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In the Chanthaburi province of Thailand, tourists feast on durians, a yellow fruit infamous for its intoxicating smell. The region is a tropical fruit powerhouse and attracts visitors to its annual durian festival.
But in recent years, Thai fruit farmers and exporters face pricing pressure on their produce from strong foreign competition. Innovative startups like Eden Agritech are hailed as the solution to revive Thailand’s agricultural fortunes.
The overarching government policy, “Thailand 4.0”, aims to restructure the economy into a knowledge-based one with inclusive growth. It’s a pressing need when 40 percent of its population is involved in agriculture.
Thailand also wants to develop their economy beyond services and agriculture. More industries earmarked for development include government and education, health, fintech, travel, and property.
Startups hold the key to inclusive growth
“Chinese people like to eat durian and pomelo. About six years ago, many Chinese people started to come to Thailand and deal fruit at low prices,” said Bhumpharn “Top” Arunthammakul, CFO of Thai #startup Eden Agritech.
The influx of foreign dealers has resulted in government policies to ensure that they play by the rules.
For instance, while they can export fruit, they are not allowed to sell them locally – a sore point for local fruit dealers whose livelihoods depend on tourism and exports.
“Low income is one of the biggest problems of Thai agriculture industry,” said Norapat “Job” Phaonimmongkol, CEO of Eden Agritech.
Eden Agritech wants to help Thai fruit farmers and exporters reduce transport waste and earn more money. About 15 to 20 percent of fruits are discarded during transportation annually according to Job.
The startup has developed a solution that is sprayed onto fresh-cut fruits like durians, pomelos, jackfruits, and mangoes to extend their shelf life by up to 15 days.
Fresh-cut fruits sell for about 75 percent more, according to Job.
Job and Top started this project about two years ago when they were students at the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration of Chulalongkorn University. They competed in many challenges, including the New Venture Championship in Oregon, US, where they achieved second place.
After receiving positive feedback from judges and potential customers, they decided to take the leap of faith and commercialize the idea.
“Agritech and foodtech startups provide solutions for a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs and farmers to transform Thailand into an agro-service economy,” said Dr. Pun-Arj Chairatana, executive director of the National Innovation Agency (NIA) of Thailand.
He cites an example of a startup providing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for small farms and urban farms for groceries.
Straight out of MIT, back to Bangkok
Many agritech startups in Thailand have been started in the past two years, said Sompoat “Meng” Chansomboom, director of business innovation and DTAC Accelerate at a panel discussion during Startup Thailand.
Meng knows an up-and-coming young Thai entrepreneur called Aukrit Unahalekhaka, a recent graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who cofounded Ricult. The mobile microfinance startup has launched in Pakistan with 100,000 farmers on board. In Thailand, it has access to 250,000 farmers, according to Meng.
Aukrit grew up in a family of farmers and witnessed their problems firsthand. Luckily, his family could afford to send him to school. He received a fellowship from MIT to finish his studies in engineering and management.
“Other small farmers are not as fortunate. Most don’t even finish high school,” he said. His co-founder from Pakistan shares the same purpose: to use tech to help farmers escape a cycle of debt.
“We use satellite imagery to look into the farmland and tell farmers when to water their field, irrigate, or harvest. This improves farm productivity,” said Aukrit. Increasing farm yield improves the farmer’s income.
The startup’s pilot test with 50 Thai corn farmers covering about 1,000 acres has resulted in an increase in profitability of 50 percent on average.
“50 percent means a lot – farmers can send their kids to school, and afford healthcare and better nutrition,” said Aukrit.
“We need this kind of people [like Aukrit] back in Thailand to bring all this knowledge from MIT folks,” Meng said at Startup Thailand.
Land of smiles – and startup spaces
One of the government’s moves to become Thailand 4.0 is the innovation districts initiative supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The massive memorandum of understanding, which helps high potential areas to become special economic zones, was signed by public, private, and educational institutions totaling 27 agencies and spanning 11 regions across Thailand.
The initiative will connect cities to create an innovation corridor from Bangkok to the Eastern seaboard.
The eastern innovation districts are expected to generate US$500 million in the next five years.
For instance, Yothee is home to many hospitals and beds, making it prime land for health tech innovations. In fact, it was the first area slated for transformation in 2015.
On top of creating new startups, Thailand wants them to scale up in Asia.
