Years ago, the term 'Tech startup' seems to be reserved for the wealthy few and Palo Alto's Sacred Silicon Valley. However, that is no longer the case. Technology as we know it has become increasingly democratized and dispersed into the hands of the people in developing countries. 'The Rise of The Rest' as Steve Case, Founder of AOL called it. Thailand is no exception. With the country's introduction to exponential technology, from Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and exponential growth in Mobile phone adoption rate, it has never been easier for Thaitrepreneurs, people like you and I, to answer one of Thailand's biggest, yet unsolved challenge. How do we improve the quality of our education and prepare Thai workforce for the years to come?
As all the Entrepreneurship Guru will say, Startup is all about finding the pain point, a problem, and coming up with a Solution Ten of times better than the current alternatives. So what type of problems are we facing within this sector?
I'm sure most of you are familiar with the current statistics, we were ranked 8th in the 10 countries within South East Asia, which is highly alarming. if we are ranked that low in ASEAN, how low are we ranked relative to the rest of the world?
ASEAN Jobs have also shifted drastically, Big name companies have moved their manufacturing plants in favor for countries with lower costs like Myanmar and Laos. Thailand as a country needs to turn away from manufacturing to services industry and taking a more managerial role, for that we will require more educated workforce.
Currently, the education system itself is still a mess. The testing and exams system here is complicated and its standardized results are highly questionable compared to those in the developed countries. Most of the money generated within this space also comes from many private tutors or exams-preparation institutions. Most high quality teachers are Freelancers that either 1) work as a sole proprietor or 2) work under a private institute.
You can find almost all the bigger schools and universities are all in the center of Bangkok. How do we decentralize education and give kids in remote areas the same access to quality education as those lucky enough to be in the city?
Not only that, we also have issues where all the talented Thai graduates from international colleges all over the world decided not to stay in Thailand and search for opportunity elsewhere, mostly in the developed countries such as US or the UK. How do we make Thai ecosystem attractive enough to make them stay?
With that said, there is a lot of problems for Edtech startups to face, but what's the upside? In other words, what's in it for you the Thai entrepreneurs?
Thailand Startup Ecosystem has experienced exponential growth within the last few years. From 1 million US dollars in funding in 2011 up to 100 million in 2016. We started seeing International Investors showing more interests within the space, such as Silicon Valley's 500 Startups or Switzerland's Seedstars. The Thai government itself is now very supportive of the ecosystem, announcing the launch of a 570 million dollars in venture funding. From this past year alone, we see a lot more Co-working spaces and Accelerators coming out of the woodwork, a lot of these places got supports from big Financial Institutions and Mobile Services showing large interests within our emerging market. In other words, there is a lot of money for Thai Startups.
It is clear that there is a huge demand for the digital skills. Statistics has shown more than 147% mobile penetration rate. By 2020, we expect to see more than 25 million mobile users. With so much funding and demand for the technical skills, the Edtech startups looking to create digital literacy would not only have a lot of demand, but it would also create huge benefits for the country in the upcoming years
Right now finding a Thai Developer and Designer with knowledge in Startups could be difficult, but I must remind you that Chiangmai is still considered one of the best places to live for Digital Nomads. Outsourcing digital skills is definitely worthwhile options for EdTech Startups looking for more hands-on tech skills and expertise. Given that you can get all kinds of creative talents from all over the world within our country, I'd recommend you checking this ecosystem out if you are looking for someone to make or design your product.
Make no mistakes, Thai Startups are still within its infancy stage. Often if you go to networking events enough you will likely see the same faces and the same startups. That in itself is a curse and a blessing. The curse is you don't know if your product will work due to the lack of competitions in you niche, but the blessing is that there is a lot of rooms for fresh new ideas to take place.
Currently the spot light within Thailand seems to be on the next FinTech, the sharing economy and on a Networking platform. Edtech startups may not seem as ‘sexy’ and highly profitable as other sectors as of yet.
