46 Drone Strikes, 652 Bomb Blasts, 4 Startups, 1 Year

by Khurram Zafar, January 22, 2013

Plan9 Technology Incubator: Where Ideas Take Flight

A recent WIRED Danger Room article by Spencer Ackerman highlighted the resurgence of U.S. Drone campaign over Pakistan in a continuing War on Terror. While it recounts the recent casualties directly associated with the drone strikes, it leaves a lot to be told of a nation’s story that is as heartening as it is heartrending and as inspiring as it is seemingly dismaying. The whole story needs to be told, so the world may know that Pakistan is not just a warfront country, but a nation of people that continue to persevere, adapt, innovate and thrive despite the 46 drone strikes, 652 bomb blasts (most of them in retaliation to the country continuing to be a part of the war) and over 1351 casualties in 2012 as documented in detail by the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

The real story is the tale, at one end, of 100 public listed Pakistani companies that provided the investors with over 49% capital gain (37% in USD terms) in 2012 despite the concerns of Moody’s and IMF regarding the economic, political and energy woes of the country; and on the other end, that of a young man who used his own personal resources to develop an electro-mechanical controller for better regulating the thermostats of water heaters to fight the rising cost of gas in the country. And then somewhere along this spectrum lie dozens of startups led by young, dynamic entrepreneurs that are developing innovative solutions for the local and global markets instead of whining in their drawing rooms about the problems the country is facing. The stories of four of those startups that started in 2012 follow, each one speaking volumes about the resilience, inventiveness, commitment and resourcefulness of its founders.

The first is Vital Agri Nutrients, a young, agricultural R&D focused company that is working on developing and producing innovative fertilizing agents and soil amendments to improve the efficacy of fertilizers and efficiency of water use in plants. The company has had some recent breakthroughs with their micro-nutrients and soil amendments and is currently conducting field trials in various areas of Pakistan. Given the expected shortage of water and growing prices of fertilizers world-wide, the company and its products present a promising opportunity for small and large farmers to improve the crop yield and lower the input cost per acre by employing soil amendments that help with more efficient use of fertilizers and water in plants.

Next, four young entrepreneurs at Eyedeus, aided by decades of joint research in computer vision field, have developed technology that enables the mobile devices to have eyes and intelligently process the real-world seen by the devices using the increasingly more powerful mobile processors. Unlike the cameras on mobile devices, that just allowed ‘dumb’ recording of images or video, Eyedeus technology allows developers to augment the realty around users. The company’s first reference application, called Groopic (beta available on App Store) is already getting rave reviews. Groopic allows group pictures to be taken in a way never before possible. The person taking the picture can now be part of the group picture, go figure!

Eyedeus is part of a full-service technology incubator called Plan 9, that’s a visionary initiative of the Government of Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan, and hosts at least a dozen other startups alongside Eyedeus, working on equally innovative products and services. Similarly, Invest2Innovate is another accelerator that's supporting at least 5 entrepreneurial ventures focused on businesses with a large social impact.

Third is a new age production house called JugnooMedia, developing interactive, digital musical toys for mobile devices with an aim of providing toddlers and young children new avenues of learning that are more fun and effective than the traditional, classroom teaching. Their first title in native Urdu language was recently showcased for local investors and impressed everyone present. They will be releasing the title on the App Store and Android Marketplace soon.

And finally, there is BLISS – a social venture that is aimed at improving the livelihoods of women in Pakistan alongside educating them. BLISS has already done a pilot program in a small village of Pakistan where women were taught embroidery skills alongside formal school education in the first phase. In the second phase, BLISS provided the same women an opportunity to co-op with the company and develop handbags designed by professional designers which were then marketed by BLISS through its online store as well as an impressive list of global brand ambassadors. The women who made the bags got the lion’s share of the revenue from those sales and the rest of the money is being used to sustain the operations of the organization and scale the program.

There must be dozens, if not 100s, similar tales of entrepreneurship from 2012 that can be told to match the intimidating figures of drone strikes, bomb blasts and deaths in Pakistan. The point in highlighting these four is just to tell the world that for the fearless, committed and innovative entrepreneurs, there is no holding back, whether in the Silicon Valley or Pakistan. The next time a story is told about the problems Pakistan is having with the political instability, corruption, energy shortage and terrorism; the world must know, that to the same land belong some of the best, battle-tested and inventive entrepreneurs working on shaping the future of the world!

The author is CIO at Lahore Stock Exchange, Member Board of Advisers at Plan9 Technology Incubator and Senior Policy Adviser at Provincial Disaster Management Authority, Punjab. He tweets at @kayzafar. None of the content in this article is an endorsement of any startup nor an investment advice and the views are expressed in a strictly personal capacity.