National ICT R&D Fund Brainstorms on Igniting Industrial Innovation

The management of the National ICT Research and Development Fund made its way to Karachi to host the first ever Conclave on Igniting Industrial Innovation earlier this week. The Conclave aimed to gather representatives from the corporate sector, startup ecosystem, service firms, media, and experts from the local ICT industry. Though participation from the corporate side was limited, startups and industry shared their own encounters with corporations, highlighting pain points and areas of work.

CEO ICT R&D Fund, Mr. Yusuf Hussain chaired the event, where he started with an overview of his vision for the fund, a glance at the current projects in the pipeline and discussion points laid out for the brainstorming projects.

After a quick overview of the Fund, which is going through a transformation and also renaming itself to ‘Ignite’, the floor was open to a moderated discussion mainly adding to the proposed action items for corporate sector involvement. As the event theme suggested, the dialogue started with the corporates versus startups with some of the startups raising concerns on the current structure where startups do not get the opportunity to validate their ideas, companies not coming straight forward in terms of feedback as well as their take on innovation and supporting the local ecosystem.

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Though there’s been a shift in the dialogue (and embracement!) of failure at perhaps the startups level, the same cannot be said for corporates. Large organizations still look at RoI and value in terms of actual numbers, and perhaps rightly so since they get tangled into operational, brand management and growth.

What may be going wrong at the moment is that on both fronts; corporates and startups may be innovative, but the disparity is so large in terms what’s needed in the market versus what’s being produced that there is little impact in reality.

One example that I had quoted at the event and would do so again, is a program that was initiated by Pakathon Karachi, where they reached out to four organizations namely Engro Corporation, Karachi Electric, Civil Hospital and Aman Foundation to understand their challenges and how to best use technology to solve it. The hackathon was developed with these challenges in mind, where the participants had a focused approach on solving real world scenarios, which were actually implemented as a follow up to the event.

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Yusuf Hussain summarized this very well by adding that while some corporations like UBL, HBL and Samsung may have formal innovation department setups in place, the problem lies in the fact that at the Board level, most of these organizations still remain risk averse.

The protocol to be followed in these organizations requires a series of reviews, approvals and with limited action. In addition to that, there’s a lack of age and gender diversity that impacts decision-making at the board level, and the one to back this idea was none other than Founder CIRCLE, Sadaffe Abid.

An example here could be the recent news where the Coca Cola Company brought a Teen Marketing Officer onboard. I thought this was a great instance of big companies looking at the millennial (or teenage!) perspective to redesign their approach.

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In our understanding of the corporate culture and their take on innovation, perhaps what’s driving innovation today is competition, brand or reputation, or tangible profit prospects. For example banks see future corporate customers and telecom companies see additional revenue streams. The way ahead for startups in this regard would be to know which corporate’s goals are well-aligned with what they have to offer and reach out to them accordingly.

Startups that scale to more than $0.5 mil in revenue will get more receptivity. Series A VC funding is required to attain this. Corporate-Startup collaboration (Corporate VC, acquisitions, incubators, partnerships, customer relationships, prototype testbeds) is distinct and requires a different strategy than CSR.

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When one looks at the progress of local technology houses and the buzz in the startup ecosystem, it comes as a surprise that Pakistan’s rank on the Global Information Technology Report index has been on a low. This may be partially accorded to lack of numbers and statistics provided or authentic research. One idea brought forth at the session was industry research and vertical specific approach to see what the local landscape looks like.

A challenge that faces our nation at large is ‘mainstreaming the good’. With the right kind of participation from research firms, media houses, incubators and accelerators as well as at a governance level, individuals and corporates would have access to data regarding startups, innovation strategies, valuations or exit reporting. Perhaps also allowing organizations to reach out to startups that are targeting specific areas of their business needs and challenges.

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Humayun Bashir, former Country General Manager at IBM Pakistan commended the efforts of the government and Ignite in reaching out to the youth and preparing for the fourth industrial wave well in time. Karachi being the business hub that it is has a lot to contribute to the local ecosystem, given the right platforms.

In the past, Pakistan has missed out tech opportunities like the Y2K and Dot Com boom, but with a well sought out plan and commitment from the stakeholders, we’re unstoppable!

Time and again we’ve said that everyone talks at startups, not to startups. If the dialogue can be slightly altered to bring in mix perspectives, especially those that represent a majority of our nation’s population, we’re well on our way to a healthy ecosystem.

Written by: Aqsa Tariq
Image source: Ignite