. On the investment side, PKR 4.43 Billion have been committed.

Its startups including AyecoNearPeer and PakViate have secured investment worth PKR 12 Million, PKR 15 Million and PKR 12 Million respectively.

How has NIC been able to nurture it startups to an investor ready stage?

  • The NIC model has multiple funders and stakeholders. For example, NIC Lahore has tri-party funding i.e. LUMS where is it housed, IGNITE and Fatima Ventures, a USD 20 Million investment fund.
  • Strong Investor Network including in-house investors. These stakeholders are largely involved even during startups time at NIC. To further this, NIC hosts an Investors Summit every year.
  • Research-based facilitation and emphasis on innovation and creativity. The Makers Space at NIC Lahore is rather one of its kind in the country – it comprises of five labs i.e. a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Lab, a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) manufacturing unit, a 3D Printing Lab, a Metal Lab, and a Wood Lab. In addition, Facebook established the first of five Virtual Reality labs in Pakistan here.
  • Industry-Entrepreneurship linkage. Three of five NIC centers are housed at university premises with ease of access to the academia and research centers. Although, multiple efforts had been made previously to link academia and the industry, it were the NICs that effectively made this partnership productive.

In addition, strong linkages with the private sector adds another layer - it brings in experience of the market in product development, adding a real dimension and on the other hand, for the partner organisations, opens space to outsource innovation to startups instead of maintaining an in-house team.

The successful operations of NIC present key learnings to be extrapolated.

First, set a larger goal - with the thought of utilising entrepreneurship to find solutions to common challenges, NIC has been doing that in multiple domains inducing education, agriculture and health care among others. Bykea has been one of the most successful examples to have graduated from NIC with the aim to solve the problem of a common man. Bera has been yet another success story of NIC Peshawar where the local craftsmanship has represented Pakistan across the globe. DeafTawk is one of those super-star startups from NIC Islamabad that prove the power of empathy in enabling a marginalized community.

Second, identify stakeholders and create a win-all situation. It will almost always make you move towards the goal effectively. With partners as diverse as PPAF, PTCL and HBL, NIC has truly been showing how having the right stakeholders in place adds to larger effectiveness.

Third, experienced mentorship and guidance can go a long way in advancing the thought process of a country that is in dire need of education, innovation and empowerment; like ours.

One may debate the model on which NIC operates, but what we cannot discount is the use of the tax payer’s money in the right direction. Multiple incubation models have been followed around the globe; we are still discovering what works for us. Given the history of Government-backed projects, this will definitely be ranked as one of the successful ones. Innovation is a form of evolution led by thinkers, and this is where true impact lies. This is an institution shaped by the learnings of people that have led it in its first leg. Many more improvements and advancements await this facility.

In these challenging times, when we are preparing for a post-COVID world, there is a huge opportunity to redefine the way of doing things. NIC has been leading from the front on that aspect. COVID has identified a major lag in the way we prioritized and used to live. If anything, there has been an all-new dimension in the way Government backed think-tanks like the NIC can change the way we progress as a nation.

It all starts with the will to change. If not now, then when?