#Asia The MaGIC of building a thriving startup ecosystem in Malaysia


You can’t build an ecosystem without first understanding what the end goal is – to help startups succeed at a regional and global level, says Cheryl Yeoh of ex-MaGIC fame

As my tenure at MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre) draws to a close, I wanted to reflect on my thought process for building the startup ecosystem in Malaysia and the region.

When I was asked to be the founding CEO of MaGIC, I came up with a comprehensive gameplan to build the startup ecosystem within the country and Southeast Asia and presented it to an interview panel in February 2014. One interviewer asked: “Sounds like you want to do a lot. It’s a very ambitious plan. But if there’s only one thing you want to accomplish at MaGIC, what would that be?”

I answered without hesitation: “I will put Malaysia on the global map. Because Malaysia has so much untapped potential and my job is to show what’s possible.”

When I was appointed and shortly after President Obama and our Prime Minister launched MaGIC on April 27, 2014, I sketched the ecosystem map below.

You can’t build an ecosystem without first understanding what the end goal is – to help startups succeed at a regional and global level. Only then can you piece together all the components and players that will play a fundamental role in making that happen. As a healthy ecosystem requires various parties to play different roles towards a common objective, this charted a clear path for me to fill in the gaps in the current ecosystem.

Also Read: 10 startups that caught our eye at MaGIC’s inaugural demo day

One of the reasons why MaGIC has been able to make such an impact so quickly is because I’m a returning Malaysian with an international perspective; no historical baggage, no hidden agenda and nothing to lose.

MaGIC’s initial focus on education, exposure and acceleration charted an agnostic platform and foundation for all parties to genuinely come together and create a critical mass much needed to take this ecosystem to the next level.

To create this, we strived to equip entrepreneurs with the right startup skills via our education portal MaGIC Academy, expose entrepreneurs to other ecosystems like Silicon Valley and big markets within ASEAN, and accelerate startups via a global platform such as our MaGIC Accelerator Programme (MAP) and 500 Startups’ Distro Dojo.

This critical mass, complemented with our media strategy of exposing and highlighting successful entrepreneurs, generated visibility that accomplished two things: inspired the masses, private corporations and GLCs (government-linked companies) towards understanding and adopting startups, and generated massive regional and global mentor/investor interest in Malaysian startups.

For example, before MaGIC existed, there was only one accelerator called 1337. Now, there are seven more on top of MAP: Tune Labs, Game Founders, Maybank Fintech, Infinity Ventures, WatchTowerFriends, DistroDojo and 1337.

Before MaGIC, investors would usually skip Malaysia and fly to other countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia to seek investment deals. At the MAP Investor Demo Day in November 2015, over 150 investors from all over the region and world came to hear 50 MAP startups pitch. Before MaGIC existed, there was a dearth of interest in startups. Now corporations like Axiata, Khazanah, Maxis, Accenture, Sime Darby, Sunway Group, YTL Group, all the way down to family businesses are trying to set up programmes and funds for entrepreneurs.

Also Read: MaGIC whips startups into shape and preps them for the world stage

On the social entrepreneurship (SE) side, we’ve published a National Social Enterprise Blueprint, a social enterprise 101 guide, and the team has been travelling all around Malaysia, conducting workshops via SEHATI in Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak to create more awareness on SE. There’s a big opportunity for MaGIC to be a thought leader in SE because it’s a relatively new concept in the country.

These forces come together to make up the so-called magic recipe (pun intended) for a successful ecosystem. This ecosystem will only be self-sustainable if all parties can work together in a neutral, agenda-free environment.

Looking into the future beyond our initial core focus, MaGIC’s leadership should continue to focus on the exits and acquisitions of startups, which most other fledgling ecosystems in the world don’t pay enough attention to. There is also a need to remove roadblocks via government and regulatory policies to make it easier for startups in Malaysia to flourish, regardless of race, gender, age or nationality.

In my opinion, MaGIC’s mandate and goals should be flexible to change every two to three years to adapt to rapidly evolving market and ecosystem needs, to ensure the agency remains relevant in continuing to fill in the gaps. At the same time, because MaGIC utilises public funds, we should continue to spend very wisely to ensure that it commensurates with the impact and effectiveness of our programmes. This should be the mantra of any government-funded ecosystem builder in any country.

I believe in the past two years, my team and I have laid the groundwork for MaGIC and the larger community while showing real impact for what’s achievable within a short amount of time. As with startups, if you put the right team of people together with a vision for common good, anything is possible.

Ultimately, it’s the software (people) that matter more than hardware (infrastructure, capital or assets). A good ecosystem’s foundation is built on good people coming together, and even the most expensive buildings or funding can’t replace that.

Our playbook and strategy has been shared across other countries. We’ve hosted delegations from the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Korea, Thailand, Kazakhstan, India, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and many more. Most of these countries are keen to have their startups join MAP next year or collaborate with MaGIC in some way.

Also Read: Whatever I work on in the future will have global impact: Cheryl Yeoh

As I approach the end of my contract and time at MaGIC, I can say with confidence and pride that the MaGIC team will continue to deliver as MaGIC moves on to its next phase under new leadership. Despite the initial challenges we faced as a new agency, we have gained the trust and respect of the community and entrepreneurs, and achieved regional and global recognition through our initiatives.

I hope you will visit impact.mymagic.my to view all the programmes we’ve set up and the accomplishments we’ve achieved in the past two years. This is a testament to my team’s absolute focus and commitment to deliver on our mandate.

I am truly proud of the MaGIC team and the empowering and transparent culture we’ve established. While I’m sad to leave my MaGIC family behind, I am privileged to have worked with each individual who will continue to give their all so passionately because they believe in elevating their beloved country and pushing boundaries for positive change in Malaysia.

And for true change to happen, we should have the courage to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and be familiar with the unfamiliar.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my chairman Tan Sri Dr Mohd Irwan for convincing me to return to Malaysia to be the founding CEO of MaGIC, to all our ecosystem partners who’ve collaborated with us, to the mentors, instructors and investors who’ve generously stepped forth to give back to the community, to the entrepreneurs who believed in MaGIC, and last but not least, the MaGIC family who’ve worked so hard to make sure we create a sustainable and impactful ecosystem for entrepreneurs to thrive in, especially my first 10 hires who believed in me and my vision back when I had nothing.

Also Read: Macro-view of Malaysian ecosystem with MaGIC’s Cheryl Yeoh

I am ever so grateful to the Ministry of Finance for entrusting me to set up MaGIC and steer it in the right direction where it will benefit entrepreneurs not only within Malaysia but the larger Southeast Asia, and to truly put Malaysia on the map.

This article first appeared on The Star Online.

The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at writers[at]e27[dot]co

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