In formers posts about the start-up environment in Hong Kong and Taiwan, a common complaint of start-ups is the lack of government support. But after a bit of digging, it seems there are decent government organizations really trying to reach out and help start-ups. When I was in Taiwan, I met with James Hill www.twitter.com/jameshilltaiwan, who is part of a team that supports start ups at NEW Studio, part of III.
What is the main role of III?
III‘s main role is as a think tank working alongside the ICT industry and providing government with the necessary research work to drive policy. III also runs several business incubation programs, some centred on software such as the one at the Nangang Software Park, and others such as NEW Studio (the one I work at) which concentrates on web 2.0 and internet start ups. In my project, roughly 60% of our time is devoted to start ups, and the remaining 40% is research based reporting. The research we carry out can be about the trends we see coming out of the US and China and how to best use this information for the benefit of start ups here. We also produce e-books and other literature for purchase and hold conferences where entrepreneurs and experts from the US, Japan and China can share their thoughts on the future of the web economy with local start ups.
How does the program work?
At III we want to build a relationship with our start ups that is both mutually beneficial and mutually respectful. These are private companies and we treat them as equals rather than as ‘children.’ Some of the teams we work with need more assistance than others and are therefore more direct in asking for help. We try to accommodate any requests start ups may have and work with our partners (ISPs, VCs, media) to achieve the desired goals. When our teams are selected to join the incubation program they are assigned an ISP who will provide bandwidth and server capacity for a set period of time, usually a year, kind of like a ‘buddy’ program.
What is the application procedure to get in to III?
Start ups interested in joining III’s program apply first by submitting a short introduction to their service, usually including bios of the team, business plan, market size, competitors, etc. These are assessed by a panel comprising our ISP, VC and other partners and judged on potential, service innovation, monetization plans and other criteria. Successful teams are invited for a short 10 minute face-to-face presentation and if they are successful, teams are then enrolled in our program. Typically, those teams taken in at the beginning of the year will feature at July’s IDEAS Show. We take in new teams twice a year.
What can start-ups expect from III?
While we don’t invest directly in our start ups, we do have strong links to venture capitalists and angels both here in Taiwan and abroad. This year iPeen received $1 million from CyberAgent, a Japanese VC firm that has invested in several Taiwanese start ups and sees enough promise in the market that it is opening a branch office in June. Last year, III incubated firms received roughly $17 million in investment, so while III does not personally invest in start ups, we’re pretty good at getting others to sign checks! III offers a comprehensive program of mentoring, workshops, investment, events and conferences to our teams. We offer classes for business planning, legal information, intellectual property rights, investment law and a host of other start up-specific topics. We take start ups to international demo events in the US and China, and have been pretty successful at winning prizes there, which in turn raises the profile of our start ups and Taiwan as an innovation hub.
What other government initiatives are there to help start-ups?
The Taiwanese government has quite a few initiatives that are aimed at promoting growth in the internet economy. Aside from the various incubators at III, there are incubators at ITRI another industry think tank. Many leading national universities also have incubation centres that offer co-working space and mentoring for students and others to work on projects together. A new co-working space is being set up by National Chengchi University (NCCU) for example, a contributor to the upcoming Startup Weekend Taipei in August. ITRI is also partly behind the new TMI (Taiwan Mobile Internet) Labs incubator, together with Innovation Works.
How will Kai Fu Lee’s fund entering Taiwan shake things up?
Yes, this is going to be interesting! TMI Labs will be a partnership between ITRI’s Industrial Technology Investment Corp, Innovation Works, and investment firm WI Harper Group. The reported funding is $7 million and they plan to take in 3-5 teams each year. While I don’t think Kaifu Lee will be shuttling back and forth between China and Taiwan, there will be a good team on the ground managing the program. The founders of Wretch (Taiwan’s leading blogging site & #3 website in the country), and Sina will be on hand to give support to incubated teams. Investment has also been given by local tech heavyweights such as Terry Gou, head of FoxConn, Liu Chuangzhi, chair of Lenovo and Steven Chen, one of the founders of YouTube. According to the piece in the Taipei Times, they’ve already dropped a ton of money in Dianxin, an operating system that runs on Android. The investment came from China’s GSR Ventures.
How can start-ups find out more info about government resources they can tap into?
The best place to find out about assistance is, of course, on the internet! The Ministry of Economic Affairs has several departments that provide resources for start ups as well as those that III and others run. There are subsidies available for qualifying companies and other resources available. Of course all incubators such as appWorks have their own websites and for investment, you can check out the TVCA (Taiwan Venture Capital Association) website which has the names and contact details for all the VC firms operating in Taiwan. I am unaware of a centralized portal for all information so perhaps someone could hack that together!
What do you think the tipping point for more people in Taiwan to get into start-ups will be?
I think we’re pretty much there. Success stories such as Groupon’s acquisition of AtlasPost have helped show that start ups can provide an alternative to graduates, who before would have gone into more traditional employment. There are investors such as Jamie Lin and Yushan Ventures pumping money into the ecosystem and a wealth of blogging and news sites like TechOrange that inform the rest of the public about what’s going on here. We also have foreign startups such as Jiepang, Plurk and Toro moving into Taiwan and setting up offices here which shows that Taiwan can be an attractive base of operations for foreign internet companies. While there may be cultural concerns to overcome, Taiwan is certainly more westernized that its Asian neighbours, an advantage that start ups here can utilize. I’m optimistic about the future of Taiwan’s start up ecosystem; we are ideally placed to become a bridge between the mainland and the West. We offer a soft landing for foreign start ups that are unfamiliar with Chinese cultural customs without the restrictions and risks associated with moving into China.
Are there any new outstanding start-ups?
Definitely! There were quite a few interesting teams that featured at appWorks’ 2nd Demo Day which you can read about here and we have had quite a few neat services that have applied for IDEAS Show. I’m not going to say too much about those because we want people to show up on the day but they run the full gamut of web and mobile, quite a few consumer services all with a pretty clear revenue model. While not strictly a Taiwanese start up, Toro is pushing the use of NFC here as Taiwanese are already familiar with using Visa Paywave and stored value cards for the MRT system. Air Camel is disrupting the ecommerce market here and there are cool app developers like www.nexdoor.cc