Who is the Best President for Philippine Startups?

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On May 5, 2016
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Op-Ed by Oliver Segovia

Amidst an election season fueled by emotion, crucial issues that require reason have taken a backseat. Take technology startups. The innovation agenda of the presidential candidates were largely unreported in the mainstream press. Innovation was not even a main topic in all three presidential debates.

When Stack asked the presidential candidates on how they would grow the innovation economy in the Philippines, these were the highlights of their responses, which you may read in full below:

Miriam Defensor-Santiago wants to push for a series of laws that enable the commercialization of new science and technology. First, her proposed International Science & Technology Act seeks to create a body under the National Academy of Science and Technology, which is tasked to identify and coordinate with international partners for tech transfers. Second, proposed laws such as the Science Start Grant Program Act and the STEM in the Classroom Act seek to further promote science education in K to 12 levels. Third, she proposed to significantly improve internet speed by matching private capital with public investments in shared internet infrastructure.

Rodrigo Duterte is short on the specifics. His major goal is to increase R&D initiatives in the regions outside of Metro Manila. But in his 2-page response, he doesn’t exactly say how he would ignite R&D activities in these regions.

Grace Poe provides a more comprehensive plan. She recognizes that the current administration has made strides in R&D expansion, but sees opportunities for improvement in the slow government procurement process to keep up with faster technology cycles. Senator Poe would push for the creation of a National Innovation Council, a multi-sector and inter-agency group whose mandate is to identify global industries where the Philippines has an edge, and create an industry roadmap to meet this demand. A crucial ingredient of this plan is engaging the Filipino diaspora.

Mar Roxas plans to build an “innovation engine” in the Philippines. His plan involves 1) investing in research facilities and incubators, 2) improving the entrepreneurship curriculum in schools, 3) increasing enrollment in STEM courses, and 4) providing incentives to Filipino scientists, both here and abroad. Roxas also plans to help small and medium enterprises become stronger parts of the global supply chain by improving access to new technology and financing. He wants to launch a program called “Venture for the Philippines” where college students can spend two years working at a startup. He also shows first-hand knowledge on how R&D is actually operationalized via inter-agency collaboration among the DOST, DA, DENR, DOH, and DOE.

[Vice President Binay’s campaign team did not respond]

So which candidate would be best for tech startups? Ultimately, it’ll depend on what you believe is the role of government in driving innovation in the country.

Mar and Grace are Better Bets for Startups, with Major Caveats

Based on the plans I’ve read, Grace Poe has the most detailed and comprehensive plan, encompassing new programs and improvements to existing ones. Mar Roxas comes a close second, with his knowledge of the bureaucracy and openness to replicate successful programs from the USA and other Asian countries.

Having said that, I also believe that none of the candidates comes close to addressing some major policy gaps in driving innovation. This includes solutions in addressing slow internet speeds, venture capital financing, attracting foreign talent, and the role of technology in the ease of doing business.

Although all of them recognized the need for faster internet, nobody presented a detailed agenda on overhauling the regulatory roadblocks such as the complex and costly permitting process in deploying network infrastructure. Nobody touched on improvements in the NTC.

All the candidates seem oblivious to the fact that the Philippines trails our Southeast Asian neighbors in early-stage venture capital investment.

Vietnam, for instance, has only opened up its economy more recently but has already outpaced the Philippines in the amount of venture capital invested. Thailand’s government announced a new fund to support startups.

Countries like Chile and Singapore grew their startup ecosystems by making it attractive for foreign talent to get startup visas, set up businesses, and hire local employees. None of the candidates had any convincing programs to attract foreign talent.

It is still easier to register a business in Afghanistan and Mongolia that it is in the Philippines—something that small business owners can attest to. Unlike Singapore, we don’t have a consolidated one-stop, tech-enabled business registration portal linking all relevant government agencies.

Finally, I didn’t get the impression that they had an intuitive understanding of the current realities aspiring entrepreneurs face. For example, there is already a groundswell of entrepreneurial activity among local students and young professionals and freelancers. Should R&D spending go to upstream, long-term initiatives with a more speculative risk profile? Or to an entrepreneur with a minimum viable product (MVP) who needs financing to scale up? It’s a tough trade-off, but one that can’t be made without understanding the facts on the ground.

Will we ever get government leaders who are sympathetic to the role of innovation in building the Philippine economy? Perhaps it’s a generational problem. Younger senators like Bam Aquino and Sonny Angara have been the ones pushing for more progressive legislation. Time will tell if the innovation agenda becomes a more important issue in future election cycles.


Read your candidate’s agenda here: 

[Stack] Rodrigo Duterte’s S&T Agenda

[Stack] Miriam Defensor Santiago’s S&T Agenda

[Stack] Mar Roxas’ S&T Agenda

[Stack] Grace Poe’s S&T Agenda


Oliver Segovia is the founder and CEO of Ava Online Group, an e-commerce and digital media company. He writes for the Harvard Business Review.

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