How can startups push a product out better? Manav Gupta, Founder of Hong Kong’s IoT accelerator shares insights on hardware, trends and more
IoT can be an annoying word. For one, it’s easy to mess up which letters are capitalised; second it stands for the Internet of Things, which does not explain much either.
Let’s define IoT as connecting an object to the Internet that normally wouldn’t be wired, i.e. a fridge or coffee machine.
“And so, if you walk into the house with someone your security camera doesn’t recognise and your calendar mentions ‘date’, some sort of unified learning-based system will dim the lights, turn up the thermostat and start playing Barry White,” writes Benedict Evans, a VC at Andreessen Horowitz, describing the IoT lifestyle concept. (He later explains his hesitation to label IoT in such a way, but we can ignore that for brevity’s sake).
Brinc “helps founders get their first IoT product built right,” which means giving resources to enable startups to develop their IoT product — be it wearables, smart devices for the home or smart transportation. You can think of it as an all-around IoT hardware shop for startups.
Startups chosen in Brinc’s 12-month programme are shuttled through three cities and four tracks. Chosen batches start in Hong Kong, where the company gets registered and creates business viability strategy in hardware and software.
Teams then move to Shenzhen and Guangzhou for feasibility and manufacturing, with the end goal of eventually getting the product out.
Brinc also provides workspace and helps startups secure visas and investments, taking in exchange a percentage of equity, typically around nine to 10 per cent.
Batch One teams that are shipping products out are SoundBrenner, which makes a wearable device for musicians; and Aumeo Audio (previously part of AIA Accelerator), which delivers tailored audio.
Having launched in September 2014, Brinc is accelerating at the same speed as its in-house startups.
This week, Brinc kicked off a pre-accelerator programme in Penang, for Malaysian IoT startups to flesh out their ideas. The launch comes alongside the official announcement that Hilary Szymujko, formerly of blueprint, will be joining Brinc as the new Head of Program.
It’s a shakeup in Hong Kong’s small startup ecosystem, and spearheading the development is the cogent CEO and Founder Manav Gupta.
Accelerator, platform or incubator?
Born in India, Manav jokes he’s a typical ‘third-culture kid,’ with a childhood spent in Bangkok, Manila and Japan, college in the US, then eventually China and Hong Kong, where he is planning to stay indefinitely.
After studying Telecommunications & Network Engineering at Purdue (in the US), Gupta moved to Guangzhou. He started FabriQate, a mobile technology company, and in doing so saw a lack of support for founders.
He turned this lack into a massive opportunity to support founders in an ‘end-to-end way’ so products would not be stalled.
Manav moved to Hong Kong and, in 2014, started Brinc alongside Co-Founder Bay McLaughlin. It now has around 25 people on staff.
The company was in stealth mode for the first few months, operating out of Garage Society, a co-working space, before finding its own space in April.
“We are being positioned as an accelerator but we are more of a platform,” says Gupta, chatting in the the airy seventh floor of PMQ, a former police barracks turned creative hub in Hong Kong. “By which, I mean we are working with all the industry partners to bring success to our founders.”
“We invest in all of our companies, and it’s a tailored investment per team, based on what the actual needs are. Our focus is on fundamentally building a sustainable business instead of just raising valuation.”
Gupta chats with e27 about IoT, Brinc and bringing to life, products that will enhance user experience.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Why pick Hong Kong as the base and not Shenzhen or Guangzhou –the heart of manufacturing?
Out of all the cities we explored, I saw Hong Kong as the best location to build [something] sustainable. The Hong Kong government is very supportive and is opening a lot of doors to all the right ecosystem partners.
Hong Kong has all the ingredients. There is amazing talent here. Hong Kong is a test bed. It’s a region with one of the world’s strongest mobile penetrations and an engaged demographic that loves mobility and connectivity.
What sectors — it’s ok to include IoT — does Hong Kong have an advantage in?
Fintech has an underlying layer to an industry that has existed for so long and has such strengths and roots in Hong Kong.
When I look at the actual set up of the legal system in Hong Kong though, I think consumer or industrial IoT will be the big waves.
Look at what IoT is: It’s taking the strengths of all the current ecosystems and thinking of the next way to move up the value chain.
For a lot of traditional manufacturers today, there’s a race and battle between innovation and distribution. Traditional players, like corporates, are trying to seek innovation but have the distribution, while startups have the innovation and are seeking distribution.
Leveraging the strengths here and infusing that with the right ideas and co-founders will allow the economy to grow over the next few years.
It’s often difficult for startups to find funding within Hong Kong, what do you suggest? How is Brinc being funded?
While it is early, we are seeing a lot of angels and VCs looking at early-stage investments.
Crowdfunding is not a means to build a sustainable operation, but we believe all teams should go validate their concept in the market. Crowdfunding is one way to do that.
Crowdfunding can be a way to for startups to gain market validation. Beyond just pure capital, the real gain is the knowledge.
All of our Batch One teams have successfully crowdfunded. We’ve been able to grow our evaluations holdings 300 per cent. We’ve raised money from various groups in Hong Kong.
Brinc is privately funded, through my previous business and Bashar [Aboudaoud, Partner and Head of Legal], who, through his other business, has 30 years of experience in quality control, financing and so forth.
What opportunities do you see in the rest of the APAC region?
I think China, India and Malaysia have tremendous potential. There are great startups and technical talent there.
Outside of IoT, what I’m personally excited about is the O2O space, or online-to-offline engagements. So many of these companies are building great solutions that leverage the workforce and labour force and leverage extra inventory or resources.
A lot of this is happening in China and India, from models like food delivery or cab hailing. I’m keeping a pulse on this, and looking at these markets. There will be some sort of hardware component in all of these communities in the future.
We just launched our short programme in Penang, in a space provided by the government.
We started a conversation with them last year and started exploring the talent. Penang has incredible engineering talent but needed support in identifying IoT business models, so we kicked off our programme Monday [last week].
Is Brinc going to do anything differently now, a year in?
We’re moving away from the batch structure and towards rolling admissions. We realised that it wasn’t the best possible way to engage, because every team is unique.
It’s a way to deliver a much more tailored experience and facilitate the right enablement of success for each team on an individual basis. Every team is so unique.
With IoT, unlike software, there are hundreds of additional steps startups have to think about like how to distribute. Whereas, if you’re building software, you can build your entire company and access the Google app store through your computer — and your’e good to go. For IoT, you have to do a lot more.
We were able to convince our first set of teams to take a leap of faith. One of the very first teams to join was Soundbrenner. Exactly a year later, they are now getting ready to ship.
So what’s next for Brinc?
Batch One [of startups] is getting ready to ship. Our demo day is the trade fair — we’ve done two trade booths already.
We are actively working to enroll more startups and work with more Hong Kong-based accelerators and incubators in 2016.
We are going to evolve our programme. One of the things that we’re doing is building the world’s first consumer IoT conference based here in Hong Kong.
This will include thought leadership around IoT and providing a sustainable foundation for all the ecosystem partners to understand what is happening in the market. All coming together over a two-day period to understand what’s happening, not just in Hong Kong, but in Southeast Asia.
We built Brinc to be a long-term player in the ecosystem. Our goal and aspiration are to touch and improve as many lives, and my main role is to identify the challenges in the market.
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