Q&A: QBO director Katrina Chan on the state of PH startups, coronavirus solutions

Gelo Gonzales
'The ability of the startups to pivot is crucial for them to remain afloat during this time. They must be able to adapt and innovate quickly to continue operating and to also, protect the jobs of their workforce,' says the QBO director

Image from QBO

Philippine startup incubator QBO Innovation Hub is holding a special competition this year for startups who may have innovative solutions in fighting the coronavirus: RESQUE: Startups vs. COVID-19 Competition. 

In partnership with Youth Business International (YBI), and supported by Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, the program wants to find solutions that will help micro, small, and medium enterprises pivot to, and survive the new normal brought about by the virus. 

The 3-month contest seeks to address issues such as  loss of employment, restoration of the economy, and the creation of new opportunities for growth and development. There are 2 categories in the contest:

1) COVID-19 solutions for startups with innovative solutions, products, and/or services that directly tackle COVID-related challenges.

2) Sustainable pivots for startups that adapt and secure sustainability through pivot strategies amid the crisis. 

10 winners will receive a cash prize of P100,000, and will receive 2 months of mentorship from entrepreneurs and industry experts. 

This global program, in which QBO is the local partner, is led by YBI, which is an organization supporting young businesses. Anita Tiessen, the CEO of YBI, says,“The world is changing dramatically from day to day and I feel deeply for business owners everywhere, especially those running smaller businesses and are from underserved communities, who are often least able to bear the economic shocks of this crisis.” The organization is looking to support about 200,000 small and medium enterprises worldwide through this viral downturn. 

To give us a better picture of the issues facing startups now, and what they’re looking for in the contest, we talked to QBO’s director Katrina Chan. 

How has the pandemic affected the startup sector in the Philippines?

Apart from the disruption in their offline operations, there is, of course, a financial impact on our startups. This was determined in the Philippine Startup Survey 2020 recently released by the Department of Trade and Industry, PwC, QBO, and IdeaSpace Foundation conducted among 90 startup founders. 64% will need P5 million in the next 12 months to get back to their normal operations while less than 20% of the startups have enough cash and capacity to sustain the business for more than 12 months. 

While the statistics are alarming, the pandemic has also put some startups to their capacity because their services were needed to make the ECQ effective. 21% of the founders also said that there was an increase in the demand for their business. These are mostly startups from the logistics, education technology, enterprise services, financial technology, and healthcare sectors. 

What opportunities are there for startups given the current situation?

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed not only challenges to businesses but also opportunities, especially to tech/digitally-enabled entities like Filipino startups. This is a chance for them to pivot their strategies, and maximize the power of tech of which they are known for, for the new reality we’re all in. 

KATRINA CHAN. Chan is the director of QBO, a public-private innovation hub and startup platform in the Philippines. She is also an associate director at IdeaSpace, one of the Philippines’ leading startup accelerators. Photo provided by QBO

There are also opportunities to network, learn new business strategies and skills, gain mentorship and even financial assistance in order to cope. RESQUE: Startups vs Covid Competition is just one of the many opportunities that we, at QBO, aim to provide startups with COVID-19 related solutions or business pivots during the pandemic.

Other than that, we have a continuous lineup of webinars, or what we call QLITAN sessions, where we invite industry experts so startup founders can learn from each other. We also have incubation programs in place to help them even during the pandemic — these opportunities are out there and we believe, with strong government and private sector support, Filipino startups can still thrive during and even after the pandemic. 

What advice would you share with prospective startups that want to build something great even during these challenging times?

Take advantage of opportunities available to you in order to bring your ideas to life. For startups, look for ways to network and learn new things and strategies. Study the market very well and aim to provide products or services that will make lives easier during this pandemic and even after. Businesses are opening their eyes to the need for digital transformation and are embracing working with new players.

The landscape is changing because of the changing consumer behaviors as well — it pays to know what your consumers need at this time and pivot to that. We’ve observed confidence in the growth of startups in the following sectors: logistics, education technology, enterprise services, financial technology, and healthcare sectors — because their products/services are greatly needed at this time. Startups will be key to creating the new world, the ‘new normal’ and can build momentum even in these challenging times. 

Don’t let the pandemic stop you from innovating: there are opportunities like RESQUE, as well as mentorship sessions and incubation programs with QBO that you can join. 

What does RESQUE aspire to do for startups in the coronavirus era?

RESQUE: Startups vs. COVID-19 Competition is a nationwide startup competition led by QBO after it has been named as Youth Business International’s delivery partner in the Philippines, with funding from Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. It aims to develop and deliver an urgent package of support to struggling local businesses during these uncertain times. 

By opening this competition, we hope to inspire Filipino startups with innovative COVID-19-related solutions and products as well as those who have made sustainable pivots amid the crisis to continue innovating and creating ideas that will be useful at this time. 

Apart from the grant of P100,000 each that will be awarded to the winning startups, there is a holistic package included in the rapid response and recovery program such as crisis helplines, targeted advice and online training through webinars and mentoring. This is a rare chance for the growth and development of their startup, which includes capacity building programs, 2 months of mentoring, education, and international exposure with the support of YBI and Google.org.

Select Google employees will also devote their time to mentor the winners. All these will aim to provide the startups the help they need to not only weather the COVID-19 storm, but also thrive after it. 

What would you advise those looking for these COVID-19 solutions? 

We would advise startups to review their business’ core competency: where, through their products and services, can they provide solutions. For this competition, we have identified 3 themes in which startups can aid and provide COVID-19 solutions based on the impact of the pandemic. These themes are: 1) Addressing the loss of employment; 2) restoration of the economy; and 3) creation of new opportunities for growth and development.

What is the importance of these “sustainable pivots for startups,” which is one of the two categories for the contest?

The ability of the startups to pivot is crucial for them to remain afloat during this time. They must be able to adapt and innovate quickly to continue operating and to also, protect the jobs of their workforce. Sustainable pivots, as we’ve seen, have also opened doors for many startups to help Filipinos who are at the brink of losing their jobs.

An example would be Angkas with the introduction of Angkas Food where riders were given the chance to keep their jobs by pivoting to providing food delivery service from ride-sharing, which is strictly prohibited now. This is just an example of a startup innovating in order to remain meaningful and relevant at this time while ensuring business continuity. 

Loss of employment, restoration of the economy, creating new opportunities – these are, of course, very tough problems.

What message would you want to give those looking to join that will help inspire them?

Startups are at a very good position to make a difference at this time because they are tech-enabled. This is a playing field that they know how to navigate and so hope that they see this pandemic as an opportunity to create ideas that can ultimately make lives easier. This competition is a way to inspire them to go out there, showcase their solutions and their business pivots, so we can help them to continue innovating and even thrive despite challenging times. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.