Lesson Brought Back to Pakistan
One of the most fascinating things I experienced at MIT was that institution’s intense emphasis on the immediate applicability of all the research being done. There was a laser-like focus on real-world impact, and I think that had an incredible impact on me; it gave me the urge and direction to build things to go beyond a static research paper and have an actual, dynamic impact in reality. This training also helped shape me as an entrepreneur; I like going after risky, edgy ideas, knowing that most of them will fail, but that I might also have one or two home runs which will compensate amply for the failures. MIT teaches you that you will not be remembered for what you publish, but by what you create. That is one of the key lessons I have brought with me to Pakistan.
From Saif Center of Innovation (SCI) to Plan9
Back when I was in America, I once read a report published by Bank Boston in 1997 titled “The Impact of Innovation”. This report summarized the impact MIT has had on the economy of the world; it concluded that MIT alumni have founded 4,000 companies, employed over a million people and had annual world sales of $232 billion! The reason for this is the remarkable spirit of entrepreneurship a first grade institution in US instills in its students. Without this spirit, there would be no Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or Facebook. It’s not just the wealth such startups can generate, but they have the potential to fundamentally change the game – change the way people use technology, interact with each other, live their life.
Driven by this, I set up Saif Center of Innovation (SCI) when I returned to Pakistan where we started populating little startups. Young people came to me with ideas and I shared mine with them and eventually we kick-started these projects, achieving more than moderate success in a number of them, such as BitMate, SeeNReport and SMSall. I built up further on this when I joined the Punjab Government in 2009 and initiated Plan9. Plan9 aims to facilitate technological entrepreneurship in the country with services such as free office space, legal advising, marketing support and monthly stipends funded by the Government of the Punjab. The freelancers can now come in, sit together and place higher bids in line with the market prices through professional help. Just the dollar amount these freelancers have generated in the last six months has gone beyond $500,000. Currently, we have followed up Plan9 with PlanX which is a technology accelerator for mid-stage start-ups. During a 6-month acceleration cycle, selected tech-startups are empowered by being providing access to multiple funding channels, a specialized network of mentors and global exposure. At the end of the cycle, they operate as high impact businesses. We can fairly expect the next billion dollar start-up to come up from these incubation and acceleration centers.
As the Founding Vice Chancellor of the Information Technology University (ITU)
ITU is focused on an MIT-based model of cross-disciplinary teaching and research to solve locally relevant problems. It is a publicly chartered university, but run like a private-sector university, much like the land-grant universities in the US. We are focused on research with real-world impact. One of the keystone courses at the university is the Design Lab, where students work with grassroots organizations to build solutions to problems like clean drinking water, maternal healthcare and off-grid energy solutions. The curriculum philosophy is inspired by Olin College’s design-oriented learning.
At ITU we have commenced graduate and undergraduate programs based on a curriculum geared towards innovatively solving local problems using technology. For example, a vast majority of the Pakistani populace uses cell phones (we account for the 9th largest cellphone market in the world), so there’s a great infrastructure already in place which could be used in any number of innovative ways to combat problems such as poverty and unemployment. We believe that innovation has to come from the country where you live and be relevant to it; using the example of cell-phones again, an average Pakistani has three main uses for it; as a torch, as an FM radio and as to make missed-calls. None of these uses are addressed in the Western world’s cell-phones so the point is that the Western world does not understand your issues and problems and will not innovate for you.
Another one of the aims behind setting up ITU was to fulfill the need for universities which really focus on research and development. If universities do good quality research in IT and engineering, they can massively complement the growth of these industries as well. We have also incorporated a strong entrepreneurial focus in the curriculum and we hope that Pakistan’s next generation of top researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs will come from ITU.
As the Chairman of Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB)
PITB is heavily involved in attempts to automate the government. My energy is fully consumed in developing technological solutions which enable the government to monitor its own work effectiveness and service delivery. Is the policeman, the health-worker, or the government school teacher attending to and completing his or her tasks? The government has historically been very poor at monitoring its own performance, and IT can play a huge role in effectively monitoring the government’s performance. Fortunately, with android-based smart phones being available at very affordable prices, it has been possible for us to employ them as a means to achieve our governance-improvement goals. We have developed around 26 android-based data-collection applications to be used by employees and workers in various public departments. This is just the beginning; based on the geo tagging and digitized identification and collection of data, we can also create prediction models. We are also working in collaboration with the World Bank to increase transparency and work towards better resource management and smart monitoring in key departments of the Government of Punjab, thereby improving their service-delivery. For this, we have initiated various processes of automation and evidence-based monitoring projects that are based on the predictive model and SMS alerts for the relevant department. We do this smart monitoring though our staff, based on the 30,000 Android-based smart phones given out by the Government of Punjab to workers in various departments, including health, irrigation, agriculture, education, livestock, disease surveillance, drug inspection, crime mapping, and local government offices etc. Using smart phone applications, we are finally getting a handle on how productive field-workers and employees are, and whether they are passing on verifiable data. Otherwise, there are little means to measure their performance on such a vast scale across so many departments.
