I moved back to Lahore close to the end of 2015, with a heavy heart, worried about the lack of attractive digital-business opportunities. I had heard about a few startups paving the tech space then, Patari, Mangobaaz and Travly and decided I would meet the founders to hear their stories of struggle and success. In trying to connect with them, I managed to find something else, bigger and better than I had expected. I found the incubator that housed them!
Plan9 was launched in 2012 as a tech incubator backed by the Punjab IT Board, under Dr Umar Saif’s visionary chairmanship. In 2016, they were going to kick off their seventh cycle, of 15 startups inducted through a countrywide roadshow competition. Startups needed to focus on technology based products, in varying domains, but all required business expansion and strategy advice. I met the director of entrepreneurship at PITB, Nabeel Qadeer, and learnt so much more about the digital space that filled my heart with joy and positivity.
My excitement to have found the right place encouraged me to ask around about it, and as I expected only a few understood what incubation is, let alone know about Plan9. Fortunately, that helped me make my decision. I joined the Plan9 team the next week.
In the year that followed I learnt quite a bit about the tech space, the legal limitations, the investment processes, the creation and retention of teams, and most importantly the speed at which the industry was developing. 3G had recently been launched increasing the use of smartphones, telecom companies had launched digital payment methods, both Careem and Uber launched back to back, Rozee, Zameen and Pakwheels were raising/had raised series, over 20 incubators/accelerators and 40 co-working spaces had launched through the country.
The Higher Education Commission had given grants to universities countrywide to set up ORIC centers (office of research innovation and commercialization), and allow students to build and scale businesses, meaning universities were turning away from curriculum and encouraging creativity and innovation on campuses. The youth now had more opportunity and motivation to control their future, by addressing a problem they faced and creating an innovative solution for it.
Startups were working on copycat ideas; uber for laundry, uber for grocery, peer to peer classrooms, legal and educational platforms, buzzfeed for Pakistan, spotify for Pakistan, but I believe the actual innovation has started now. Work has now begun in AI and machine learning, AR/VR, hardware, robotics and makerspaces and drone and 3D mapping (to name a few). This change has attracted foreign companies, and investors to enter as well. Starting Q3 last year, we had management from the US State Department, City of Austin, UK Aid, Australian High Commission, the IFC and Facebook visit and make partnerships with us.
Venture funds like DotZero, CresVentures, Fatima Ventures, Sarmayacar, Planet N are accelerating their processes to sign the best startups. Multinationals like Nestle, Unilever and Coca Cola are getting involved in the growth of these companies, and working with them to find solutions to their set of niche problems. Pakistani startups are also getting international attention by participating in global competitions, like the GES, Startup Istanbul, South-by-South West, Rise, and the Mobile World Congress (4YFN). Some are also making their way through thousands of applicants to the Y-combinator, Blackbox, and Startup Chile programs.
We have come a long way from a time when the majority did not fully understand what we do. Our flagship event, The Launchpad is celebrating its 10th birthday this summer, and applications for entrepreneurs and startup founders looking for a workspace are open now. If you’re reading this, and you’ve thought of starting something, I encourage you to share your idea with us and help us make it the next big deal. There will never be a better time than now!