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‘WE ARE TRYING TO CREATE A VC ECOSYSTEM WHERE INVESTORS WILL EAGERLY FUND STARTUPS’

Photo: Arif Mahmud Riad

Anyone attending tech startup related events for the past couple of years would instantly recognise Tina Jabeen. She has been ubiquitous in such programs, often seen animatedly talking to her audience on stage, or responding to queries by people after she gets off the stage. Approachable and friendly, the atypical government official became involved with the ICT Division because of the current government’s particular focus on digitization, officially articulated as the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ vision.

An “eternally optimistic” person in her own words, Tina Jabeen sat down with Fintech to talk about how she came to work at the ICT Division, her work in IDEA and Startup Bangladesh, VC ecosystem and a lot more. Here is the excerpt from the conversation.

FINTECH: Tell us a little bit about the background of how you came to work at the ICT Division.

Tina Jabeen: The way I got involved in this specific initiative, which is really first of its kind within the ICT ministry, goes back to December 2016 when I wanted to come back to Bangladesh and engage in projects that will be very impactful. And I wanted to focus specifically on developing young talents, empowering women and also the entrepreneurs, because that’s where my background is.

I worked in Silicon Valley with Fundofund and with PricewaterhouseCoopers (pwc) for about 25 years. My background is in venture capital on the tech side and also in finance. I was involved with many of the well-known companies that are ubiquitous now, like Facebook, Google, Linkedin and so on. So, my expertise is in how to read the financials, how do you do valuations and what are the things that VCs should pay attention to.

I was approached by our honourable state minister to join his team and I was honoured. I wanted to do something impactful, and what better way is there than to do it through the government. That’s where you can scale up. That was in 2016, and then after I got involved we started the fund. I was very much involved with the operating guideline. It’s called the ‘Guideline for Startup Bangladesh’. One of the roles that I have is to promote Startup Bangladesh and promote Bangladesh itself as a place where the government is investing a lot of money to encourage our entrepreneurs and to support our entrepreneur.

For the young aspiring entrepreneurs it’s a dream to be able to initiate a successful startup. But for us it’s an agenda, namely, Vision 2021 and Digital Bangladesh. To us, it’s like we play the role of fueling these initiatives. We give them all the tools so that they can materialize their dreams, but in the process the government is also materializing its dream of Vision 2021 and Digital Bangladesh.

So, that’s kind of where I started and the fund has been in operation for six months. We have invested in 36 idea stage companies. We have provided them grants and right now we are also looking at a few growth stage companies, where we will be investing and we may be taking some equity. Currently we are looking at 15 more companies for grants. The fund itself is about $34 million. We are slowly investing in all these different companies to give them the capital and funding they need.

The other thing that we have in Startup Bangladesh, and I think it’s kind of one of a kind, is that we are creating an accelerator space on the 14th floor of the ICT ministry in Agargaon. It’s going to be really beautiful, where entrepreneurs can come and have co-working space, they will have an experience zone, they will have conference room-like space, where they can have video conference. We will also provide them mentoring. So, if a company, let’s say, have an AI based product. We will then have experts in the AI industry – and these are expat Bangladeshis by the way, who are working in Silicon Valley – come here and help our startups. So, that’s where we are.

FINTECH: Tell us about your official objectives and talk a little bit about what is the process of submission and selection like?

TJ: Our ultimate goal is Vision 2021, which to become a middle income economy by 2021. It’s an extremely ambitious goal. I don’t think we can do that just with support of the garment industry. Our leadership, our honourable Prime Minister, our national advisor, our state minister and now our full minister Mustafa Jabbar bhai, realise that we cannot just rely on the garment industry to take us there. So, what we wanted to do is to create what is called ‘innovation economy’, which is riding on technology or technology based business. That’s where the Startup Bangladesh or IDEA initiative comes in. That’s the big picture.

We want to support our entrepreneurs and in the process we want to develop the venture capital ecosystem, where we will have the local players or investors will believe in our entreprenuers, just like in Silicon Valley where they have all these angel investors. They know that startups work. They will invest in 10 startups where nine will fail, but one will return the investment and more. So, we are trying to create that type of business mentality.

Now we have industrialists who know how to invest only in brick and mortar companies. So, what we are doing is that we are trying to set up precedence. So, if in five years we can come up with five startups who are successful, who return probably five or six times the investment, then they are going to set precedence. Then the big players are going to think that this is actually a business where they can return money. They are going to realise that this isn’t simply risky, as they see it now, but actually realise that there is a huge potential for getting investment back and more. That’s why we are kind of investing this fund in our startups.

As for the process, startups submit their ideas to Startup Bangladesh, at the startupbangladesh.gov.bd website. That’s where you start. Me and my team screen them. After the initial screening we categorize them in idea, seed and growth. From that pool we look at, say, 15 idea companies in a month. After that we provide an executive summary to the selection committee. We meet with our selection committee once a month.