Further, in order facilitate the public in interacting with various government departments and agencies; we have created a flagship project known as the Citizen Facilitation and Service Centers. One of the offerings of this project is the Citizen Contact Centre, which is a multi-lingual centralized call center platform that aims to increase an ordinary citizen’s access to government structures via a directly-linked SMS service. The Citizen Feedback Model (CFM) is another service that proactively solicits citizens’ feedback about their interaction with the government for 17 different services. Covering about 45,000 daily citizen interactions, CFM has managed to contact over 4.4 million citizens so far with, and more than around 4,000 corrective actions have been taken based on this feedback.
Training for a Technology Entrepreneur in Pakistan
As a society, we are very welcoming to new technologies. We adopt the latest technologies and solutions when they are introduced in the market, which means that we have an understanding of how IT can change lives, and so there is a huge space here for tech-ventures. However, you don’t have any resources in Pakistan which can facilitate something like two people from a village background getting together in a garage, building something like Instagram and selling it out for billions. So, seeing as we have all this raw talent, start-up incubators are great in promoting tech entrepreneurship because they help these people learn the ropes and provide resources to get them started, and they also train them to in things like how to market your products, build an impact and accrue profits. Just three programmers, armed with a creative idea, a conducive environment and a level playing-field can easily create a technology that can be profoundly successful!
Incubation Centers in the Long Run
Well, the phenomenon is slowly but surely taking root in the country. There are a number of incubation centers here now, and the success rates are heartening. I also am happy to report that a lot of universities and colleges are looking to start in-house incubators. Ultimately, I hope to see the kind of entrepreneurial spirit here in Pakistan that exists in the US. Obviously this kind of change doesn’t take place overnight but as long as we’re moving in the right direction, there is no reason to believe that the next Google or HP can’t come from Pakistan. I am optimistic with the progress we have made thus far. In my own trajectory of nurturing start-ups through a government platform, the next step that I would like to take after providing accelerator facilities would be to set up a venture capital fund that will invest in these start-ups. I believe that with the government’s scalability muscle and exchequer we can really show the path to the institutes, businesses and the IT industry on the whole.
Graduated Startups from Plan9
Indeed; Plan9 is in its fifth incubation cycle now. It has incubated 68 companies over the last year and a half, out of which 44 have successfully progressed forward. In terms of revenue, these start-ups have generated over $500,000 in the last six months alone.
Fostering the Entrepreneurial Culture
Pakistan is definitely a very enterprising nation. As a society it is impressive how adept we are at welcoming and adopting innovation and new technologies. Additionally, there is no shortage of talent among our people. However, a great paucity of opportunities exists and there is no guidance either. People generally remain unaware of the ways technology can be lucratively used to make money. This is why my main thrust has been in encouraging the idea of tech entrepreneurship through start-up incubation centers and also, at a more fundamental level, through incorporating tech entrepreneurship in the curriculum at ITU.
My focus has generally been on removing the irritants in the process. Incubators bring together like-minded people who are given a stipend, a laptop, a reliable internet connection, constant electricity and an office space, and are encouraged to think outside the proverbial box and come up with innovative new ideas. At Plan9 we also repeatedly call in people who have been successful to mentor our start-ups and encourage them. Only recently we had one of the founders of Skype and also the developer of Angry Birds come in for training sessions. We are looking towards ways to raise venture capital now. I think all of this is a great start and can go a long way in helping lay the foundations of a solid entrepreneurial culture in this society.
Plan9’s University Network Partnerships
This partnership program is a valuable initiative aiming to help universities across the country replicate the model of Plan9. It is a vital step towards expanding the tech-entrepreneurship culture in the country by encouraging students to think in terms of entrepreneurship and guiding them about start-ups. Plan9’s network partners already include NUST-SEECS, GIKI, BNU, NED-UET, FAST-NUCES, Bahria University (Karachi), DotZero and KITE, and we are looking to rapidly expand this network in the near future.
Two Personal Habits
Well, I’ve always kept strong faith in success; as Paul Graham said: “Cultivate the calmness that comes from knowing you will succeed”. You have to have a secure faith in your success in order to take risks and go on despite everything. The second thing, which complements this, has been my tenacity to keep doing what I do without giving up. Of course, alongside, you definitely have to be constantly self-critical as well. There’s a quote by Richard Feynman that I live by, he says “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
What excites me most and keeps me going all the time is the exploration of innovative new ideas in both research and entrepreneurship. I love to see the real-world impact of radical ideas and initiatives and this is what has constantly driven me throughout my life. In fact this love for innovation is also the common thread between my life as an academic and researcher and my life as an entrepreneur.
Message for the Youth
I’d like to urge them to believe in themselves; Umar said. “Success comes from belief in your capabilities and the strength and determination to succeed in the face of adversity.”
Alongside this need for faith in oneself, I’d say that it also of utmost importance to keep your intentions honest, and allow nothing to sour them. Finally, it is necessary to always remember that there’s no alternative to determination and hard-work no matter how much talent you have. As Paul Graham says, “In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent”.