Blockchain Fever Reaches MIT’s Annual Startup Conference
MIT hosted its 21st annual Global Startup Workshop, co-sponsored by Penta Global Foundation, in Bangkok, Thailand from March 26-28, 2018. Keynote addresses were delivered by several distinguished speakers, including Dr. Pichet Durongkaveroj, Thai Minister of Digital Economy and Society; Dr. Dr. Kobsak Pootrakool, Minister Attached to the Prime Minister’s Office of Thailand; and Dr. Richard Lester, Associate Provost at MIT.
The three-day event, hosted first at Central World Convention Center and later at Chulalongkorn University’s Sasin School of Management, was packed with additional speakers, workshops hosted by entrepreneurs and MIT alumni, and distinguished panels. A panel on Developing an Innovative Ecosystem, exploring the dos and don’ts of entrepreneurship, kicked off the first day’s proceedings. Leslie Millar-Nicholson, MIT’s Director of Technology Licensing, and Tom Glock, MIT’s Director of Business Relations, joined Dr. Pun-Arj Chairatana, Director of the National Innovation Agency for the Ministry of Science and Technology; Dipul Patel, Entrepreneur in Residence at the MIT Martin Trust Center; and a representative of the Thai Chamber of Commerce on the panel. Entrepreneurs looking for insights on how top universities counsel startups were treated to a vibrant conversation on how best to take an idea and turn it into an operational business, all while trying to avoid the traps that land so many startups in the dustbin.
The lead panel of the second day was on Fintech: Blockchain. Aung Kyaw Moe, CEO of 2C2P moderated a panel of industry experts that included David Ritter, CEO of Penta Global Foundation, a next generation blockchain platform out of Singapore; Jarung Kiatsupapong, Managing Director of Kasikorn Soft Co., Ltd., a provider of blockchain technology solutions to Thai banks; and Dr. Karndee Leopairote, CEO of ICORA, a specialist in Thai ICOs. The panelists started by explaining the difference between blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, then discussed topics ranging from emerging regulations in Thailand and the U.S. to the power of distributed ledger technologies to disrupt industries. This was perhaps the best-attended panel of the three days, a testament to the excitement and interest in the Southeast Asian startup scene for blockchain. The crowd of 400-500 attendees had no trouble thinking of questions to ask the panelists before time ran out.
Towards the end of the second day, entrepreneurs were invited to participate in an elevator pitch competition. Approximately twenty brave entrepreneurs lined up and took the stage, one by one, to deliver a sixty-second elevator pitch about their startups to a panel of judges. They came from France, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, the United States, and elsewhere, eager to test out their ideas on the MIT GSW stage. The stakes were high as there was a cash prize of $1,000 on the line, and the prestige of winning the 2018 MIT GSW elevator pitch competition.
But the highest cash prize was reserved for the business plan competition. Over the course of three hours, twelve teams of entrepreneurs with businesses in various stages of development took center stage at the Sasin School of Management, where they competed for the coveted $10,000 cash prize, and the chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip to MIT’s campus in Boston to continue in the second round. After presenting powerpoints with descriptions of their business models and financial projections, candidates fielded questions from a panel of judges. Tough questions, to be sure. And the room was packed with some 200-300 students, faculty from Sasin and MIT, leaders of the GSW workshops, and the conference’s sponsors.
This year’s winner was an MIT student with a startup called Sanviato, focused on innovating an at-home assessment for blood coagulation on mobile phones. The runner up was a Thai startup called Truck360, seeking to solve the problem of empty truck back-hauling, with huge market potential in the Thailand trucking industry.
More valued than the cash prizes for competitors was the chance to associate their startups with the vaulted name of world-class academic institutions such as MIT and Sasin. In addition to those academic communities, many large companies that sponsored this year’s MIT GSW were also watching. Official sponsors this year included Bangkok Bank, K Bank, Ptt Group, Startup Thailand, ThaiBev, Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), Penta Gobal Foundation, and more. At the sponsors dinner, David Ritter of Penta was asked to deliver the keynote speech. In the speech, Mr. Ritter posed the question, “Can blockchain solve real problems?” He answered by showing the audience several examples of blockchain projects Penta has already deployed, including Blockchain Rice, a food security project that uses blockchain technology to track rice from farm to purchase. Mr. Ritter connected the promise of blockchain technology with this year’s MIT GSW theme, Dream Big. Dream Tech. As Mr. Ritter said, “We are dreaming big with blockchain!”
No doubt symptoms of global blockchain fever were present at the MIT Global Startup Workshop this year in Bangkok. From the Fintech panel to the keynote address of the sponsors dinner, to many startups in the elevator pitch and business plan competitions, it was impossible to avoid the hot topic of blockchain. The captivating appeal of this emerging technology was one of the conference’s overlapping themes, which is no surprise as distributed ledger technologies have taken the worldwide startup scene by storm.