JAKARTA, Indonesia — In a city with even worse traffic jams than Moscow, it is surely no coincidence that the first unicorn to emerge from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta was a transport app: Go-Jek, which began as a bike-taxi service.

Participants arriving at Tech in Asia Jakarta on Wednesday. By 10 a.m., the venue was packed with thousands of entrepreneurs, investors and high-profile speakers from across Asia. Photo: Sk.ru.

Go-Jek may be the best known and one of the most successful startups to come out of Indonesia, but it is far from alone. Reflecting its thriving startup scene, which has led to it being dubbed “Asia’s rising star,” Jakarta is this week hosting Tech in Asia Jakarta, a large-scale event for tech entrepreneurs, investors and business experts. A team from the Skolkovo Foundation joined thousands of visitors from around Asia and beyond for the two-day event, where the country’s dynamic progress was clear to see. 

David Soukhasing, head of ANGIN (Angel Investment Network Indonesia), a pool of 41 angel investors based in Jakarta that invests exclusively in Indonesian companies, says the local tech scene has changed drastically in the last few years.

“Four years ago, there were very few VCs, very few incubators, very few accelerators,” Soukhasing told sk.ru on the sidelines of the conference.

“The space has matured a lot. Right now we have three unicorns [Go-Jek; Traveloka, an online travel agency; and Tokopedia, an internet marketplace], incubators everywhere, capacity builders everywhere, and every street has a co-working space, so the market has grown a lot,” he said. 

Soukhasing, whose pool of angels all invest in early-stage companies, both tech and non-tech, said the world’s fourth most populous country was also seeing an influx of investment from Japan, China, Korea and Singapore, as well as more local funding.

“Before it [local investment] was invested more in traditional businesses, right now it’s moving on the tech side,” he said.   

Construction work underway in the dynamic urban jungle of Jakarta, capital of the world's fourth most populous country. Photo: Sk.ru.

Support from above

Like the Russian government, the Indonesian authorities have launched their own efforts to support entrepreneurs. In June this year, a government-backed initiative titled the “1,000 startups movement” — a programme of workshops, incubators and hackathons to be held across the country — was launched with the aim of growing 1,000 startups by 2020 that should have a total value of $10 billion. There are currently an estimated 2,000 startups in Indonesia.

The ambitious goal of the value set by the government, along with the fact that the authorities will not be putting any funding into the programme, prompted doubt in some circles whether it was attainable. But with or without government support, the tech scene has no apparent shortage of enthusiastic entrepreneurs — or private investors.

“There’s a lot of exciting things happening here,” a private investor based in Singapore who visits Indonesia on a monthly basis told sk.ru on condition of anonymity. 

“There’s a population basis of young entrepreneurs here eager to make some impact on the world. It’s a country with a population of 250 million,” said the investor, who works with companies including fintech firms, healthcare startups, a media aggregator, robotics companies and agriculture startups. 

“E-commerce has dominated investments [the government is targeting $130 billion in e-commerce transactions by 2020], but now investors are paying attention to a lot of things related to consumer tech, whether it be healthcare or financial technology — anything that makes people’s lives easier,” he said, adding that a lot of startups are producing services that can make traditional industries such as agriculture and textiles more productive. 

“I think Indonesia has a lag of about six months to a year behind what’s happening elsewhere in the world, so a lot of concepts out there can be taken over and put to use right away in Indonesia, it’s a sweet spot,” he said. 

“We just need more talent, more entrepreneurs and developers to work on those projects. I’m looking for talent, opportunities and good people to work with” at Tech in Asia Jakarta, he added. 

There was no shortage of interest in the startups exhibiting their projects at the Bootstrap Alley. Photo: Sk.ru.

Indonesia’s got talent

The event, which runs November 16-17 at the Balai Kartini convention centre, includes an exhibition — Bootstrap Alley — of 241 startups. There is also a pitching competition for startups with a winning prize of $5,000. 

Two of the finalists in that competition will be selected by the Skolkovo Foundation, which is attending Tech in Asia Jakarta this week as part of its Open Innovations Startup Tour, to receive tickets to the annual Startup Village held at the Skolkovo innovation centre outside Moscow in June. 

“We’re looking for interesting companies that offer truly innovative technology, not something that already exists: something with commercial potential,” said Yury Saprykin, head of the foundation’s branch in Russia’s Far East, which has forged ties with companies and organisations across Asia. Later this week, Skolkovo representatives will be attending Echelon Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City to select two more startups to participate in the Startup Village.

“We want to find companies with relevance for the Russian market: our task isn’t just to bring them over for the Startup Village so that they can walk around and see what we do. If it’s interesting technology, it will be in demand in Russia, and they might think about opening an office in Russia. And we in turn would help them enter the Russian market and find Russian partners,” said Saprykin. 

“Indonesia is a little further from us than China and Korea, for example,” he said, acknowledging that Russian startups are unlikely to open offices in Indonesia en masse, and vice versa. 

“But I do believe we can find targeted companies for collaboration. Asian companies are also international. It’s an investment in the future,” said Saprykin, adding that events such as Tech in Asia, which also organises annual conferences in Singapore, Bangalore and Tokyo, are useful for understanding Asian trends and what role Russian startups might play in those trends. 

“We’re looking for partners who can help our companies commercialise their products on the Asian markets,” he said. The Skolkovo Foundation already has an office in Beijing, and several Skolkovo companies have signed contracts with Chinese companies. 

Soukhasing, the head of the angel investors association, said he had encountered Russian entrepreneurs and investors in Jakarta, including rocket companies managed by Russians, and knew of certain Indonesian companies targeting the Russian market, such as food companies selling items that are widely unavailable there such as coconut chips, but not of any Indonesian tech companies targeting the Russian market. 

“Russia has a reputation for being tough,” Soukhasing told Sk.ru. 

“It’s not that there is no interest, it’s due to a lack of knowledge, but it’s potentially a market. It sounds a bit scary, but if you can convince people that you can be the local partner to help them, why not?”