There was a summit, a steering committee, a policy document and even a somewhat awkward new brand name: “filipinnovation”, a word that is not as catchy as it is intended to be, but gets easier to say after a few attempts.
Around six years ago, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the then President of the Philippines, had launched a drive to encourage technological innovation. The goals, according to the strategy document, were primarily economic. Market-driven innovation would make the country more globally competitive.
The good news is that after a National Conference on Innovation followed by a National Innovation Summit, followed by a National Innovation Strategy, there are signs that Filipinos have taken the message to heart. By the end of the first quarter of this year, the Philippine economy had grown 7.8 % year-on-year, knocking China, which grew 7.7%, into second place in Asia. In 2011, 93.9% of internet users in the Philippines were Facebook users – the highest penetration in the world, according to an analysis published by web analytics company comScore.
But what’s interesting is that the drive for innovation hasn’t been primarily driven by profit motives. Instead they are about finding local solutions to social problems, such as poor access to clean water, the high costs of joint replacement surgery and slow responses to natural disasters.
Persuaded by country’s improving economic prospects, comparative youth and high social media use, Earl Martin Valencia returned to his home country after studying for an MBA at Stanford University, California. Last year he helped found IdeaSpace, a not-for-profit technology business incubation and education scheme with $12.5 million of funds to invest in Filipino start-ups. In April, IdeaSpace announced the winners of its competition to identify the most promising start-ups in the country. From over 700 applications they chose 10 companies to support with around $12,000 and six months of mentoring. Most of these were designed to solve social problems, especially those related to health and the environment.
“Necessity is the mother of invention, people are looking at the needs they see every day, and trying to solve them,” says Valencia, Head of Corporate Innovation for Smart Communications, the country’s largest telecoms company. “For the longest time in emerging markets like the Philippines, access to capital dictates opportunity. So how do we democratise access to capital? Reward merit.”
One of the winners, for example, was Aqua-Powered Solutions, a company that has developed Life, a small, lightweight and low-cost water purification device without the complexity, and thus cost, of more conventional purifiers. Every day, according to the company, 55 Filipinos die from water-related diseases. The company claims its prototype fits onto most taps, can purify about 25,000 litres of water and can kill 99.9% of microbes. Co-founder Michiel M. Perez says they are hoping the devices will cost $30-40 each.
Another entrant, which made the shortlist of 20 finalists but was not among the 10 winners, was Tudlo, a smart phone app that crowdsources information in real-time on road accidents, storms, floods and other natural disasters, while also disseminating emergency-related information from government agencies and other sources. So, for example, it might show an official flood warning, along with specific advised precautions and procedures, while displaying hotline numbers as well as relevant user-generated content. In 2011 over 1,200 people were killed in severe flooding in the Philippines, which ranks third in a 2012 United Nations league table of countries most vulnerable to natural disasters.
While young entrepreneurs are behind most of the competition entries, one winner, Mirand, was founded by Dr Rene Catan, a 55-year old orthopaedic surgeon. For over 20 years Catan had been dreaming of a way to make knee and joint replacements more affordable for Filipinos. Hearing about IdeaSpace inspired him to try to devise one.