The 100-strong National Innovation Agency of Thailand may be small, but it is determined. It has big ambitions to build a thriving startup ecosystem, and its next move is to transform government procurement, making it easier for startups to pitch and sell to agencies.

“We are trying to have another model so that the solutions of startups can be used within the government sector,” Theresa Mathawaphan, Chief Strategy Officer of the National Innovation Agency (NIA), tells GovInsider.

Mathawaphan shares how the agency is matching startups to other agencies that need solutions; using data to analyse startup growth; and boosting social innovation.

The startup matchmaker

The innovation agency worked with the revenue and commerce departments to change the regulations for government procurement. The entire process has been designed, says Mathawaphan, and will need to be approved by the new cabinet when it is formed.

Startups will not “have to go by the old way where you need to be a big corporate or you need to have a lot of history working with the government before,” she says. Approval could take a few months, according to her. With the Thai general elections recently over, the agency is waiting for the newly reformed government to get up and running before it can get approval for this, she adds.

While this is in the works, NIA is currently matching startups with business problems from other government agencies. It provides funding of around US$32,000 for startups to run pilots; if the solution proves successful after a few months, they win a contract with the agency in question. “We are basically the integrator or the mutual ground” for agencies and startups, Mathawaphan explains.

Through the pilots, government agencies get peace of mind that the tech works. At the same time, startups have a chance to prove themselves, she adds.

One success story is QueQ, a queueing application that allows users to join a virtual queue and receive an alert when their number is up. After a successful pilot, the locally-built app is now in use in public hospitals and agencies, says Mathawaphan. The creators are also expanding overseas into the region, she continues.

Data-driven insights

It is a busy period for Mathawaphan. As part of her role, she manages the Innovation Foresight Institute, a new unit within the NIA which uses data analytics to plan ahead and set national strategies: “Trend setting, seeing weak signals or trying to be able to use this information so our researchers have foresight”.

Data analytics is essential to helping the Thai government keep tabs on innovation across its smart cities and innovation districts. NIA wants to link up various types of datasets on investments, sectoral developments, startups, and markets and see “how it all connects together”.

“The first thing that we are trying to do is basically link these information together in order to have a dashboard to analyse innovations, regions, or innovations development within Thailand,” Mathawaphan explains. The agency plans to share the insights with investors and the international partners it works with, and eventually, with the public. In the first phase, NIA will build a dashboard for North Thailand, she adds.

Own a business? Come to Thailand

NIA is using an “area-based innovation” approach where cities are earmarked as hotbeds for entrepreneurs and startups to boost the economy, provide jobs, do good in communities, and further develop the city. “It is where you promote all of these angles together, but define it as a region, as area-specific, so that you are focused more on the sectors and on the resulta,” Mathawaphan explains.

A standout is Chiang Mai, already internationally known for ease of doing business and low costs of living. NIA is pushing for innovation in agritech, tourism, and design. The agency has set up Chiang Mai & Co, modelled after Paris & Co, the French innovation agency that supports local startups and attracts foreign ones to Paris.

Chiang Mai & Co will provide working spaces, smart visas and support for foreign startups, linking them with local universities and companies, says Mathawaphan. And there are an estimated 1,000 startups in Chiang Mai right now, according to NIA. “We work with the stakeholders, we have key players – University of Chiang Mai, Science Park,” Mathawaphan explains.

“People see us still as a tourist destination, and not so much as an innovative country.”
Beyond its shores, Thailand is keen to build its reputation as a startup destination, just as much as it is for tourism. “People see us still as a tourist destination, and not so much as an innovative country,” Mathawaphan notes. “This year, we are working a lot with international partners.”

To do this, NIA is building relationships with innovation agencies in France, Poland, Singapore, and Japan, for instance. One recent tie-up is with the Israel Innovation Authority to help Thai and Israeli companies exchange knowledge and develop tech together. The agency is also working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attract foreign investment and seek business opportunities abroad.

Giving back to community

Thailand is investing in social innovation to reduce inequality, says Mathawaphan. “We work within the country, the less fortunate provinces so that we are matching the inequality or reducing the social gaps,” she explains. “In a sense, they are trying to make a more sustainable culture within the province.”

There have been over 100 social innovation projects so far, all of which receive funding from NIA. One such project, Buddy Homecare, is a mobile app that helps a volunteer-based home care foundation to monitor and track the health of the elderly patients in its care.

Another project, TrainKru, is an answer to the lack of skilled teachers in rural areas of the country. The online training and development platform is helping to train 10,000 teachers and has been rolled out in 2,000 schools.

While the agency works with universities to promote entrepreneurship, it wants to encourage graduates to become social innovators as well, Mathawaphan says. “Now we are going another angle, so that they understand that they can help more in social innovation, if they are keen on this side of development,” she concludes.

The world is watching as Thailand’s prime minister was just re-elected last week. But beyond the politics, agencies like the NIA are on the ground, working to inject new ideas and energy into the economy.

Image from Theresa Mathawaphan