Startup Thailand 2018 reaffirms Bangkok as SEA Hub of Startups

National Innovation Agency Executive Director Dr Pun-Arj Chaiyarat says the recent Startup Thailand 2018: Endless Opportunities expo reconfirmed Bangkok as the greatest place among Southeast Asia countries to build up a tech-driven firm.

“It took me by surprise too as we began [startup development] many years after our neighbours. Vietnam and Indonesia have unicorns supported by their huge population markets. In Thailand, the sign of progress is the ecosystem with capital coming into the system, making many people look at Bangkok.”

A unicorn is a startup company with a valuation of over US$1 billion (32 billion baht).

Startup Thailand 2018, held May 17-20, reiterated Bangkok’s primacy as a hub. Hundreds of foreign attendees were surprised at the scale of the event and saw the progress of Thailand’s numerous startups.

Dr Pun-Arj said the event met its targets, while information was gained from the 500-plus booths to help build a database for further analysis that will extend and direct the development of Thai startups in the future.

“From the beginnings of Startup Thailand three years ago, as the principal organiser, we have been through the trials and errors. The information gathered from the event each year has been used to improve and make further development. Our work was not just finished in four days, but from the results obtained, we are also doing knowledge dissemination.”

Dr Pun-Arj then outlined directions for the future development of startups at the deep tech level. There is still a long way to go after a year of government-supported growth. In particular, startups developing deep tech and emphasising agricultural innovations will help support the country’s base economy.

“Agriculture is a group not greatly helped by technology. We have agri-businesses from large world-beating corporations to SMEs. However, we have very few tech startups to help change agribusiness.

“We have started to use drones in agriculture, such as drones adapted to apply fertiliser and GPS-enabled drones for survey work. Although the domestic market has just started using them, we are beginning to see more significant changes in the next couple of years. Traditional agri-businesses are using more deep tech,” he said.

Apart from agriculture, other groups include health tech and med-tech, which should develop coordination between both state and private hospitals and startups.

However, developing this group has two challenges, which is growing the domestic market with demand for growth before going overseas.

That part of health tech focuses on service innovation, efficiency and pro-activity. Med tech highly stresses reliability and patient safety. Both groups have different methods of regulation, standards and compliance. The first group has better chances to get established more quickly than the second group.

Getting these innovations to move more rapidly, Thailand’s priority is to complete a startup bill as soon as possible for approval from the Cabinet. The second matter is to develop innovations in financial management and financing for startups. It is not just limited to Thai startups; finance must be designed as a magnet for foreigners.

Besides this, there must be a regulatory sandbox to unlock startups’ new ideas for experimentation, without the restraint of old laws. A sandbox is a platform to test a new business model without the legislation to support it, as the effects are not yet known. Besides business models, sandboxes can also be used to test standards and quality.

“Sandboxes also help solve business problems that run into hurdles under existing laws, forcing them to be solved in a way to evade the law. It drives some good business models underground.”

Thailand is currently in a transition of developing technology as well as regulations concerning the law and innovations. “Some innovations are the first ever invented, and we don’t know yet whether to produce or operate them or if they will comply to existing law or otherwise. It is a grey area that we have to find out. A sandbox is a platform allowing us to test it without legal concerns.”