The John Keells X Open Day took place on September 5, with the ten shortlisted finalists being announced and formally introduced to attendees. The shortlisted teams were competing under varied industry focuses, from delivery startups to marketing analytics and even the health industry. They were of varied levels of experience as well ‒ some of the teams were existing startups with products already in the market while the rest were still in concept stages. The challenge was open to all, and the basis of the competition was innovation, whether it be from a company already a year old or from an idea that’s still on the drawing board.
The shortlisted teams were then announced and given a chance to come up on stage to introduce themselves and their areas of expertise:
BotFactory ‒ Machine learning and natural language processing
NicNac ‒ An “AI” butler
Jendo ‒ A medical startup
Synergen Labs ‒ A medical device wearables startup
InZurely ‒ Helps you find the best insurance option
Acrux ‒ Changing the tourism industry
Kart ‒ Making your supermarket experience more efficient
Onsbay ‒ A unified service platform
Grubz ‒ Food deals around you
Markify ‒ Marketing analytics made easy
Following the introduction of the teams, the Chairman of John Keells, Susantha Ratnayake, had an encouraging message for the teams present.
The John Keells team then ran through several presentations to give everyone an idea of the extent of the Holdings, the industries involved, and where they aim to head to in the future. The organisers then went on to explain what the teams could look forward to in terms of the competition. From the Open Day to November 2 is their development window, where the teams are to focus solely on developing their product. While networking is important, they need to focus their time on creating an MVP for the Demo Day. A launched product, and backing data supporting their concepts would be an added advantage.
There were also several systems in place to help the teams through the challenge. Every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. would be a series of casual meetups with the teams and the John Keells X committee, where they will get to talk about their progress, ask questions, and interact. Each team also gets a Team Buddy, who is the point of contact between the team and JKX. Through their Team Buddy, the teams can also book appointments with industry experts at JKH for advice on legal, financial, and other matters. Closer to Demo Day, the teams will get chances to prep and practice mock demos. Each team will get 15 minutes at Demo Day ‒ five to pitch and ten to answer questions.
Two short videos were then played, to get the teams thinking. One was a TED Talk by Bill Gross, on how important timing was to a startup, and the other was a summary of Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One, in which he advises you to build a monopoly. (Though we all know what Thiel does with his monopoly. Hint: do not pass Gawker, do not collect $200.)
Following the presentations were two sets of panel discussions for the benefits of the teams. The first was titled the ‘Winning Formulae’, while the second was called ‘Startups ‒ Beyond the Buzzword’.
The Winning Formulae panel was moderated by JKH CIO Ramesh Shanmuganathan, and had as its panelists Deputy Chairman Ajit Gunawardene, Finance Director Ronnie Peiris, and Head of the Leisure Sector, Krishan Balendra. The panel got a bit classical, with Shakespeare quotes being tossed around, but among the takeaways from the panel was that JKH was seeking to fuel innovation for the sake of the private sector as a whole. Sri Lanka is lagging behind in the new innovation-focused economy, and the faster it is brought up to speed, the better it is for everyone in the country. The panelists advised the teams to have confidence, but the finance gentlemen in the panel also advised them to remember to the ‘make money’ part of their plans, if they want to stay sustainable. Technology is just an enabler for a startup, and there are so many other factors necessary to grow a successful company. Mr. Gunawardene stressed the importance of leadership, and said that the investor often banks on the person, rather than the idea.
The ‘Startups ‒ Beyond the Buzzword’ panel, was moderated by Indi Samarajiva and had Ruwindhu Peiris of SLASSCOM, Dumith Fernando of Lankan Angel Network, and Muhunthan Canagey of the ICTA. The discussion focused around the culture of entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka. The panelists stated that Sri Lanka has always had a very good business mindset, which is why the country has made financial progress despite the war. The new startup industry, however, requires a mindset that is comfortable with risk and failure. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is traditionally risk-averse, and this slows things down.
The Open Day closed with a more relaxed networking session where all the teams got to interact with the JKX representatives over the beverage of their choice. They also got to address their concerns about the competition, like whether 5 minutes was enough time to make a pitch, and the organising committee promised to talk about it. So far the JKX team has been making every effort to ensure the teams have what they need to proceed in the challenge, which is important, as the industry itself is new and innovation challenges like these are the crucibles that harden founders and give them the experience they need to get out there and push themselves to success.
The finalists of the JKX challenge have two months to tap into all the resources of John Keells Holdings and ready themselves for the Demo Day on November 2. May the odds be ever in their favour.
Featured image credit Thiva Arunagirinathan