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Smart teaches students the ropes of running a business

Timefree Innovations is eyeing expanding to the Southeast Asian market, proof that being a start-up is not a limitation. Joining Smart Public Affairs head Ramon R. Isberto (center) are TimeFree executives (from left) Sharief Kayer Alsree (COO), Joselle Macrohon (CFO), Philip Adrian Atilano (CEO), and Ken Marvin Wee (CTO).

MANILA, Philippines - A number of renowned and established companies here and abroad started small, or, as we call them in today’s parlance, start-ups.

Young technology entrepreneurs, all former winners and finalists of the SWEEP (Smart Wireless Engineering Education Program) Innovation and Excellence Awards, hope to follow in their footsteps as they embrace the challenge of starting their own company, bringing their product to the market, and earning money from it. 

Now in its 10th year, the SWEEP Awards, organized by Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart), serves as a platform for students from partner-schools to develop innovative wireless devices and mobile applications.

Four teams from the SWEEP Awards of previous years have taken that extra step of bringing their innovative school projects to the next level — as commercially viable products and services. These start-ups received additional grants from Smart and are being supported through IdeaSpace Foundation, Inc. (IdeaSpace), the country’s largest privately funded incubator and accelerator.

“We’re excited for these young start-up founders,” says Rolando G. Peña, senior vice president and head for technology at Smart.  “Through SWEEP, we just started with helping enable game-changing innovations in schools and now they have stepped up in making their products and services available to the marketplace.  This is closing the loop that connects education, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Frances Marie C. Kagahastian and Jarivy Ian M. Reynaldo, the youngest of these “technopreneurs,” took the plunge right after graduation.  In their early 20s, they now sit as CEO and COO, respectively, of Rex Zenzic, Inc.

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“After last year’s win, doors of opportunities opened up for us, from job offers to TV and radio interviews,” says Kagahastian. “As fresh graduates, we chose to take the road less travelled and set up our own start-up company.  It’s both exciting and scary…uncertainties are magnified by our inexperience.  But the best thing about being a start-up is the chance to do things and learn from mentors.”

Kagahastian and Reynaldo, along with teammate Jeffrey Martin, developed a device that, when installed at home, enables the user to control and monitor appliances and electric fixtures, and at the same time, monitor the electrical consumption via a mobile app.  The device won them the grand prize in last year’s SWEEP Awards. Apart from working on further development of the device for its commercial launch this year, they are also working on filing the device patent.

Philip Adrian T. Atilano, CEO of TimeFree Innovations, says the best thing about being a start-up is learning things that one would not likely learn as an employee.

“We wear multiple hats in our company,” says Atilano.  “Whatever the company needs us to be, we become that.  We are the developers, accountants, product and business development people, marketing persons, even maintenance. In a way, being in a start-up is teaching us the ins and outs of running a company and this is a truly amazing experience.  We get to learn a lot of new things each day.”

He and his teammates, Sharief Kayer T. Alsree, Ken Marvin N. Wee and Joselle A. Macrohon, developed TimeFree, which became one of the finalists during the 6th SWEEP Awards.

TimeFree is a virtual queuing solution that helps businesses enhance customer experience and increase customer engagements.  From a consumer perspective, TimeFree enables one to do other things while waiting for one’s turn to be served.  A text message will be sent once the turn of the customer is near. Businesses that use TimeFree’s solution will have access to transactional data from that, which can give valuable insights to further improve their business processes.

TimeFree has since piloted at the Smart Store in Robinsons Magnolia last November and is set to go regional. So far, the biggest challenge for the start-up is raising capital to support its expansion in Southeast Asia.  TimeFree will deploy its virtual queuing solution in Hong Kong by the end of April this year.

“SWEEP gave us a new perspective of how things are in the real world while we were still students,” says Daniel Lagazo of BlueQode Innovations, Inc., which developed Pasagoods, the grand prize of the 5th SWEEP Awards.  “It showed us real-world problems and the opportunity to help solve these.  It also opened our eyes to a new track that we can pursue — entrepreneurship and innovation.”

BlueQode developed a platform that integrates payment gateways such as PayPal, credit card, bank deposits and social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. This platform makes payment and registration a one-step process. The same team launched the award-winning Pasagoods, which is a donation portal that uses the platform.

Last year they released another product, iRace.ph for runners and race organizers. To support the platform, the team has developed proprietary software that converts PDF results of races into user-friendly and visual friendly webpages.  RaceOps is another product developed as another tool for race organizers. It is currently developing a product that integrates with Google Maps, allowing the user to report incidents such as theft, mugging and even accidents. It also provides consultancy services on back-end and front-end development requirements of companies.

“The best thing about being a start-up is having the freedom and control over your ideas,” says Lagazo. “You are not in the middle of the assembly line. You are at the start of the assembly line. But being in that position, it is also quite challenging to convert these bright ideas into tangible products. There are processes involved and it requires manpower and resources that we have don’t have in abundance as a start-up.”

For three ladies from Mapua Institute of Technology, their company, Gen8, intends to help make lives easier for persons with disabilities, particularly the visually impaired.  

“SWEEP helped us realize early on what we want to achieve with our lives,” says Janiena Roxanne Dirain, CEO of Gen8.  “Before graduating college, everything is so vague with our goals set at creating our thesis and designing our projects.  Through SWEEP, our college project became more than just a requirement for passing the course, it was further developed for a real purpose.” The team bagged the grand prize at the 8th SWEEP Awards for the Braille Cell Phone, and the wearable obstacle detection device called Aquila. 

The Braille Cell Phone works as a standard phone.  It can receive and send SMS and calls using braille cells in place of the usual touchscreen or alphanumeric keypad. Talks are underway with an investor for the next development of the phone prior to making it commercially available.

Aquila, on the other hand, is a device that can detect obstacles at varying distances.  It is intended for use indoors such as in offices, schools, churches or malls.  The device can detect obstacles via the frequency of the vibration (it vibrates faster as the user gets closer to the obstacle), through tags that communicate with the device so the user will know what the obstacle is, and through audio.  Using headphones, the device can tell the user the distance to the obstacle and also what the obstacle is through tags.  The team is now in talks with different entities for the release of the pilot versions of Aquila.

While Lagazo encourages SWEEP winners to go start-up, he also suggests taking the corporate employee route as an initial step as it would be a good experience for them to see the best of both worlds. 

“I will also encourage them to take the start-up route. However, they need to understand that running a start-up is very challenging. One has to be ready physically, mentally and emotionally. Ups and downs are daily occurrences and one must be emotionally ready to deal with these.  It can also be very demanding and one must be ready to make sacrifices,” Atilano says.

“The life of a start-up can at times be daunting but hold fast to your goals and never let go of your dream. This will carry you through,” says Dirain.

 

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