Agritech can be one starting point. “The problem of farmers in developing countries are almost exactly the same as Thailand. That’s why Ricult’s solution is scalable across Asia. Our next aim is China,” said Aukrit.
Eden Agritech is currently receiving funding from NIA as they scale up and work with durian, pomelo, jackfruit, and mango dealers. One of their projects in the pipeline is collaborating with local farmers and setting up fruit processing factories.
Thailand is the land of smiles. Soon, it may become the land of produce, innovation, and inclusive growth.
This is part of the coverage of Startup Thailand 2017 Scale up Asia, an international event for startups taking place on July 6 – 9, 2017 in Bangkok.
This is extracted from our Market Expansion ebook, which gives tips on expanding into many Asian countries. Scroll to the bottom to download it.
Korea has been in the news for the wrong reasons. President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment trial has started. The country’s top business leaders were summoned for questioning on corruption.
Still, Korea can be a land of opportunity. Korea has a homogenous population, and about 50 percent of the population lives in Seoul. Trends can spread rapidly.
It’s also easy for tech startups to monetize in South Korea. According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of South Korean adults use the internet or own a smartphone. Disposable income is growing. Koreans are used to spending money in mobile apps.
Accelerators, funding, and government initiatives
The South Korean startup ecosystem is well-financed. South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s administration recognized the need to rely less on conglomerates such as Samsung and LG for economic growth. Touted as the “creative economy” initiative, it’s investing in innovative alternatives to the conglomerates so as to improve employment rates. In 2014, a plan was underway to nurture startups.
The government injects US$2 billion every year into the South Korean #startup ecosystem. A further US$65.9 billion in spending was planned for 2016, and much was on developing Pangyo, an area south of Seoul hosting Korean tech firms such as Kakao. 17 innovation centers were also built around Korea as part of the government’s initiative. Each center has its own theme and specialty, with a corporation in charge.
The plan has seen early success. According to Tech in Asia’s data, the total funding amount grew by 6 percent from 2014 to 2016. Top funded startups over the past year include MelOn, Podotree, Yello Mobile, Baedal Minjok, and Viva Republica. They span vastly different industries.
Nathan Millard, founder and CEO of PR firm G3 Partners, shared with Tech in Asia that “there are incubators and coworking spaces across Seoul, over 20 accelerators at last count, an established VC ecosystem, active angel investment community, and very extensive government support.”
Despite active criticism of creative economy initiatives due to murky links to corruption, the Centers for Creative Economy and Innovation are likely to continue operations, having secured new funding from central and municipal governments. In fact, the Korean government announced new policies to boost growth focusing on artificial intelligence, information technology, and virtual reality in 2017.
A developed ecosystem for foreign startups
On top of financial assistance, the government started an accelerator called the K-Startup Grand Challenge (KGC) in 2016 targeted at foreign startups, with focus on areas like gaming, information security, smart devices, and big data.
The accelerator is a big plus for foreign firms who wish to get a headstart in Korea, especially if they’re unsure of how to localize their product or marketing. Entrepreneurs also get funding and support accessing the market. Kenneth Lee, founder of travel chatbot developer and KGC participant TravelFlan, says that they received visa help and also networked with industry leaders. Other centers include the Seoul Global Startup Center, which provides space to work, funding, and operational assistance.
Korea’s developer communities can be found both online and offline. KLDP and OpenStack Korea are good places to start. Also check out this useful list of communities. Korea Community Day, which ran its fifth meetup in January 2016, offers developers an opportunity to meet in person as well.
Jason Minkee Kim, senior associate at startup accelerator ActnerLab, also describes the process by which the government grants support to startups.
A strong gaming culture and a willingness to spend in-app makes revenue generation a realistic goal for mobile apps in Korea. (For example, localized emoticons are cash cows for apps like KakaoTalk.)
1. Chaebols are still talents’ top choice
Chaebols (Korean family-run conglomerates) are favored places to work because of their domination over Korea’s economy and job market. To be a “Samsung Man” is to be respected, admired, and powerful in Korean society. While the traditional belief still holds, more and more workers are looking to work in startups.
Today, Koreans struggle to cope with the demands of work, social immobility, and rising youth unemployment at 8.2 percent. Some feel like they’re back to the Joseon dynasty, where a feudal system prevented the lower classes from achieving socioeconomic mobility. Groups like Hell Chosun are forming to rebel against the traditional 60-hour work week.
