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The Rise of Techpreneurship

I Live Entrepreneurship
March 9, 2018
nabeel qadeer
Living The Technology
March 7, 2018

[I wrote this blog back in 2015 when entrepreneurship was a nascent concept in Pakistan.]

Pakistan’s information technology industry, till beginning of this decade, was pre-mature and just shaping to take-off. The number of internet users stood at 29 million or as the World Bank reports 8 subscribers per 100 people, cellular subscribers numbered 100 million and of these, 14.4 million were using mobile internet.

Entrepreneurship, in specific technology-based entrepreneurship, was a concept the community was not much comfortable with. Besides other factors, the supply-side remained low as the economic risk was ‘too-high’. Successful startups, Mindstorm Studios, Sofizar and Tintash Games to name a few, were present but the number was far too-low to create a sustainable culture.

Fast-forward five years to 2015 and the technology industry has transformed into one that is thriving and check marked globally including the Silicon Valley. 3G mobile users has surpassed 12 million mark, 25% of total revenue for telecommunication companies now comes from data usage,  and the country is the third largest user of freelancer platform as means of self-employment.

The complementary role played by the public and the private sector is the driving force behind developing an ecosystem, conducive for the industry’s growth. To add to this, academic institutions are playing a supportive role.

Universities based around IT programs such as the Information Technology University, funded by the provincial government and FAST-NU now offer courses on entrepreneurship. Similar academic opportunities ‘train’ students, at least theoretically, besides giving confidence to pursue an ‘unexplored’ profession. 

The recent trend of startup competitions, as local chapters of global competitions such as Startup Weekend and business competitions by student-run societies, expose aspiring entrepreneurs to the industry at a young age thus, increasing their practical learning graph at entrance. With a pre-entry insight, they are aware of and better prepared for the calling of the entrepreneurial world and the ‘risk’ it entails.   

Institutional platforms, such as The Nest i/o by P@SHA and LCE by Lahore University of Management Sciences, and private initiatives including i2i and Dot Zero, though following different models, are powerful tools facilitating entrepreneurship locally by providing mentoring and other business amenities.

The government has been a catalyst in this change; the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) has undeniably contributed towards e-governance and public surveillance with its projects such as process automation of Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education and Flood Monitoring System.

Facilitation services have resulted in raised awareness level among the public regards to information technology and its associated benefits. Moreover, PITB also acts as the entrepreneurial hub in the country. Laying strong foundations for tech-entrepreneurship with Plan9, a distinguishably zero-equity model, which has become the largest technology incubator in Pakistan.

Based in Lahore’s Arfa Software Technology Park, Plan9 takes its name from the distributed operating system by Bell Labs and runs incubation cycles bi-annually.

Since 2012 when it was founded, 66 startups have graduated from Plan9 and have subsequently created approximately 450-500 jobs and raised over USD 2 Million in funding. The startups have a product base as diverse as e-commerce, computer vision, alternative energy to ICT and IoT devices; the common denominator therefore, is focus, self-belief and determination. It is the passion to make a mark and the desire to solve a problem, which has led to their success. Markhor, a startup from its first cycle, sells hand-made leather shoes online to support local craftsmen and is the first Pakistani startup to successfully complete a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter; Groopic, also from the same batch, has raised $100,000 from Kima Ventures, Vivid Technologies has been incubated at Microsoft Ventures London and  Transparent Hands - a Global Crowd-funding platform connects patients and donors ensuring transparency, works in collaboration with the World Health Organization.

The gap in the present status and potential, however remained unfulfilled. For the outcome to be impactful, start-ups needed to be facilitated a step further than early-stage; as the dynamics of the local industry are different than the mature markets including factors such as social agents of ‘risk’ & ‘failure’ and availability of funding channels, a method had to be devised in support of mid-stage startups so they may grow beyond regional and user-based limitations.

The solution therefore was to launch a technology accelerator to support the effort of i2i, an accelerator for social entrepreneurship.

PlanX, a government-backed project under PITB, too follows a zero-equity based model just like Plan9 – the aim is to empower mid-stage tech startups to a point where they are enabled to positively contribute to the economy in a sustained manner. The success of the program can be gauged by its collaborations on an international level and market reach of its startups. XGear, which offers a connected-car platform and a complete fleet management solution, has corporate giants including Nestle and Pepsi as its clients; is revolutionizing the local ticketing industry by providing electronic solutions to customers, has signed Microsoft as its national marketing partner and secured an angel investment deal with Etohum.

The landscape of technology entrepreneurship is taking strong shape in Pakistan - representation at international events, global partnerships and a ‘mentored’ generation are creating a validated name for the local industry. The government now, once again, needs to step up in leading combined effort with the private sector to form a venture capitalist fund at home – a necessary boost to its startups staggering position.