StartUp Cup Rocks Pakistan

This article first appeared on TechinAsia and is authored by Khurram Zafar. Khurram is a technology entrepreneur and investor formerly based in the Silicon Valey, now in Pakistan. He’s also a board member of the Plan9 Technology Incubator, visiting faculty for entrepreneurship at Information Technology University, adviser to the government of Punjab, and a securities trader. Find him on Twitter as @kayzafar

In Pakistan, a country generally and somewhat incorrectly perceived to be a troubled state due to disturbances in its remote areas and its participation in the global fight against terrorism, entrepreneurship is on the rise.

The past three days have provided for an exhilarating and personally rewarding experience as I mentored the participants of Pakistan’s first StartUp Cup, a wonderfully structured business model competition developed by Sean Griffin.

TiE Islamabad Chapter, in collaboration with some local and foreign sponsors, spearheaded this nationwide initiative to support entrepreneurship in the country. I was infected when the StartUp Cup reached Lahore.

Murtaza Zaidi, the executive director of the TiE Islamabad Chapter, told me that the competition received over 400 applications from across Pakistan, the highest ever among over 50 StartUp Cups organized in over 40 countries worldwide. A panel of judges had to filter the applicants down to fewer than 200. 50 of these startups were selected from Lahore.

Leaping into Lahore

StartUp Cup in Pakistan

The Lahore event, spanning two days, was organized at a local hotel and rallied together 25 prominent, local business leaders to mentor over 40 teams that attended the event. Over the course of the two days, the startups ranging from high-tech to bio-mechanical to social enterprises developed and refined their business models using a very well structured methodology.

The teams, as they were mentored, were also judged by the mentors to select the top 25 that will continue in the competition and track their progress over the next three months. The nationwide winners at the end of the competition will receive close to PKR 2.5 million ($24,200) in seed capital grants.

Aside from truly enjoying the palpable energy and infectious passion of the mostly young entrepreneurs that I had an opportunity to mentor, I loved the format and organization of the competition. Most initiatives intended to support entrepreneurship in Pakistan, or worldwide for that matter, fall in one of the following two categories:

  1. Very short-term (typically one-day) business plan competitions typically arranged by universities

  2. Long running programs that carefully screen and induct entrepreneurs into technology and business incubators.

The former generates a lot of excitement but the entrepreneurship capital generated is very short-lived typically. The winners generally collect the prize money but rarely use it to bootstrap the business thereafter.

The latter provides a lot more support to entrepreneurs but requires considerable capital and resources as well. Plan9 Incubator (Disclosure: As mentioned above, Khurram is a board member at Plan9), a project of the Punjab Information Technology Board, is probably the best example of a successful incubator in Pakistan, but aside from the hard work of a very committed team, required considerable resources from the provincial government of Punjab.

Mentoring ahead of the contest

StartUp Cup in Pakistan

StartUp Cup lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It runs for three months but without a very elaborate support infrastructure. The startups are primarily guided by a well developed framework and sporadic mentor-driven interventions to keep the teams focused and gauge their performance against pre-defined milestones. It ensures that only the teams that develop their business idea into a well-running, sustainable business stand to benefit the most.

I wish the best to all the winners of StartUp Cup Lahore and hope that some of these startups evolve into high-growth businesses that aim to change the perception of Pakistan both within and (especially) outside the country. I hope they prove that Pakistanis are as inventive as they are tough and can be as successful as they are hospitable.

My favorite startups from the event

From among the participants of StartUp Cup Lahore, below are my favorites, in no particular order. It will give you an idea of the variety of businesses that took part in this competition.

  1. Kamata Pakistan — an online service that connects blue-collar workers with employers.

  2. BIOTECH — a low cost, EMG-operated prosthetic limb manufacturer.

  3. Home Made Meals — a high-quality, home-made meals delivery service.

  4. Mystic Charmz — art decor using temporary paints for groom cars and branded corporate vehicles.

  5. Idea Centricity/OddJobbers — connecting low-skilled workers and low-wage earners with retail and commercial employers.

  6. One Step Solutions’ xGear — a device that plugs into any car and provides the owner with useful data.

  7. Pantera Engineering — a restaurant order management and analytics platform with social integration.

NoveltySoft, creators of an exciting Facebook-based card game, Rung or Courtpiece, deserve a special mention also.

(All photos: TiE Islamabad Chapter)