Start-up ideas fail to take off

With many Startup Weekends being held, the validity of ideas and their presentation in the market are a concern. So far, nine Startup Weekend editions were held in the country. But only two ideas were launched in the market and they have not been resounding successes. 

The brainchild behind the first Startup Weekend in Bhutan was Ram Bahadur Gurung (Deputy Chief, Entrepreneurship Department, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources) and Jamyang Kitsho (QED group) with assistance of Anurag Maloo of Techstar.

Startup Weekend was thus an initiative by the labor ministry and QED group in mid-2015. This program has been conferred special mention by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

in the Entrepreneurship Policy Framework and implementation guidance.

The competitions were organized by various ministries, departments, financial institutions and community volunteers. The theme of the competitions varied from technology, ecotourism, food and agri-tech.   

However, the ideas conceived at the Startup Weekend remain a raw plan and no concrete action is taken after the event is completed. Considering the number of Startup Weekends that have been conducted so far, by now minimum of 27 best ideas should be in the market. Attractive prizes, mentorship, incubation centers were provided by the organizers for the recognized ideas.

The Deputy Chief of Entrepreneurship Department, Ram Bahadur Gurung said that startup program aims to achieve long term goals and does not necessarily guarantee that the idea will materialize in the market right away. “Startup programs aim at training the aspiring entrepreneurs, developing prototype and team building.”

He further said that there are some startup entrepreneurs who join civil service after the program but they do work on their ideas after a few years. “They are long term goals and we can’t expect results at the moment.”

While many of the winning ideas are not in the market yet the winners of the 6th edition of National Startup Weekend that took place in March earlier this year are keenly working on their prototype.

Two winning teams of the National Startup Weekend, team ‘Sungjab’ and team InnoHome (smart switch system) are seen working on their prototype in Thimphu TechPark.

Team ‘Sungjab, Electronic scarecrow’ with their concept of an audio and visual effect to battle human-wildlife conflict was declared the winner of the Startup Weekend. They received a grant support of Nu 800,000 from the Royal Government of Bhutan through Ministry of Information and Communications.

It has been eight months since the completion of the event and the founder of Sunjab, Dupjay Pelzang has been working alone with his idea. He said the members of his team opted for other jobs. “I did my civil service examination and I directly came here to work on my idea.”

He added that there are many procedures to fulfill and the licensing and clearance took him a month. “I am still waiting for the environmental clearance from Thromde.”

While InnoHome team are seen working in a group, The Smart Switch System which functions with its Bluetooth mobile app to switch on/off lights came second. The focus of the idea is on easy wireless switching of electrical appliances of one’s home through phone applications from anywhere around the world.

The co-founder of InnoHome, Jigme Yeshi said the team has been working for two months and none of them has appeared the RCSE. “The prototype development is 40% complete.”

The team shared that the prizes are helpful in covering the expenses for the production stage. They have to claim the amount validating their progress to the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT).

Senior ICT Officer of DITT, MoIC, Deepika Rai said the organizer should know about the progressive steps the startups are carrying out. “We can’t just blindly give them the amount,” she said adding that the department has been closely monitoring the aspiring startups. 

Talking to Business Bhutan, the founder of Natural Water Filter, and the winner of Startup Weekend, Ugyen Dorji, said that his team members were more inclined towards joining civil service.

“I am already in Thailand and I got a job here,” he said adding that he has asked his friends to continue the work.

Director General of DITT Jigme Thinley said that the department cannot hold the money for longer duration. “The amount will go to the next startup weekend.”

The winners can claim their prize money after completing certain procedures such as licensing of their business and location clearance. “The organizer asked us to claim the amount before January 31, 2019,” said Ugyen Dorji.

The Director General commented if youth do not translate their ideas into action, the amount should go to the next event. “We are planning for next National Startup weekend beginning February 2019.”

Jigme Yeshi said Bhutanese market needs quality and innovative entrepreneurs. Rather than organizing three to five startup events a year, why not focus on an annual event and launch the business collaboratively. “The startup weekend is becoming a cliché,” he said, “More than the quantity, we must focus on quality.”

Meanwhile, according to Ram Bahadur Gurung, inconsistency of efforts and failure to carry forward the idea within certain duration is either due to lack of access to finance or infrastructure. “The young entrepreneurs face challenges in getting collateral free loans and that is when they fail to carry forward their ideas.”

However, he added that the recently approved 12th Five Year plan has allotted a certain budget for Startup Bhutan program which includes innovative tech week, startup weekend and other training programs.

Additionally the CEO of iBEST institute, Tharchen said that the government is and should support youth with such program. “It is never a waste to invest in educating youth on business and entrepreneurship,” he said, “If a single youth launches his idea in the market, it is a success.”

The Entrepreneurship Department is planning to collaborate with Royal Education Council to integrate curriculum for entrepreneurship in schools. This is to encourage job creation through business, build entrepreneurial ecosystem and educate youth about self-employment as an alternative to civil service.

Phub Dem from Thimphu