‘Next Facebook, Google or Apple could come from Asia’
SINGAPORE—Move aside Silicon Valley. You are no longer the center of the galaxy.
Or so declared the participants of the first-ever Demo Asia, recently held here. A spin-off of the biannual Demo Conference in California’s Bay Area, Demo Asia 2012 is the region’s largest gathering of technology start-ups looking to pitch their business ideas and reach out to venture capitalists, or VCs.
Some of the biggest brands and businesses launched their ideas and gained initial funding from the Demo Conference in California, which has been going on for nearly two decades.
Participants in the first Asian leg, however, believe that the next great idea, like the sun every morning, will come from the east.
“At the very least, the technology industry here should be equal that of Silicon Valley,” says Dr. Gavin Ni, founder and CEO of Chinese VC, Zero2IPO.
Like other VCs, Ni, whose company manages over $250 million in funds specifically for start-ups, believes Asia has now become one of the best places in the world for young entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to start their businesses.
“It will be difficult to replace Silicon Valley,” Ni says. California’s Silicon Valley, of course, is the birth place and remains the headquarters for some of the world’s most recognizable corporations such as Apple, Google and, of course, Facebook.
“But in recent years, more Asian start-ups are getting founded and the market here is dynamic,” he says.
Benjamin Ng, general manager of Demo Asia’s main organizer Sphere Exhibits, says one of the event’s main goals was to harness the immense talent and promote a culture of risk-taking in the region.
“The way Asians think is that if we go to school and study hard, we can grow up to be doctors and lawyers, and have a comfortable life,” Ng says. “It’s much different in the Western world where people are more willing to take risk.”
“In the Philippines, the successful families are the likes of the Ayalas and the Gokongweis. It’s because these guys are born entrepreneurs,” he says.
“With the rapid pace of globalization, it’s time for Asia to be at the forefront and Demo Asia’s unique platform is paving the way to showcase that to the global stage,” Sphere Exhibits executive director Chua Wee Pong says.
A total of 71 companies qualified to present at the two-day Demo Asia conference held at Singapore’s Biopolis area, surrounded by the National University of Singapore, the Singapore Polytechnic and the Institute of Technical Education.
About 44 of these start-ups were allowed to make a six-minute pitch about their businesses on stage. Each participant also had to contend with strict rules: No PowerPoint presentations, no marketing gimmicks, and at the end of their six-minute slots, their microphones are cut off.
The remaining 28 companies were made to go through the more gruelling ordeal of making so-called “Alpha” pitches, where each startup is given just 90 seconds to wow the crowd.
HobbyMash, the only Filipino company making pitch at the conference, was among the startups that did Alpha Pitches. HobbyMash is a Facebook application that helps users to find other people in their same age bracket that share their common interests.
“It was very exciting and we were really nervous,” HobbyMash’s Leizl Buenaventura says.
Each presenter, of course, was advised to make every second on stage count, with top-caliber venture capitalists in the audience judging their every move in the spotlight.
Jeffrey Chi, managing director at Vickers Venture Partners, one of the countless VC firms that heard pitches here, says the blurring of geographical boundaries has helped small companies gain unprecedented access to markets and capital from half the world away.
“There are several things that are happening at the same time that are in Asia’s favor,” Chi says. “First is that top Internet companies are finding out that their user bases are no longer in the US,” he says.
The popularity of Facebook in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines—now on the list of top five countries with most users on the 800-million-member network—was a prime example.
Facebook has achieved this success in Asia in spite of China and its 1.3 billion people still remaining largely out of Mark Zuckerberg’s reach.
“The second thing is the growth of wealth in Asia. The market is large and there’s a lot of room for growth for a lot of players,” he says.
He adds that VCs like Vickers and Zero2IPO could help companies overcome challenges that inevitably arise from a highly segmented region like Southeast Asia.
“There are 10 countries in this region, and each one has a unique set of regulations that businesses have to deal with,” he says. “The challenge is how to develop a strategy and be able to scale that despite language barriers.”
Chi adds VCs can also provide the “adult supervision” that even companies like Google and Microsoft need to survive.
Sphere Exhibit’s Ng says with all these factors in place, the next Facebook, Google or Apple can come from Asia.
“The possibilities are endless. All it takes is one great idea. No one should be surprised,” he says.