By Areej Mehdi
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely, dark place. For Pakistani tech entrepreneurs, that seems to be literally true (what with power shortage amounting to 12 hours a day sometimes). Pitted against this lack of funds, mentorship, and resources, is Punjab Information Technology Board’s Plan9 – Pakistan’s first national tech incubator.
Power shortage alone begs the question whether a technology incubator can be successful in a Pakistani environment. Besides, can we count on technology to solve our local problems?
PITB Chairman Dr. Umar Saif, certainly thinks so. “Technology is reshaping the world. Tech startups are solving global problems locally,” he says. And how does he regard Plan9’s role in this ecosystem? “Plan9 is contributing towards an ecosystem whose aim is to promote tech entrepreneurship in Pakistan. It is playing a pivotal role in providing a platform for aspiring entrepreneurs who often have to succumb in the face of hardships due to lack of resources and opportunities.” Dr. Saif is hopeful that Plan9 will bridge the gap between academia, industry and the government through technology.
While Plan9 is not Pakistan’s first technology incubator, it is certainly so far the most consistent and visible one and the first national initiative of its kind. Launched in 2012, Plan9 was awarded a grant of 180 million rupees by the Punjab government to realize its aim: which is to provide an environment conducive to entrepreneurship and business development in Pakistan.
Each cycle, entrepreneurs are invited to apply as an incubatee. After filling an online application, teams are shortlisted to present their business ideas at a Launchpad. A Launchpad is a three day event held at Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, for the selection of teams for incubation at Plan9. A board of advisors, including PITB Chairman Dr. Umar Saif, PASHA President Jehan Ara, Google Pakistan Country Consultant Badar Khushnood, among others, rates and shortlists applicants on the merit of their ideas and their potential as a tech startup.
An incubation cycle is six months long. Successful applicants are provided free office space, laptops and the chance to work in an environment with uninterrupted power supply and internet access. A team can include anywhere between 2 to 5 members. Each team member of the incubated team is also granted a monthly stipend of Rs 20,000 for financial assistance for the entirety of their incubation cycle.
Through various workshops, trainings and mentorship sessions, the Plan9 team helps each project focus on the attainability of its goal. In a short time Plan9 has developed a large network of mentors who help train and mentor incubated teams. Among them are names such as Hussein Kanji, Partner at Hoxton Ventures; Saad Khan, Partner at CMEA Capital; Naeem Zamindar, CEO Wateen; Jazib Zahir, CEO Tintash; and Fadi Bishara, Founder Blackbox. Encouraging an environment conducive to innovative thinking, these mentors allocate their time to develop and shape the understanding of incubated teams through their sessions.
All incubated startups have the opportunity to pitch their business/product ideas to Plan9 Angel Investors Club. The Angels Investors Club is comprised of investors who are hopeful of advancing technological developments in Pakistan. The club comprises of visionaries such as Syed Babar Ali; PITB Chairman, Dr. Umar Saif; CEO Sofizar, Zafar Khan; CEO Angels Den, Bill Morrow; and Thal Industries Director Farah Khan among others. To date the club has invested 500,000 USD in various startups incubated at Plan9.
How has this innovative approach, to realizing Pakistan’s entrepreneurial spirit, proved to be fruitful? For one, this relatively young incubator has become a beacon of hope for young entrepreneurs all over the country. More importantly, within the short span that it has been functioning, several Plan9 incubatees have successfully launched their projects for both Android and Apple devices, such as Groopic, Technolsys, and Locpro. Additionally, the mobile app helpline, Appography has been selected for the BlackBox 2014 Spring Program in Silicon Valley. Apart from announcing a Fellowship program, which invites individuals to intern with Plan9 and its incubated teams, Plan9 has also recently opened its offices for freelance developers, thereby providing a viable space for freelancers to co-work and engage in meaningful conversations.
Among Plan9’s most successful incubated companies, are names like Eyedeus Labs, Hometown, Kickstoro, Technolsys Labs, MyBizPakistan and Appography. What sets these startups apart from most? “Passion, team strength and focus”, says Plan9 Marketing and PR Manager, Hafsa Shorish. “Each incubatee is given similar resources to work with. Those who bring commitment and passion to their work have a greater chance to succeed. If a team is in sync with its visions and goals, it will go far.”
Eyedeus Labs is one such success story. Groopic, their first product, was launched in 2013 and has become a favourite with many. Groopic allows users to take photographs which also includes the photographer. Hometown is another success story to come out of Plan9 incubation. With the aim to bridge the gap between local craftsmen and consumers, Hometown offers exquisite handcrafted leather shoes to consumers.
Plan9 has clearly set an example for other aspiring incubators to follow a successful model. However, Plan9’s success has limitations as well. Government support – both organizational and financial – has played a very critical role in the establishment and sustainability of Plan9. And while the results achieved by incubatees are impressive, they have largely been non-financial and it is not clear if a private-sector entity can sustain this level of support without a direct financial outcome associated with it.
With the establishment of Plan 9 as an innovative working space for young entrepreneurs, it is hoped that more incubation centers are opened in other parts of Pakistan, in order to engage the youth. More than anything, Plan 9 ensures that tech entrepreneurship is no longer a lonely, dark place, rather, a lively hub of the nation’s brightest minds.