There are some up and coming Startups within this space, but the majority of them is still within a very early stage and has yet to show a serious traction.
From the year 2010 onward we see disruptive education technology in the form of online learning, something in which Thai government themselves attempted to do, with remote learning and School Tablets policies. Big global Edtech like Udemy, Coursera and countless other Online 'Certifications' seem to pop up everywhere in attempts to become an alternative to formal 'University degree'. They were great attempts at training workforce at a higher scale and lower costs. Most of them succeed in filling the gaps in job demands, but it is highly doubtful if that model could truly work in Thailand. Thai hiring culture still banks on candidates with a 4 year degree from Big name university. In this country, a University Degree is a requirement, and it will take years if not more for the hiring culture to shift from ' Proof of Formal Education' to a 'Proof of Accomplishments' & Skills'. Whenever that happens, expect private sectors to come out with Bootcamps and online courses. One stop solution that turns an ‘Unskilled’ worker to a Job seeking graduate in a shortest amount of time possible.
Whatever the form the solution may take in Thailand, we can all agree that it will somehow leverage 1) Internet and its ever reaching arms to the remote places within the country, 2) Mobile Devices, whether a Tablet or a Smart phone, due to the exponential adoption rate and increased familiarity of the device, the Millenials and the generation after that will learn to swipe before they could even talk. The front facing camera also makes it an ideal learning tool for F2F communications 3) Most definitely will implement Cloud Computing as the core technology 4) This is a wild guess, but somehow the emerging technologies like Augmented Reality, Big Data, Artificial intelligence or machine learning could as well play an integral role in education, although it may take years or even decades for the technology to escape the arms of the geeks and early adopters to the hands of educators.
Of course the affordability of these technologies will play an important role in how the upcoming startup can create impact within this space. For the time being, school systems may need to rely on cheap tablets or phones from Chinese manufacturers. In the next few years however, everybody will most likely have smart phones powerful enough to run the technology these new emerging startups will require.
Another challenges for these startups would be the simplicity of the technology, is the Interface simple enough for any teachers and students to just pick up the technology and start using it? That learning curve will be the real test for Edtech Startup, that and the Designers deep understanding of Thai users will determine the product adoptions.
Tech Startups pride themselves in achieving high growth and disrupting the status quo within their industries. The next big EdTech Startup will have to be careful in its marketing strategy and its ability to scale the platform. People are already spending ridiculous amount of money on education, in the form of private tutor, courses and books. How you can go about capturing the market is the key.
Whichever Startup wins the race for better education would be determined by how cooperative they could work with the established school systems. We will all need cooperation from all sectors, private and public institutions. For the solution to take effects, Startups need to work in conjunction with the government and education ministry. Something entrepreneurs may hate to do (Let's admit, we the entrepreneurs in general have bad habits of defying the status quo). Making your own 10x school system is not good enough. You might be able to create a great system with a lot of resources and general support, but as long as it is not compatible, or unable to be implemented with the brick and mortar schools. It is not scalable and won't solve the real issue: improving education standard as a whole.
I'd like to end this article with Thailand's most famous maxim "Thai People Can Do It". Well the time has never been more appropriate for Thai People to finally 'Do It'. The education industry is ripe for disruption. There are funds from International VCs, support from the government and more access to exponential Technology than we could dream for. Has the time finally come for a massive disruption in this space? No, the disruption is long overdue. Our country is moving too slow and currently being left behind in this ever changing world. EdTech is tough and great companies have yet to emerge within this sector. The Thai entrepreneurs will need to be a lot more ambitious than 'I'm creating the next big app' and really focus on making an innovative breakthrough and not incremental improvements. Our goals in EdTech should always be in creating positive impact, not maximizing profit. Whether you are an Entrepreneur looking for the next big market to disrupt or just to casually learn more about EdTech in Thailand, I do hope you find this article useful.
This article is written by K. Cheecharern, the winner of Techsauce's writing contest in August 2016.