“A lot of startups have former Samsung and LG employees. The reasons for leaving big corporations vary from the pursuit of adventure or just doing something personally rewarding,” says Sejung Yun, who has worked closely with startups in South Korea as part of G3 Partners.
For foreign startups looking to hire talent, Sejung has these words of advice: “With money saved up from chaebol jobs and government grant programs, you’ll find a lot of ex-chaebol people out here in the startup ecosystem. Know how to be competitive with your offer.” If you’re able to confidently pitch your product and your vision, hiring talent should not be an obstacle.
Younger workers also have different views on work practices from their parents. They’re less likely to tolerate being ordered to start work an hour earlier, or abide by stringent dress codes. Startups may offer less stable careers than large corporations, but are able to employ a flexible and progressive work culture due to their smaller sizes and novelty. For example, Kakao enjoys a flat structure where they welcome employees to freely discuss new ideas.
2. Put effort into building good relationships with chaebols or the government
Companies may face high barriers when building a network in Korea. Symbiotic relationships between the government and chaebols may also create an economic environment unfavorable to smaller businesses. Even with the support of an accelerator, startups still have to go through lengthy and extensive relationship building.
“It’s all about who you know. It’s not about bribery or corruption, but you need to develop high-level relationships, and that takes time,” Nathan says.
Building good relationships can be vital for success. Nathan advises that startups who want to broker a deal with chaebols offer something of tangible value.
“Large Korean companies are not startup-friendly, so you need to spend a ton of energy making sure that what you are offering is of value, otherwise you simply won’t get a meeting,” says Nathan. “It’s about thinking: how can I add hundreds of millions of dollars of value to this conglomerate?”
Cloudike’s CEO Sun Ung Lee says it pays to spend time and effort on developing high-level relationships.
“Once you do get the paperwork out of the way, the partnerships are highly beneficial and are almost a badge of approval to other major companies.”
Startups have to spend the same amount of time and effort on preparing to meet chaebols or governmental organizations as they would for a meeting with a VC or investor in Silicon Valley. It’s all about making the time and effort to make the right connections in South Korea too.
3. It’s important to be in the country.
While there’s definitely a language barrier, Sejung says that it isn’t impossible to overcome.
“Even if you go to Korean startup events, I would wager that a good portion of the crowd can communicate with you in English, so the opportunities are certainly there,” says Sejung. “And if you look at the statistics, or just meet people here, you’ll find a ton of people who have either lived or studied abroad in English-speaking countries as well so again, language shouldn’t be a fear.”
“Someone always knows someone who knows someone else,” says Asaph Kim, chief design officer at 3.14 and co-founder of KamiBot. He thinks building a network shouldn’t be too hard, but it does require you to be physically present in Korea.
Most founders who have successfully set up shop in Korea have lived there for a while. For example, Nathan spent seven years in Korea before setting up G3 Partners in Seoul.
Kenneth mentioned that having a local partner would be ideal, especially when sourcing for news on government sponsored programs. Indeed, Asaph says that he learned the most about Korea after 21 months of compulsory military conscription.
4. Don’t rush head-first into the market.
Founders we spoke to cautioned against rushing head-first into this market without doing any research. On one hand, Koreans hold conservative views, but on the other hand, they are extremely willing to try out new tech. Nathan says Korean consumers are very savvy about consumer goods.
Asaph also notes that Koreans “are driven by how they appear to their peers, and this ultimately drives nearly all of the social dynamics in Korea.” One example is that Koreans judge you for eating alone. This might not be surprising if you understand the face-saving culture and how this is applied specifically in Korea. Face saving includes maintaining a carefully crafted image in front of others. When this image is shattered, such as appearing to have no friends by dining alone, the person may feel guilt or shame.
Marketing also has to be done differently. As the top search engine in Korea is Naver (Google doesn’t even come in second, with only 10 percent of the search engine market share), you need to adapt your search engine optimization strategy.
Foreign app developers, such as Candy Crush, have succeeded in Korea by localizing their app and ads, such as featuring eye-catching candy popping out of the television, as well as slapstick humor.
It’s easy to forget that Korea is entirely different from surrounding countries like Japan and China. Korea has its own history and traditions. In recent times, Korean soft culture such as pop music and fashion has become increasingly recognizable and popular.
It’s important to understand these nuances, or well, risk losing face.
