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Austin-based Startup Accelerator STEEP! Plans to Help Taiwanese Entrepreneurs Break into the American Market

Yahsin Huang

Austin-based startup accelerator STEEP!, otherwise known as the Supporting Taiwanese Entrepreneurs Everywhere Project, plans to invest in seven Taiwanese startups within the next two years.

The accelerator’s co-founder Erica Liu spoke with Business Next during the 2018 Computex Taipei trade show earlier this month. The interview took place at the XR Express Taiwan Pavilion, sponsored by Taiwan’s National Development Council.

Caption: STEEP!'s co-founder Erica Liu.
Yahsin Huang

The pavilion showcased the latest trends in augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality technologies from 15 young companies. There was also a series of forums on industry trends and startup communities, where Liu was one of the speakers.

The following Q&A explains STEEP!’s background and what it plans to do:

Q:Tell us about yourself? What inspired you to found STEEP! in 2017?.

A: I'm a Taiwanese American currently based in Austin, Texas. My childhood was spent in Taiwan and then I moved to the US when I was nine years old. My background is in international tax. I have a Master's degree in professional accounting from University of Texas at Austin. I’m also one of the founding members of the Austin Chapter of Taiwanese American Professionals (TAP).

In March 2017, I helped Taiwanese companies connect with the largest tech conference in Austin known as South by Southwest or SXSW. I observed that Taiwanese companies tended to make great products but lacked networks and resources that could enable them to enter U.S. markets.

My friends and I then started to think about how we could use our strong professional networks in the States to help Taiwanese companies grow. What would it be like if Taiwanese startup founders had mentors and partners in the U.S. that they could reach out to whenever they needed help?

As the founding president of TAP in Austin, I’m constantly seeking ways to empower Taiwanese Americans or Taiwanese who wish to tap into the American market. And that’s how STEEP! was born.

Q:What's your goal? Your vision?

A: We think that many people with Taiwanese heritage have a proven track record in the U.S. A lot of great companies like NVIDIA and YouTube were created by talented Taiwanese Americans. What STEEP! wants to do is empower Taiwanese startup founders to take their companies to the global stage, which is vital for their future success.

Taiwanese entrepreneurs can become successful internationally but they need access to knowledge, resources and funding beyond Taiwan. Our vision is to help the Taiwanese startup ecosystem become more like the Israeli ecosystem, where founders give back.

Q:What are some of the programs that STEEP! Accelerator has been working on?

A:At STEEP!, an online solution we provide is called “STEEP! Web,” which helps accelerate your path to exploring the U.S. market.

STEEP! Web is a web platform and database that fosters a sense of community and mentorship between US entrepreneurs, business leaders, community leaders and Taiwanese founders so that they can learn from each other. We make introductions for seed stage to Pre-A companies needing a network for growth.

We also have a mentoring program where Taiwanese startup founders have a unique chance to get advice with mentors on a one-on-one basis. It's a great way for entrepreneurs to reflect on their business strategy, marketing strategy and product development.

Q:How many Taiwanese startups have you invested in? What's the size of your fund?

A: So far we have invested in only one Taiwanese startup company. But our investment is not only limited to Taiwanese-founded companies in Taiwan. We also consider the U.S., and elsewhere in the world. Companies we invest in will be supported by mentors from our STEEP! Web network.

We are still fund raising. Startups can expect angel check sizes to be US$25, 000 to US$50,000. Right now our total capital is $US75,000. We plan to invest in seven Taiwanese startup companies this year and next year.

Q:What are some of the sources of your funding?

A: Our funding comes from Taiwanese American high-net-worth individuals. It's U.S. culture to allocate a portion of your wealth to risky projects. Our angel investors tend to be folks who want to invest not only in a good idea but also in the community they represent.

A lot of them have very traditional jobs, as well. Many of them are lawyers and doctors. For them, making their way in the U.S. was diligently working their way up to the top, but they realize that someone else's dream may be something entirely different. They want to help future generations shape their dreams in the U.S., as well.

Q:Tell us about the startup you've invested in?

A: We have invested in a Taiwanese startup company called BioInspira. They are a chemical sensing IoT company. What they do is use virus technology to detect specific air chemicals. In particular, they can pinpoint chemical leaks. Right now, they are developing ammonia sensors that are used in cold warehousing to ensure industrial safety.

Q:What’s the biggest challenge Taiwanese entrepreneurs face when approaching an American investor?

A: The biggest challenge that Taiwanese founders face when approaching an American investor is crafting their story. It's about story telling. I think language is a big barrier. When I do see Taiwanese companies do well at this is when they specifically seek out a co-founder who is very skilled at pitching and sales. I honestly think the biggest barrier is just language. Also, entrepreneurs should be able to charm an audience: they should essentially have story-telling skills.

The U.S. investors tend to look for something that is obvious. They want a good bet. Why are you the best person to solve this problem? What kind of special advantage do you have compared with everyone else? These are some of the things that they look for.

Q:What’s next for STEEP!?

A: We are currently in talks with the managers of Taiwan Startup Stadium (TTS) and SparkLab to grow the startup community and to help more Taiwanese founders get access to people based in the U.S. I think that hiring people may be our biggest challenge and leveraging the existing pool of talent is one thing we'll be working on.

We’re looking to invest in more startups and so getting recommendations from friends or from our networks is something we'll be doing too.