Sunway iLabs &
Written by Eleanor Choong
When it comes to expanding a business into a foreign market, buying a plane ticket might not seem like the obvious solution.
With worldwide connectivity at our fingertips, market expansion is a given. But is it as easy as doing some market research, hiring a local country manager and hoping all scales well? Over the last few years, governments have been pouring money to support local startups to expand and export their products and services, and startups have been leveraging on international tours and trips in hopes of finding business and partnership opportunities, but positive outcomes have been few.
At Sunway iLabs, we’ve had our fair share of hosting both local and international startups at our premises and have heard countless startup elevator pitches. What happens at the end of those pitch visits is that we collect a bunch of name cards and promise to connect via email to explore further but oftentimes, we never hear back. We think this happens because there isn’t a funnel, a journey, clear mentorship and commitment to make it work. We term these type of visits as ‘entrepreneurship tourism’.
When the senior management of JETRO Kuala Lumpur came to visit in November 2019, the idea of a long term structured programme was conceived to help Japanese tech startups expand into the Malaysian market. After multiple discussions and revisions, a six months accelerator was designed to support the growth and expansion of 5 selected Japanese startups into the Malaysian market, leveraging on Sunway’s world-class smart sustainable city and innovative ecosystem in Kuala Lumpur. The programme focused on two main goals: to reduce failure by avoiding offering the ‘wrong’ product and doing premature business expansion, and to increase efficiencies by developing localised products to meet customers’ needs in half the time and half the cost through Sunway partners collaboration.
< The Sunway iLabs team, JETRO, Allm Group, Japan Learning, Smart Drive, BTM Blockchain Technology and Value Drivers.>
The first part of the programme saw pitching and selections done via virtual interview in November 2019 together with JETRO to attract and filter the top 5 startups – Allm Group, Smart Drive, Value Drivers, BTM Blockchain Technology and Japan Learning. The startups flew to Malaysia in December for a five days immersion programme at Sunway iLabs with the objective to learn firsthand about the local startup ecosystem, industry landscape, business culture and regulations. Each startup was paired with an iLabs super connector to help them navigate the local ecosystem partnerships. We helped to facilitate discussions between industry partners, researchers, potential customers and Sunway business units, connecting Japanese companies with local players which included local VCs, angel investors, entrepreneurs and corporates.
What successfully works in a startup’s home country may not necessarily fit perfectly in another hence it was also important for us to understand how each of their products and technology work in Japan and how we can best localise them for our local market. As such, we spent a few days in the following month of January mentoring each startups’ headquarters in Japan and had meetings with their local teams. After that, we continued to work closely with the companies via regular mentorship sessions and as a facilitator for partnership discussions.
The finale of the programme saw more than 700 particpants join in a virtual event, co-hosted by Sunway iLabs and JETRO KL titled “Breaking the code of Japanese-Malaysian Partnerships” on 13 August 2020. We had a wide range of participants from SMEs, government agencies, universities, corporates and startups who wanted to explore opportunities to partner and collaborate with Japanese technology companies. Innovation doesn’t always mean that you have must create technology from scratch. Companies should look into exploring cross border partnerships which can compliment each other and address each other’s needs to scale in foreign markets.
What we had envisioned to be a 6 months accelerator became a 10 month programme due to Covid-19 challenges. However, mentoring sessions carried on virtually and positive milestones were achieved. We saw some startups pivot their business model while others explored new partnership strategies and models which they had not considered prior to the programme. In particular, Smart Drive, a smart mobility startup, managed to successfully secure their first few clients during the Covid-19 MCO period and kick off a pilot research project in partnership with Sunway Group and Sunway University. They have also since set up an office and recruited a local team now based at Sunway FutureX – a new skills-building and innovation hub focusing on developing technologies around five key verticals – Smart Cities, Agrifoodtech, Edutech, Digital Health and eCommerce.