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Thailand's telecom giants hunt for the country's first 'unicorn'

Saturated mobile phone market prompts race to develop startups

A conceptual image of the True Digital Park complex being built by True Corp. in Bangkok.

BANGKOK -- While Singapore boasts ride-hailing service Grab and Indonesia has travel platform Traveloka, Thailand has yet to produce a startup valued at $1 billion or more.

Now, the country's leading telcos are racing to develop Thailand's first "unicorn."

Total Access Communication hopes to create a company that can compete with Chinese giant Alibaba Group Holding, said Sompoat Chansomboon, managing director in charge of developing venture businesses at Thailand's third-largest mobile phone operator.  

Dtac, as the company is known, has established a support system for venture businesses. The system includes a training program devised by Google to improve the design and usability of services developed by venture companies. Japanese messaging app provider Line, which has 42 million users in Thailand, has been brought in to help with marketing the service.

The company will hold contests for promising startups between May and August, and the winners will be invited to a Google-hosted event in Silicon Valley and a Line-hosted event in Japan.

True Corp., the second-largest provider, plans to create an incubation facility for new ventures by 2021. The facility will be built within a 77,000-sq.-meter section of the True Digital Park complex being constructed in Bangkok. 

The first phase of the project is scheduled for completion by the end of this year and will provide co-working office space and support programs for new businesses.

Last autumn, the company sought out new ideas through a TV show in which budding entrepreneurs had to give elevator pitches. The shows' four judges would wait on the 63rd floor and watch as each entrepreneur gave their pitches on the way up.

The program was produced jointly with Ant Financial Services Group, the Alibaba affiliate that provides the Alipay online payment platform, Japanese trading house Itochu and two other companies.

Teerapon Tanomsakyut, chief innovation and sustainability officer, said True Corp. could help venture companies make inroads into global markets.

Mobile market leader Advanced Info Service set up the AIS Design Center in July last year and organizes monthly programs like pitch events to unearth promising startups.

The drive to foster new businesses has been prompted by intensified competition in a telecoms saturated market. Thailand's mobile phone penetration rate now stands at 130%. Operators are now looking for ways to prop up their services, said a DBS Vickers Securities (Thailand) analyst. One avenue could be to discover promising apps.

While the business environment for startups is improving, the number of standout new companies remains small. 

The U.S. and China dominate when it comes to producing unicorns, but Southeast Asia is starting to emerge

Venture businesses in the region raised a total of $7.8 billion in 2017, an all-time high and up threefold from the previous year, according to Tech in Asia, a tech information site in Singapore.

But the increase was led by startups in the city-state and Indonesia, with 93% of the total raised in these the two countries alone, while Thailand accounted for just 2%.

As an international financial hub, Singapore has little trouble attracting investment, while Indonesia's population of over 250 million provides access to a huge customer base, even if a service is not particularly innovative, said Koichi Saito, founder and general partner of KK Fund, which invests mainly in Southeast Asia. 

Plenty of new businesses are set up in Thailand, but most engage in the sale of handmade merchandise or localization of apps used overseas, while few have developed services that can be exported.

An insular perspective has also hampered the emergence of unicorns. "Cutting-edge services are not created in Thailand," said a top executive of a leading venture company.

The company had no intention of expanding overseas, he explained. Instead, it was easier to localize and release services from elsewhere as it typically took a year or two for popular products in the U.S. or China to reach the Thai market.

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