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High-tech entrepreneurs at work

September 08, 2014


MAGISION is a new technology startup co-founded by three Nust graduates, striving to create a place in the market for their product, which combines ‘360 degree holographic technology using hand motion to interact with virtual objects’.

In their effort to find a footing in the market, they are being helped by Plan9, a tech incubator, the first of its kind in the country, at the Punjab Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore.

“We developed this next generation user interface as our final year project at Nust and planned to commercialise it from day one,” Shahzeb Mirza, co-founder and chief executive officer of Magision, told Dawn.

‘Plan9 helps tech entrepreneurs solve some problems associated with running a startup by providing free workspace, small monthly allowance and mentoring and training etc’

The technology isn’t new to the world, but the three friends have improved upon it. “What makes our product different from the existing technology is hand motion, which allows users to interact with virtual objects,” Shahzeb said.

“The best part is that it is so intuitive that you can master the technology in just 30 seconds and utilise it to your full advantage even if you have a limited knowledge of computers.” The product, he says, will allow advertisers to capture a largely untapped market and empower students and enhance classroom experience.

Shahzeb is happy that their product was selected for incubation at Plan9 because it has helped them focus on developing a business model for their startup, as well as connect with prospective customers. In fact, he is confident that after six months of incubation (in the middle of December) they will be better placed to market the product.

He has reasons to be confident. Many of the startups incubated at Plan9 have made a name for them around the world, got invited to Silicon Valley for training and mentoring, and raised funds from investors.

“Plan9 has provided us free office space at the swanky building of the Arfa Karim Software Technology Park, helped us focus on business development and connected us with mentors and customers in the market,” Shahzeb said. “We have received funding offers; people want to acquire our product. But we are not accepting funding; we want to retain ownership of this product and market it ourselves.

“Although we had set up an office in Karachi soon after graduating, we were not much aware about how to commercialise our product and who to contact and how. After our product’s selection for incubation at Plan9, people started taking us seriously.”

Plan9, a brainchild of ITU vice chancellor and Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) Chairman Umar Saif, is a collaborative programme designed to help new tech entrepreneurs succeed.

“Plan9 helps tech entrepreneurs solve some of the problems commonly associated with running a startup by providing free workspace, small monthly allowance, laptops, marketing skills and mentoring and training to grow their business,” said Umar, who is himself an entrepreneur, technologist and innovator.

“We wanted to develop a startup ecosystem in the country and we have done that; now, other universities like Lums, Nust and Fast are also creating their incubators.”

Around 44 companies have already graduated from the incubator in one-and-a-half years, with 23 of them sustaining themselves in the market. “New startups with innovative ideas are chosen through a countrywide, rigorous and competitive selection process,” said Nabeel A. Qadeer, joint director at PITB. Several popular apps that many use on their smartphones are developed by startups incubated at Plan9.

Plan9, said Nabeel, started as an incubator for new tech entrepreneurs. But now it also features an accelerator for mid-stage startups, called PlanX, and a space for freelancers, called TechHub.

“At Plan9, we also help startups raise much-needed early stage funding from local as well as international investors. What we are trying to do here is develop a culture for startups, create opportunities for our tech talent, and try and engage our young people to consider options apart from jobs,” he said.

Several startups hatched at Plan9 were picked to join accelerators in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere, and at least three of them — EyedeusLab, Appography and XGear — have successfully raised funds from global investors. Although the startups are not disclosing the amount of funding they have been offered, it is said to be in the range of a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $10m.

“Pakistan has a lot of tech talent. Our young tech entrepreneurs just need a little bit of handholding and guidance to become big companies like Instagram, instead of being told to get a job. The internet has changed the way you interact and do business with the rest of the world. The geography, political conditions, security situation etc have become irrelevant in a country like Pakistan,” argued Umar.

Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, September 8th, 2014