If you want to find out more, fill in the form below and we’ll send you our Market Expansion Ebook. It’s designed to give you basic information on each tech and startup ecosystem. It can serve as a guide on how best to get started with your company’s expansion. We share with you what you need to know about the region’s cultures, government regulations, hiring practices, business relationships, and so much more.
The heat in Singapore makes waiting outdoors unbearable. I whip out my phone to text Bus Uncle. Uncle replies really quickly, “Where are you? Which street lah, bus stop lah, or send me location also can.”
In Singapore, we call bus captains “Bus Uncle”. (Uncle is a respectful way of addressing an older man.) I send Bus Uncle my location and the bus number. He replies after a few seconds. “5 mins only.”
Wah, so fast reply me sia. “Thanks uncle!” But soon, I become impatient. “Still got how long ah, uncle?”
“Say hi to me I here already.” The bus pulls up.
The creole chatbot
Bus Uncle does not speak Standard English. He speaks Singapore’s national creole, Singlish, an amalgamation of languages spoken in the country.
Singaporeans may remember a popular sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, about a contractor who wore yellow boots and sported a large mole. More notably, he spoke Singlish. The show ran for ten years, and despite its immense popularity, was criticized for its use of Singlish by Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his 1999 National Day Rally speech. The show ended in 2007.
Nearly a decade after the show ended, a Singlish character has returned to the spotlight.
Bus Uncle is our friendly uncle in the neighborhood who drives a bus and informs users how long he will take to reach the bus stop. He currently services all the bus routes in Singapore. He responds with a mixture of patience and good-humored wit, and works hard after work hours to “upgrade” himself at “bus school” under his trainer, 24-year-old Abhilash Murthy.
Diligent, friendly, and grouchy Bus Uncle has struck a chord with Singaporeans.
Bus Uncle is a chatbot.
How to train your chatbot
Abhilash, Bus Uncle’s developer, studied Information Systems Management in the Singapore Management University. Bus Uncle is a side project; Abhilash works full-time as a software developer at TradeGecko, and doesn’t plan on starting up yet. “I thought of getting work experience first before starting something. For now, I’m looking at this as a side project. I’m fully focused on my current job.”
He refers to himself as the Bus Uncle trainer. “As I start posting on Facebook as ‘Bus Uncle’, I want to say that Bus Uncle is learning to do more things. That’s where I came up with the idea of a trainer.”
Bus Uncle updated his Facebook Page on October 26. “Uncle just passed test at bus school, now can do new thing. When you search bus stop, I will show you white cards with more info. You can swipe swipe swipe, then just ‘choose’.”
“Swipe swipe swipe,” I chortled at his update. It’s exactly how I would describe the new feature in Singlish. I swiped-swiped-swiped my way through the list of locations, chose the right one, and waited. Soon enough, Bus Uncle responded to me. What a nice man.
Abhilash shared with Tech in Asia that his effective training has resulted in many users mistaking Bus Uncle as a real person. “They ask things like, ‘Are you human or are you computer?’ The bot will reply, ‘I don’t understand.’ And they will keep questioning Bus Uncle. I’m still thinking of responses for more common things people say.”
He reads feedback from users frequently from Bus Uncle’s Facebook Page and reviews. One piece of feedback he acted on, which made Bus Uncle even more realistic, was to make Bus Uncle reply wittily when users thanked him. He said, “At the start, Bus Uncle could tell you a bus time and that’s it. But a lot of people requested or reviewed, ‘I wish he would reply me when I say thank you.’”
Now, Bus Uncle says, “I shy leh.”
Natural Language Processing helped train Bus Uncle
Natural language processing (NLP) is the key to Bus Uncle’s Singlish prowess, which probably duped some people into thinking he’s human. NLP is artificial intelligence that can tell what the user is trying to say and how he is feeling.
Abhilash uses Wit.ai to develop Bus Uncle. Wit.ai was acquired by Facebook for an undisclosed sum in 2015. Touted as a simple but impressive NLP tool that helps developers transform speech and text into data, it was the tool of choice for Abhilash, who had been developing Facebook applications for a while. “Wit.ai is made by engineers who specialize in voice recognition and natural language processing. It looks at any phrase and tries to understand intents and sentiments. If you want to ask how long the bus will take in Singlish, you can say, “Bus how long.” The NLP service was able to pick up and understand Singlish. Naturally, because people speak to Bus Uncle in Singlish, I made the bot reply in Singlish as well.”
