TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan has long been blessed with a dynamic and irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit.
Unlike the two neighbors that are most often used as comparisons, Japan and South Korea, the economic miracle here wasn’t so much built by obedient salarymen wearing identical suits — but by swashbuckling risk-takers dressed in betel nut-stained T-shirts, funded by the cash of relatives, family farmland, or informal money pools.
No matter how much former KMT presidential nominee Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and his legions of fans may have hoped to turn back the clock, those days are gone for good. Even so, Taiwan’s entrepreneurial spirit remains very much alive in the modern era.
Taiwan News sat down with one of the key players in Taiwan’s startup scene: Kyle Chen (陳凱爾), director of the Meet Taipei Startup Festival for the Business Next Media Corporation.
Business Next Media’s history traces back to 1999 and focuses on new businesses and emerging technologies, mostly in Mandarin but with some English content. In 2011, as an extension of that, it began organizing monthly meetings under the name “Garage Party” (later re-branded Meet) as well as annual conferences and demo shows.
Many of the participants asked for a physical presence at the shows and were given tables, but this began to get out of hand. Chen relates what happened next: “By the 2014 annual conference we had over 70 companies with tables, and we couldn’t fit anymore in.
"So, I thought everyone has this need and wants to find out about the trends and have a stage to do presentations, do demos, do matchmaking, get exposure in the media. There were startup events overseas in the U.S., in Europe, in Hong Kong — but Taipei didn’t have one of its own, so in 2014 we decided to create our own.”
Reaching out to sponsors
The first year was successful, hosting around 100 companies over two days. Like any new event, they had to think through how it would be funded. They ruled out making money off the participating startups, choosing instead to charge roughly the cost price, which remains true today.
Instead, they approached sponsors, which was difficult in the beginning, pitching the then-unknown event. As the event has grown this grew easier, and today it boasts a significant number of sponsors.
Initially sponsors were government entities, but in 2018 Meet Taipei expanded its outreach to build “corporate-startup engagement” to not only raise sponsorships but also to forge relationships between startups and the more established business community. They also made the strategic decision to make sponsorships more affordable in order to maximize the number of sponsors, avoiding the risk of being too heavily reliant on a handful of big players.
It was also set up to be very beneficial to the startups, as Chen noted: “Startup founders can’t spend all their time going to different types of shows, they need to be managing their business and nurturing their creativity. "With Meet Taipei they can all come together in one large event. There are the stages, the pavilions, the booths, and it’s just a few days, so the rest of the time they can concentrate on innovating.”
It’s an all-in-one event for startups to get the opportunity to display their product, network, meet the press, and speak with potential investors. It’s hard work, however, as every year the lineup of startups is different.
They either succeed and move on to industry trade shows, or they fail. Unlike industry trade shows they’re starting from scratch with much of their lineup: they can’t sign up the same companies year after year.
This formula has been very successful, with this year’s 2021 Meet Taipei Startup Forum attracting a bevy of heavyweight politicians and bigwigs to speak. It's hosting 426 startups physically and, due to the pandemic, virtually, with 56 overseas startups from 18 countries.
Starting in 2016 they began inviting foreign companies, attracting 50 that year and reaching one-quarter of all booths in 2019 with an attractive offer: they pay their own flights and hotel, but Meet Taipei gives them the startup vendor package for free. Post-pandemic this is expected to resume.
In December, they will be heading south for the first time for an event in Kaohsiung called Meet Greater South. In future years they might move it to Tainan or Chiayi. Chen explained:
“We originally thought Taiwan is small and we could serve everyone from Taipei, but then realized it’s not so small after all. If you go south on the High Speed Rail for 90 minutes or 120 minutes, the businesses are different, with different development — they have their own style of startups.”
Playing such a pivotal role in the startup scene with both Meet and Business Next, Chen has some fascinating insights and perspectives. Back in 2014, the hot thing was Internet of Things (IoT).
He explains the problem this way: “IoT back then was focused on home devices and the ‘smart home,’ but each company was making their own devices and they didn’t link to each other and so there was no single unit that controlled them all.
"With Artificial Intelligence added in it’s become more mature, but it turns out in the home we don’t really need devices that are that intelligent. AI+IoT works for smart factories, smart cars, smart hospitals, medical and health, smart retail, smart restaurants.
"These can bring together different hardware devices and software processes into one complete smart process that companies can provide as a service and profit from. Taiwan has a lot of superior hardware and software startups.”
Maturity is a key factor in bringing a new tech into profitable fruition: “Recently the hot fields are AI, 5G, and Blockchain. AI and 5G are mature enough for actual applications. Metaverse is another one that’s hot, but what is the use for it? We don’t know yet,” Chen said.
He also shared where he thinks things are going: “First, how we communicate is changing. Outside of physical events, there will be online events. We will definitely get used to the online event format. You’ll need a good camera and good sound.
"We will need the tech that helps with communication, both in software and hardware. There will also be the ability to meet customers around the world, so skills and abilities will be needed, especially for Taiwanese startups.
"The second trend is innovation to meet new demands. The startups that did the best at survival in the last couple of years met the pandemic head-on. If you didn’t change your business model to cope with the impact of COVID and innovate to deal with it, you went out of business.”
Viewing Taiwan’s position internationally, Chen commented: “Taiwan isn’t international enough, and doesn’t have enough of an international outlook. Taiwan’s worldview is too narrow.
"For example, people think that Southeast Asia is one market, but it’s really many markets. It’s improving though, more in Taiwan are introducing individual markets overseas and there are more and more connections being made between Taiwanese startups and companies abroad," Chen said.
"Japan and South Korea are good markets for Taiwanese tech startups because of their similarity, including in tech, infrastructure, and so on. In a market like Indonesia, or in Europe or the U.S. outside the big cities, things like a strong internet connection are sometimes lacking.”