Exclusive: Inside Thailand’s ‘Startup Nation’ vision

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Dr Pun-Arj Chairatana, Executive Director of the National Innovation Agency.

Thailand combines ancient culture with an ultramodern economy. In many ways, it is the bellwether for the entire indochina region, setting the pace for an area that is rapidly opening up.

So its new strategy to refashion the economy is of great importance. The Thailand 4.0 vision is now seeing entire sectors of the economy rebuilt with new technology and overseas investment.

Particularly important is a drive for greater entrepreneurship - building a startup culture that encourages more Thais to innovate. A dedicated programme, ‘Startup Thailand’, will do this by reforming government procurement, building innovation districts, and increasing international cooperation. GovInsider interviewed Executive Director of the National Innovation Agency, Dr Pun-Arj Chairatana, to find out about this vision.

Startups and smart farming

The country aims to develop 1,000 startups and 50,000 high-skilled workers by 2021. These will contribute 5% of GDP, according to the Bangkok Post. Startup Thailand will focus on startups that use tech to transform government, agriculture, defence, music, arts and recreation.

In a country where over 30% of the population relies on agriculture for a living, smart farming is particularly important. Chairatana’s strategy is to work with the younger generation of agricultural entrepreneurs that are already digitally literate. “They know about sensor technologies; they know about urban farming; know about digital technologies or even bio economies,” Chairatana says on the sidelines of the Innovation Thailand Expo 2018 (ITE2018), which his agency launched to boost investment and entrepreneurship.

Thailand plans to launch accelerators for agritech startups, in partnership with startup accelerators Hong Kong and Israel, amongst other places, he continues.

Younger farmers can help others employ smart farming techniques, even if they have low tech literacy, he explains. “This is a snowball effect approach - we try to work with a small group of people and then they will be our advocate.”

Government procurement

Chairatana wants to make it easier for startups to sell to government. His agency signed an agreement with the Digital Government Development Agency to transform government procurement specifically for startups, and to “develop a new market - we aim for US$1 billion market out of this special procurement for the next five years”. This will include areas like defence and security, healthcare and skills development. “Last week, we already reach 1.2 million baht in contracts [with startups]. That is 30 million USD for only two months,” Chairatana says.

More broadly,the NIA plans for “area-based innovation” to promote its chosen sectors. The first of these was launched earlier this month: the Yothi Medical Innovation District in Bangkok will be a hub for hospital and healthcare services, and aims to reduce the country’s reliance on medical imports from overseas.

Dedicated districts will attract foreign startups to set up in Thailand, he adds. Just last week, NIA launched the Bangkok Cyber Tech District, which aims to house more than 20,000 startups. This district is meant to be a launching pad for foreign entrepreneurs to work closely together with Thai startups, and will provide coworking spaces and smart visas. Google plans to set up a Google Academy there, reported the Bangkok Post.

Expansion plans

Thailand’s startup programme will then expand to other parts of the country, in keeping with a broader vision to promote smart agriculture and tourism industries. “We will continue to open new innovation districts all around: in Bangkok, also in Chiang Mai and Phuket as well,” Chairatana remarks.

Other countries have used a similar approach in a bid to develop the technology sector, but it has not proven successful so far. Cyberjaya was meant to be “Malaysia’s Silicon Valley” when construction first began more than 20 years ago. But today it is more of a hub for call centres and other support services, rather than a high-tech district shaping the new future, according to Wired magazine. The jobs on offer are mainly "desk-bound" and "customer-service oriented jobs" outsourced by other companies, the magazine quoted the head of investment promotion at a local developer.

His own agency has the feel of a startup, he believes - a key factor that plays into what NIA wants to achieve. “Our employees’ average age is around 28 years old. They are very young, very energetic,” Chairatana points out.

This youthful energy fits perfectly into the country’s new image, one of open innovation and digital transformation across all areas. “We are not that so-called traditional; that's why our culture is very fitting to be the bridges between different key stakeholders.”

Dr Pun-Arj Chairatana was recognised with the Rising Star award at the recent GovInsider Innovation Awards, held in conjunction with Innovation Labs World on 25 September in Singapore. Read our coverage of the summit here.