For decades, Taiwan has been synonymous with hardware, being home to computer brands like MSI and Asus or chipmakers like TSMC and Foxconn.
In the past few years, however, there has been a strong push to pivot Taiwanese tech players towards software, using the country’s strong hardware base and tech-savvy 23.5 million population as a jumping point.
In addition to having some of the savviest consumers in the globe when it comes to smartphone use and Internet access, almost half of online transactions are done on mobile now. This is set to hit 61% in just two years.
Due to the country’s hardware background, Taiwanese citizens have often been the first adopters of key technologies — making the local population a hotbed for innovation and disruption where new startups and ideas flourish.
Add to that the fastest broadband speed in the world at 85.02Mbps and ranking within the top-20 in the world in terms of intellectual property protection, its local startups have a solid pool of resources to access in their quest to grow.
Working in tandem
Over the last decade, there has been a concerted effort across both the public and private sectors to encourage Taiwanese technopreneurs to not just innovate in their own market but also tap the 1.2 billion China consumer market, with an eye on global reach.
In 2015, Alibaba set aside TWD 10 billion (US$332 million) for its Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund to help local startups crack the China market and grow the nascent tech community.
In 2017, the Taiwanese government earmarked a US$3.3 billion startup fund, tax credits, and new laws to build a tech talent pipeline. A new fintech sandbox law was approved the same year to help technopreneurs test ideas with the typically strictly-regulated financial sector.
On artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, the government again led the way with a Government Information Open Platform, which allows anyone — including AI and IoT players in Taiwan — to access government data across 27,000 categories.
Tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Google quickly followed suit. All set up AI or IoT development centres in Taipei, while Google announced a plan to train 5,000 Taiwanese students in AI programming in 2018.
Envisioning future Taiwan tech
Recognising that Taiwan’s small consumer market is only the stepping stone to global reach, in 2017, the Science & Technology Policy Research and Information Center (STPI) launched its Vision Programme to give high-potential tech startups a global boost.
Backed by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology, this year marks the 4th edition of the Vision Programme. For 2020, the global partner is 500 Startups, the most active early-stage investor in the world.
From a large pool of applicants that underwent a month-long intensive training under the programme, the number of tech teams in the 2020 cohort was narrowed down to 25. These startups moved forward to a four-day boot camp that happened in June.
During the bootcamp, these 25 teams immersed in a sophisticated learning model headed by eight mentors, six guest speakers, and underwent eight workshops where they were exposed to practical training and mentorship sessions on pitch deck structure, storytelling, and shifts in the entrepreneurial mindset, among many others.
This year’s cohort runs the gamut of industries from social enterprises to dental tech, proving that Taiwanese innovation remains at the forefront, even when it comes to software.
Health tech to the forefront
Given the increase in global consumer spending and aging populations, healthtech is well represented in the 2020 Vision Programme cohort.
SingularWings Medical offers real-time telehealth care, backed by AI and machine learning technologies. Utilising hardware such as straps, patches and smart clothing, SingularWings allows clients to remotely monitor patients.
General manager David Lee said, “Our tech can be applied even outside the healthcare sector. We see the Vision Programme as an avenue towards creating strategic partnerships with channel partners, distributors, and agents that have a better understanding of Southeast Asian markets.”
Meanwhile, Dent X combines both hardware and software solutions to improve the dental x-ray process in terms of patient comfort and imaging accuracy for diagnosis. The company is in the midst of clinical trials and filing for patents.
Due to the highly-regulated nature and complexity of individual countries’ dental healthcare systems, Dent X is looking to connect with life sciences institutes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other members of the dental community.
Social, environmental concerns
Rising awareness among consumers of both social and environmental concerns have led to more scrutiny in product labelling and more accountability demanded from producers. Several cohort members of the 2020 Vision Programme have sought to embrace this change.
Social enterprise Impct started off with a B2B model that sold socially and environmentally-conscious food products to offices and then reinvesting the proceeds in social causes.
As customers have become more aware of the products they buy, Impact is developing a B2C approach and looked to Vision Programme to raise its fundraising profile, said chief operating officer Jessi Fu.
Another member of the 2020 cohort is Kiwi New Energy, which allows individual consumers to directly purchase “green” electricity with a single click on its app.
Backed by blockchain technology and AI analysis as well as hardware to monitor solar panel productivity, Kiwi digresses from the traditional model of centralised electricity supply.
Helping traditional sectors innovate
One startup is helping Taiwan’s entrenched manufacturing sector embrace digital transformation and Industry 4.0. GoodLinker’s cloud-based technology utilises sensors to integrate machinery and increase productivity on the factory floor without large infrastructure spending.
“Through the Vision Programme, we are looking for channel partners that can guide us in our expansion strategies, and to better understand ecosystems outside of Taiwan,” said business development manager Bruce King.
Another cohort member is Turing Chain, which utilises blockchain to verify and validate certificates and resumes.The company is creating a centralised database where individuals’ certifications are consolidated.
Founder Jeff Hu said, “We aim to bring in more stakeholders into our ecosystem, including educational institutions, professional certifying bodies, as well as recruiters of organisations.”
From the 25 teams that participated in the June bootcamp, STPI will select 10 finalists. Of these, five will head to Singapore to work with e27, while the other five will fly to Silicon Valley to gain more global exposure to the tech ecosystem.
In addition to tapping STPI’s vast linkages with educational institutions, investors, and advisors within Taiwan, the Vision Programme cohort members also gain key entrepreneurial skills that can translate their businesses and scale their tech for a global audience.
In turn, the success of these tech teams will hopefully breed a more vibrant tech ecosystem in Taiwan and encourage more Taiwanese youth to join the local tech talent pipeline as the country’s software pivot continues.
This article was first published on e27, on Jul. 29, 2020.