Startups get a Helping Hand in New Taipei City
Updated: Feb 7, 2019
◆Project Title: New Taipei Innosquare
#SDG8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
#SDG9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
◆Implementation Period: 2014 - Present
◆Project Website(Mandarin): http://www.economic.ntpc.gov.tw/Card/InnoSquare
New Taipei City is taking industrial innovation seriously, and one of the clearest signs is the Innosquare startup accelerator.
Innosquare has become the place to be for Taiwan's business startups trying to launch break-through products and services and maybe even become the next Google, Facebook or Airbnb.
Conveniently located above a metro station in the city's Sanchong district, Innosquare offers some 14,000 square feet of air-conditioned work and office space as well as conference rooms, a hands-on lab for designers, wi-fi connections and financial and technical mentoring. It's open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – and for those would-be entrepreneurs who need to burn the midnight oil, there are clean toilets and showers.
“This is a new thing for us,” says Mi Chun-ying of New Taipei City's Economic Development Department. “The government wants to promote innovation and support industry,” says the deputy assistant director of the planning division for industry and commerce. “We want to use the government's capacity to help people innovate and find suitable business partners.”
In nearby Taipei there are private business incubators but New Taipei City wants to take a more active approach. It is using its own resources to help aspiring entrepreneurs, making city office space available and putting financial muscle behind the effort.
The accelerator was launched in late 2014 with help from Chiao Tung University, which has supplied a team of mentors, mostly from the business community. Innosquare has room for about 85 people, and it is now at full capacity.
Most of those making use of the accelerator's facilities are in their mid-20's, and some of them even have a bit of work experience under their belt. They all get six months of rent-free space to refine their ideas, and some are granted an extra six months to get their business in gear.
But it is clear to all of the startup teams that the clock is ticking and they need to make the most of their time. Near the front door is a sign indicating the number of days left before the six-month session is over and the next group of entrepreneurial hopefuls arrives.
For those seeking a place at the accelerator table, the process is relatively simple. There is a one-month period where applications can be filed for each session. The application form is fairly straightforward, and once it is filled out there is usually a wait of one to two weeks.
Then comes the hard part. Would-be entrepreneurs need to pitch their ideas to a group of referees, including venture capitalists, and convince them why their idea might be successful. And at the end of the six months there is “demo day” when the teams get to show off what they have done, hopefully attracting the attention of financial backers.
“Taiwan is in need of this kind of thing,” says C.T. Wu, Innosquare's manager. He notes that through the accelerator, younger people with fresh ideas can be matched up with experienced investors.
“There is a lot of money waiting on the sidelines in Taiwan,” he says.
Innosquare also has tie-ups with accelerators in the United States as well as Singapore and Malaysia. The goal is to help some of the local groups thrive in an international environment at some point.
Abner Chao, one of those who made a successful pitch to get into Innosquare, is already making strides in turning his idea into a business that can stand on its own two feet. The 26-year-old has set up Amazing Talker, a business offering online language instruction.
His company links students and language teachers. It now offers instruction in 15 languages with more on the way. Students buy instruction time from the company while teachers share their teaching fees. The entrepreneur says he has already signed up 3,000 people who have shown interest and has 300 paying customers.
In the early days he used a local Starbucks as his workspace. Now he has an angel investor who has pumped in serious cash and has taken a 20% stake.
What does he think is the most valuable part of working at Innosquare? “It's very important to listen to the experience of other people,” he says. “We can learn from their experience.”
Another budding entrepreneur at Innosquare is Barry Kuo, an attorney and CEO of Lawsnote, a search engine for the legal profession. “We can save a lot of money on rent by working here,” he says. “That's really important to a startup.”
He says he started out at a friend's home and has been working on this project for a year and a half. He now has court documents on some 12 million law cases in a database that dates back more than 20 years. He sees some 2,000 law firms and other companies as potential clients. “With all this legal data, we can save lawyers time and money,” he says.
New Taipei City is already working with local banks to devise a program of subsidized loans for startups, including those that make use of the Innosquare program. In order to qualify, they will need a corporate structure and operations in New Taipei City. The city government has also teamed up with the private sector to form TA Camp, an Innosquare joint venture that can take direct stakes in young and promising firms.
Government officials acknowledge that as with startups anywhere, many are likely to fail. But New Taipei City already owns the real estate, the biggest financial commitment. The additional operating costs – mostly utilities and salaries – are seen as a modest price to pay for a program that could pay off handsomely in the future.