The criterion that the selection committee uses, and also the one that we use is the concept. So, we look at what is the business. Is this a solution that the market needs. We look at feasibility, meaning if there is a market for it, if there is traction. We look at what is the technical architecture. We look at the financial plan, we call it the revenue model. What is the management team like, because that’s one of the most important criterion. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, how fantastic the traction is, if you cannot execute and sustain your development from the idea to seed to market stage, then all of that is pointless. We also look at motivation. Are you passionate, or you are simply doing this because one fine morning you whimsically thought you are going fix the traffic problem or whatever. No, we need to know if you really have the passion for following through. Those are the criterion.

The selection committee will shortlist form the initial list. Then the companies will be called to pitch. After that we finalise which are the companies we want to invest in.

FINTECH: Do you look at established models around the world that already worked and prioritize those that are trying to bring in one of those tried and tested models?

TJ: The companies that we select, we see if they have a unique idea. We give importance to companies solving problems that are unique to Bangladesh to some degree. So, I was reviewing a start up yesterday which is a ride sharing for women. It’s called Lily. It’s very particular to Bangladesh, but it is also relevant to countries like India. So, we give preference to products that are done internationally, but can be introduced here with customized solution and which will be cheaper.

FINTECH: What about scalability? Do you set a threshold that the product has to be scalable up to a certain level?

TJ: So, our initiative is very new. Even if you look at the industry you will notice that the startups are really at the nascent stage in terms of their maturity. One of the major players in this industry is GP Accelerator who have been in this for a while now. Even with them you see startups which compared to places like Silicon Valley are not even toddlers. They are newborns. So, going back to setting our threshold, at the end of the day we are a government initiative. We have a role and responsibility. Yes, it is operated like a commercial setup, but the underlying reason for this is not to do business. The reason is to support the entrepreneurs so that we can create an ecosystem, which will attract foreign and local investors.

We are also here so that startups can learn the skills in pitching their business to investors. We don’t have a specific threshold. We will support them if we think there is business and we think it’s viable. We will give all kinds of support if we believe if those guys are really into their idea. If you talk to private run initiatives, they are likely to have very rigorous criteria, because for them it is business. I would say though, we are very very diligent in going through the companies, their records. Our due diligence process is very rigorous. This is all taxpayers’ money, so, we do take it very seriously.

FINTECH: So, for reaching your goals, particularly the central goal of creating a VC ecosystem, are you able to set a timeframe now as to when this might begin to exist?

TJ: We have supported about 35 idea stage companies to date. So, they are far away from scaling and becoming established, bt they are only at the idea stage. But there will be traction in a year or two. Currently we are looking at 15 more, so that takes us to 50. So, these are idea and early seed. We also have growth companies in this mix. We will probably invest in a dozen of growth companies. So, to be very realistic, our goal is to reach hundred companies in two years.

We will probably reach close to that in two years. By 2040, if I recall it correctly, we will have a thousand products. We want to become a developing country by then. So, that means we need to have 15 to 16 thousand dollars per capita income. We are at 15 hundred right now.

FINTECH: There has been a change within the ministry recently. Mustafa Jabbar has been appointed as the full minister. How has that changed the work dynamic within the ministry and has it had any impact on your work?

TJ: Whenever you have collaboration with people that have common goals, the success will be easier. That is how I see this. On the top we are led by our Prime Minister and our national advisor. So, everyone under this leadership has the same vision and goals. So, inclusion of someone that has expertise and vast experience in the ICT field is obviously going to bolster our position and help us move forward to reach that vision.

So, I think that it’s really great that our minister joined us. We have our state minister, who is like an energy bomb and who really moved us forward. Now we have a more seasoned technocrat joining us. And it’s only going to make it more successful. We are very excited about it. For me personally, the broader aspects of the ICT ministry doesn’t concern me. I look after my own project. So, the new appointment doesn’t change anything, except giving us a big moral boost.

FINTECH: What’s the speed of work or progress at IDEA and Startup Bangladesh like, compared to the delay we typically see in government projects in Bangladesh?

TJ: Like all government projects we have to follow some protocols. If we don’t then the public will question us. ‘Did you do all the due diligence before you disbursed all this money?’ We take this very seriously. Even though we are slow we want to make sure our direction is right.

The ICT ministry has many different initiatives. The name of our initiative is IDEA, which is ‘Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship Academy’, and Startup Bangladesh is under that. We also have another initiative called the ‘Innovation Fund’, which is an older initiative, but it’s still going on. But you know, IDEA is very different and operates differently. It runs as a venture capital. It’s not like a grant. The public may not understand the differences, but this is a very unique initiative.

FINTECH: Thanks very much for talking to us.

TJ: Thank you for talking to me. ■

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