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Makers of magic

Updated May 04, 2014

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On the ninth floor of Lahore’s Arfa Software Technology Park, some techno-magic is being created by a band of believers. Renewable energy solutions to help farmers with efficient irrigation, helping drivers make more informed decisions about their cars and their driving, a community-based bus tracking application: there is much innovative disruption happening at Plan 9, Pakistan’s biggest technology incubator.

Led by Dr Umar Saif — formerly a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences — Plan9 was set up with a mandate to “invest in failure”. While tech incubators have globally been in vogue since the turn of the millennium, this is the first of its kind in Pakistan, as it focuses on the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that nurtures as much as it builds.

“Pakistan needs people who can define their fate, not more MBAs. We are moving from providing services to now building tech products,” explains Nabeel A Qadeer, head of Plan9’s Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (EED).

Plan9’s housing in Arfa Software Technology Park on Ferozepur Road is perhaps symbolic at one level: named as it is after the late child computer whiz, Arfa Karim Randhawa, who became the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) at age nine. She passed away in 2012, but her legacy lives on in the shape of Plan9.

“We have already helped build 43 successful firms in the one-and-a-half years since we started, some 220 employment opportunities were created, and we have brought in approximately $700,000 in earnings from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada,” Qadeer says proudly.

And they do this by being what they call an incubator. What exactly is that, and how does it work? Simply put it’s about nurturing a nascent company until it’s ready to go out into the world and compete.

The process of incubation is simple but the journey to success is long and often arduous. After an application for incubation is accepted, the company is incubated for six months and allowed to learn while making mistakes. Plan9 currently regularly organises trainings and lectures for those who are building companies, registers them in Pakistan, helps with setting up bank accounts in the United States, sending companies abroad — at competitions and to meet investors, and connects them with funding partners. Every induction cycle takes in 15 to 18 early stage companies for incubation, but the founding members of any team need to be full-time.

“What we had been missing was an ecosystem for entrepreneurs,” argues Qadeer. “Incubators are not just an office space; they are far more than that, but few understood that. There was an absence of a culture to assist young entrepreneurs to head from Point A to Point B.”

Plan9 offers air-conditioned office space, free internet, devices and gadgets (laptops, mobile phones etc.) to experiment with, as well as help with boarding and lodging. Each hire is made from the pool of best-available talent from across Pakistan, with Plan9 helping companies recruit but not having any say in their final decisions.

The vision has been bought by many. Plan9 now boasts a network of partner institutions that include the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology (GIK), NED University of Engineering and Technology (NED), FAST-National University of Computer & Emerging Science (FAST), Beaconhouse National University (BNU) and the University of Engineering and Technology (UET).

“The idea is for Plan9 to work on the best products created in universities, to polish them, and position them for success in the international market,” Qadeer explains.

But while incubation might be the way to go ahead, there are potential pitfalls of simply throwing money at the problem. “What they are doing is absolutely game-changing, but ultimately, incubating or acceleration is all about innovation,” contends Ahmed Ansari, lecturer at the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST).

“If you want to create and accelerate products or services, you need people who think creatively, analytically and critically. Without the capacity to ask questions, or reframe things, you can’t do innovation,” says Ansari.

For Ansari, an inter-disciplinary approach built on the foundations of a proper process is key: “Innovation process comes out of research and process-oriented thought. Most young people now entering tech entrepreneurship are computer engineers. Where are the social scientists and designers, who will ask the tough questions and develop a deep understanding of the people that they can benefit? Using a methodical approach is critical; we need to teach young people about rigorously undergoing proper processes and adopting best practices.”

This thought is echoed by Kalsoom Lakhani, the woman who drives empowerment of entrepreneurs at Invest to Innovate (i2i) — a tech accelerator that pushes young companies to think big and grow bigger. “It’s a question of access,” says Lakhani. “It’s also a comment on the education system in Pakistan, which isn’t designed to encourage critical thinking. And yet, it’s amazing to find and meet young Pakistanis who can think out of the box.”

Lakhani argues that without a curriculum for the creation and development of leaders, companies are likely to struggle. “In my years of entrepreneurship, I have learnt that you have to be a sound leader to run a successful company,” she says, pointing to the newly-formed Amal Academy as an example of an institution vested in training individuals in soft skills.

Qadeer too is mindful of losing momentum. “We are now trying to involve schools and colleges, through internship programmes, to cultivate a love of entrepreneurship. The problem — for instance, in pitching to investors — starts at the school level. We need to nurture creative minds at the school-level,” he says.

Ansari believes that in the short-run, this problem can be solved if young entrepreneurs are taught to focus on problems rather than on solutions. “In my experiences of Pakistan, young engineering students present their final year projects as a solution to a need or a problem. Empowering them with money to start off with is a bad idea, because we need these entrepreneurs to focus on a deep understanding of the issues they are engaging with.

“Every party is interested in youth empowerment, and tech incubation is one way to get there. Our assumption is that within the next two to three years, our network will grow, and revenue will also go up,” he says.

“If we have come so far in such little time, imagine what three to fours of years of progress will take us!”

Whisper it slowly, but a slow and silent tech revolution is underway in Pakistan.

Connect with the writer on Twitter [@ASYusuf]1