Abhilash is hoping that more people take his lead with chatbots. The talented developer created this chatbot in just a week. “I might consider creating bots in other languages and slangs. There is some interest from other people outside of Singapore. There’s a #startup in Africa that told me they are interested in localizing language and see if I could help them localize their app. I’m still exploring,” he told Tech in Asia.
Bus Uncle’s final exam
The Singapore Bus Uncle hasn’t yet taken the most challenging exam of all – the Turing test. It’s not easy for a chatbot to pass the Turing test. To pass the Turing test, a computer needs a human tester to fail to distinguish it from another human being based on its responses.
At the moment, Bus Uncle still does not respond to some human sentiments expressed in speech, like anger and urgency. He repeats his lines, or asks, “Ah?”
Abhilash is working on this. “There’re a lot of other things that people do, like swear at the bot. I don’t have plans for that. I’m looking at the trends of how people express their sentiments and come up with something to respond.”
Still, this charming creole chatbot uses the right colloquialisms and is armed with a lot of responses. He solves a simple problem quickly.
That’s what everyone loves about Bus Uncle.
Elon Musk. Mark Zuckerberg. Jack Ma. These are the names people think of when we talk about disruptive tech businesses. Yet, not many are aware that some technical founders from Japan could be changing the world.
The Land of the Rising Sun, although known to most as a “closed” market, is actually home to one of the most intelligent and competitive tech. Home to “deep learning” – software that learns and creates connections, like the human brain – as well as beautiful and intelligent humanoids, Japan gathers tech geniuses and researchers who work with the belief that computers can discern what data is important and what isn’t.
Japan also tends to be an early adopter of technologies, such as the smart home experience, and is starting to open its doors to the world and embrace tech. Their ability to change the world with their technology and innovative minds should not be undermined – especially with these three technical founders who could be changing the future of global tech.
Katsuaki Sato, CEO, Metaps
Last year at Tech in Asia Tokyo, Katsuaki, a bold visionary, spoke about when to IPO. This came from someone who shocked Japan’s #startup ecosystem with its own announcement to take Metaps public. Metaps’ core product is a marketing automation platform for mobile apps, driving acquisition to monetisation using big-data and machine learning. They’ve done spectacularly well, with 200 million users and 2 billion downloads from around the world.
Katsuaki’s also aiming for the final frontier: space, with the help of artificial intelligence. With a joint research partnership with microsatellite firm Space Shift underway, satellite data will be analysed to make meaningful conclusions on the changes taking place on Earth.
Closer to home, their tech is used for gaming. Working with SEGA Networks, goPlay will aid developers with game publishing in emerging and global markets. Metaps will provide the framework needed to support gaming apps in their marketing and localisation of their product.
Intelligence revolution is changing the game, and Katsuaki is one of those at the forefront of it, both globally and soon, in space.
Toru Nishikawa, CEO, Preferred Networks
By 2020, you might see cars using turn signals and changing lanes perfectly – without a driver. And all these would have been made possible by the help of Toru’s startup. Late last year, world’s largest automaker Toyota acquired a 3 percent stake in Preferred for US$8.2 billion, valuing the latter at US$321.5 million. This investment underscores Toyota’s belief in the startup’s tech in helping the car manufacturer crack the code to its own self-driving cars. Should this partnership bear fruits of success, Toyota would inch ahead of General Motors and Ford in the race for automated driving – and Toru’s startup would be worth more than what it is today.
Toru Nishikawa predicted the rise of big data analysis and found his calling in setting up his startup to shape the future with tech. He’s already started with Nintendo’s smartphone games by partnering with game provider DeNA, and with Fanuc Corp for machines capable of fabricating and fixing other robots.
Simply put, Preferred Networks is a company with substance and innovation you should watch closely.
Yuka Kojima, CEO, Fove
Fancy attending a conference in virtual reality and interacting with founders simply by putting on a headset? Yuka Kojima might make that possible.
In fact, they claim that they are even better than other VR headsets available on the market. Offering interactive eye-tracking, Fove’s VR headsets provide depth of field just like the human eye, allowing for realistic virtual world. This is fueled by Yuka’s belief behind the hardware – she views gaming as a “complex, emotional experience”. Fove offers us a nuanced look into a virtual dimension we’ve never explored, and felt.
Meet these game-changers in the flesh
Space, games, driverless cars, virtual reality. If futurology is right up your alley, you’ll have to meet these three technical founders who are changing the world at Tech in Asia Tokyo 2016, happening soon on September 6 & 7.