Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Start-up and shine

Published in Jan-Feb 2017

The reasons behind Pakistan's success at the APICTA Awards, and what needs to be done in order to sustain it.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

In November 2006, after the Asia Pacific ICT Alliance (APICTA) Awards were held in Macau, the Pakistani delegation returned home with a single award – a special recognition award in the communications category for Pixsense. The delegation included three judges, an economy coordinator and six technology product teams. Although the teams representing Pakistan were strong candidates and winners of the National ICT Awards, something was missing. To be fair, Pakistan was a recent arrival and did not fully understand the criteria required to stand out in front of the regional judging panels. However, Pakistan was not alone in feeling left out in the celebrations. Australia and China shared the same fate. Together, we finished at the bottom of the pool.

Ten years later, in December 2016, Team Pakistan arrived at the APICTA Awards with 42 delegates. It was the largest group Pakistan had ever fielded at an international technology competition. Delegates included five judges, an economy coordinator and 28 product entries from 26 teams across 13 categories. The competition, which was held in Taipei, was the toughest of the last 13 years; 240 entries, 600 delegates, 61 judges, 18 categories. Nine entries came back home with an award. Pakistan finished fourth overall across 17 participating economies. We missed the second place finish by two medals.

In December 2016, Team Pakistan arrived at the APICTA Awards with 42 delegates. It was the largest group Pakistan had ever fielded at an international technology competition.

How did this transformation happen? Was this just a lucky break? How does an economy rocket from the bottom of the pool in the technology sector to become part of the leading pack at the finish line?

When we dig deeper into the reasons for Pakistan’s performance, we see that after the disappointing finish in 2006, Pakistan started turning heads 2008 onwards.

Two underlying trends have helped in this transformation. Within graduating batches at our universities there was an increasing shift to opt for experimenting with starting your own shop versus conventional employment. Fresh out of college, armed with an undergraduate degree in computer science or design, two to three young founders got together to launch a technology services business and crack the half a million US dollar mark within the first five years. However, it is the second trend that is really driving the shift. With the rise in revenues, they experiment with product ideas and in the next five years transform themselves into product companies. As they become role models, they feed both these trends by convincing the next batch of graduates to do the same.

At the 2007 APICTA Awards, all three winners from Pakistan were product companies. Kraysis (now Qualitatum) and Pixsense were both two year old start-ups breaking new ground. The third, TPS, wrote software that helped run the national ATM backbone. In 2016, 14 out of the 28 Pakistani entries at the Awards were product based start-ups. In 2007, we fielded only a single entry in the tertiary student and secondary school project categories. In 2016, the delegation included five entries in two student project categories. Seven out of eight award winners in 2016 were start-ups and students. Eight were product focused teams.

We always knew that there is no shortage of talent or ideas. The missing piece was facilitating recognition, creating opportunities to participate at credible international events, a little guidance and direction. As long as we continue to create and promote role models, we will be able to feed the trend for young businesses to experiment with new product ideas. The challenge is to find the funding to do the above.

For PASHA to announce an ICT Awards competition is easy. Building a credible platform, hosting it in alternate cities, educating and training judges and encouraging participation year after year is a different story. The PASHA ICT Awards team receives between 150 and 200 entries every year from across Pakistan. In the beginning, entries were limited to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Then something truly magical happened and we started seeing participation from Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Hyderabad, Mianwali, Peshawar, Quetta and Sialkot. It is this pool of innovators, technologists and change makers that drives the performance of Team Pakistan.

Armed with a pre-awards competition pitching training organised by PASHA (and which increases in intensity every year), this is the group that makes waves and is noticed in the Asia Pacific region. We have been very fortunate that our sponsors and grant organisations, both within and outside the technology industry, have always understood and supported the nature of the mission.

In 2016, 14 out of the 28 Pakistani entries at the Awards were product-based start-ups. Seven out of eight award winners were start-ups and students.

What is the nature of the mission and what do we need to do to support it? At a higher level, the mission is to encourage the next generation to explore technology as a profession; not only as employees, but as founders and risk takers. As we attract new talent and ideas, new teams and products create value by solving real life problems and addressing real life needs. Some originate through school and university projects. The Case, NUST and FAST NUCES campuses in Islamabad and Rawalpindi have, over the years, shared incredible ideas that have been deployed to remarkable effect. Just within the field of health sciences we have seen solutions that have reduced diagnostic turnaround times, improved diagnostic accuracy and increased patient throughput by using technological applications of research models. The beneficiaries: people suffering from diabetic retinopathy, strokes, Alzheimer’s and neurological disorders.

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However, to encourage young men and women to experiment and take risks we need to do a lot more. These include facilitating risk-taking behaviour; creating avenues and sanctuaries where founders can explore new product ideas; spaces that lower the cost of failure; carrying out experiments that provide structure to the chaos associated with starting up a business, or exploring a new concept and finally, creating support networks that not only open doors, create coverage, guide, provide seed capital and connect with investors but which also come together to lend a helping hand in darker moments.

However, the bigger challenge lies in educating families and changing social mindsets about failure. Spending six months of your life chasing a dream and failing is better than looking back two decades later and wondering at what could have been. Multiple low cost failures ultimately lead to the discovery of the right mix of ingredients required to make things work. Innovation does not happen in isolation. It happens as a group of makers tackle the same problem, using different approaches in parallel. One works, the rest fail; without the failures, the one that works would never be.

The mission is not only about technology as a profession. It is about creating a positive image of Pakistan. In November 2010, at the KLCC auditorium in Malaysia and in front of 3,000 delegates, Pakistan’s name was called out seven times as an award winner; this year we increased that count to nine. The 60 plus judges from 22 countries who judged our entries, took a very different impression back home with them about technology, innovation and talent in Pakistan. They didn’t form that impression by simply judging, but also through their interaction with fellow judges and economy coordinators. This soft push over the last decade has transformed how we are viewed within the technology capitals of the Far East.

Back home, the winners quickly become role models. Zayd Enam, our 17-year-old student school project winner in 2009, is now a PhD candidate at the Stanford AI Labs after completing his undergraduate studies at UC Berkley. Zayd has inspired hundreds of applicants at school, college and university levels to apply for the Awards; living proof that experimentation and risk-taking is not limited to start-up and technology company founders.

Jawwad Ahmed Farid is CEO, Alchemy Technologies; Founder,; adjunct Professor of Finance at the SP Jain School of Management and a board member of the P@SHA Nest I/O.