Jamaica: Green Tech Startups Are Sexy
Just as the ubiquitous Valentine hearts started disappearing from the shops of New York, we packed our bags once again and boarded a plane to Kingston.
Few are aware that the Caribbean region is not merely an attractive vacation destination. Recently it has also been aiming, with full force, at developing a strong presence of innovation and entrepreneurship. Our job there was to assist in planning and executing the Green Tech Startup Bootcamp for idea-stage entrepreneurs, which is one of the flagship events under the Entrepreneurship Program for Innovation in the Caribbean (EPIC) run by the World Bank.
The goal of this 7-year agenda, funded by the Government of Canada, is to establish a solid ecosystem for high-growth and sustainable businesses. We came to Jamaica with the ambition to empower local aspiring entrepreneurs with relevant skills and tools and support them by providing a framework for prototyping, networking, and collaboration.
It was not difficult to identify and approach individuals whose ideas fit within the scope of the program's objectives and requirements. Jamaica certainly doesn't lack talent. Prior to the bootcamp, MAQTOOB Team and the Caribbean Climate Innovation Center (CCIC) jointly organized two idea generation sessions at The University of West Indies and the University of Technology in Kingston. The objective was to highlight pressing environmental issues, as discussed by the expert panelists, and raise awareness about the upcoming intense 54-hour weekend event. To our delight, the discussion motivated the students to sign up en masse. Since there were also a couple of ads running in the traditional press, we received several inquiries from more senior innovators as well.
In the end, CCIC received over 120 applications in total. The team shortlisted 86 participants, with 25 individuals selected to pitch their business ideas.
Day one was all about ideas. Or more precisely, sustainable business solutions. Just before the future leaders took to the stage, we discussed the necessity of focusing on real-life problems and needs of particular communities. Together, we defined sustainability and agreed on the importance of building impactful and environmentally friendly companies. It was truly astonishing to observe the high level of engagement and sheer motivation of the attendees.
It was clear from the very beginning that the competition would be more than tough.
People pitching their ideas on the stage were certainly not spared by their peers. Each person was given three votes to distribute among the presenters and the audience wanted to make sure that their choice was well worth it. Adil Gherib, MAQTOOB's co-founder and coach, was assigned the demanding task to rein in the discussion. The final vote gave birth to eleven teams of 3-6 members from whom we didn't expect anything less than to buckle down for the next two days and to rise and shine during their final, expert jury-assessed pitches on Sunday.
On Saturday, Adil and I drew on our know-how of latest business tools to demonstrate that running and growing a business in 2016 is all about opportunities, rather than obstacles. We presented around 20 simple web and mobile apps (most of them free) that could help the aspiring entrepreneurs with tasks ranging from managing their accounting, building their website, tracking their sales processes, to marketing their products online and collaborating efficiently with their team. It was evident that for many people in the auditorium this was the first time they heard it was possible to validate and prototype a business idea without spending too much money and time.Keeping this in mind, the teams resorted to their working stations and we kicked off the building block of the bootcamp.
The teams had a few hours to get to know each other and distribute individual tasks based on our requirements and their strongest skill sets. Following lunch, they presented their biggest challenges and Mike Lightman, a consultant at the World Bank, matched each of the respective groups with one of the more than 15 mentors we had invited to join. These mentors had been carefully handpicked from the ranks of experienced and knowledgeable professionals of the environmental industry. The teams had the whole afternoon to draw on their expertise and enjoy an unparalleled access to one-on-one tutoring.
The first batch of mock pitches that same evening revealed how much progress one can make if provided with the right tools and targeted guidance. The presenters were much more confident in formulating the problems their nascent startups were trying to solve, including their designed solution, business structure, and revenue models. The highlight of the evening was a pitch of Samantha Williams, a fresh 20-year-old college student, who took our advice ("Talk in plain English!") to heart and performed a fictional conversation interview with her grandma. Many of us have seen hundreds of startup pitches in the past, yet this one will always stand out. What brilliance and courage!
Next morning, we took all the team leaders aside, into the open air, and ran practiced a few public speaking exercises. Nervousness started to creep in.
Then the mentors came once again to share their last deal of advice. After lunch, Adil and I made final rounds and helped the teams to finalize their presentations. Then, one last inspirational talk by a notable guest speaker, Parris Lyew-Ayee, the director of Mona GeoInformatics Institute that is behind the Caribbean's first GPS navigation system, and we were slowly winding up the practical part of the bootcamp.
The big graduation evening was about to begin.
If I said that the mock pitches on Saturday showed an enormous progress on the part of the teams, then what we saw on Sunday evening was mind-blowing. Samantha's star performance evidently motivated other team leaders to step up the game. All the eleven teams presented balanced, well-researched, and solid decks. The pitches were confident, erudite, and even entertaining. We've seen some impressive prototypes, ranging from a device that can switch off your appliances at home remotely, to a bag of organic fertilizers in the form of all-natural compost. Judges were shooting off myriads of additional questions, but presenters fought bravely.
For us, there were no losers, just winners. With every team presentation, we grew more and more proud. We saw solutions related to water deficiency in Jamaica, sustainable agriculture, recycling, or sources of alternative energy. The thought of crowning just one single startup felt almost painful.
However, decisions needed to be made.
Emotions. That's the unique word that expresses the final announcement of the winning teams. Diletta Doretti from the World Bank and Colleen Pigeon from High Commission of Canada to Jamaica did their best to keep up the energy and stretch our impatience.
And the winner is...Team Number 4!
Plug'n'Pree: an energy monitoring solution, which also acts as a home security system.
Except for a cash prize of $1000 dollars, the team members won a place in the upcoming startup accelerator co-organized by CCIC and the World Bank in Kingston. We strongly encouraged the rest of the teams to apply as well so they could develop their products with further support, mentorship, and financial assistance. The preparations for the program are currently underway and the timetable is to be announced soon. The World Bank is more than dedicated to follow up on the fantastic success of the bootcamp.
What landed in our inbox:
“Personally, I also want to thank you again for encouraging me to stay on board at that critical moment. You may already know this, but an executive from a major energetic company approached us last night after the presentation and is interested in our idea.”
“I learnt how to be more precise with a PowerPoint presentation, to be loud but not frightening, to be persuasive in speech, to develop an idea that sells (one that people buy even when it makes no sense), and socializing with the trainers, presenters, and mentors was very educational, fun filling and exciting.”
“We appreciate the many hours of hard work you guys have registered in building our knowledge base. It is really a win-win situation and we feel we are all winners. I am sufficiently encouraged and motivated to pursue expansion of my business.”
“Thank you so much for helping us! We will not stop.”
The future of sustainable entrepreneurship in the Caribbean seems to be bright, although as everywhere there are several challenges to overcome. As Mike Lightman pointed out:
"The biggest challenge that Jamaica needs to address is the fragmented market of the Caribbean. Jamaica is the largest of the CARICOM countries and is poised to be the leader in entrepreneurship for all 14 countries. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is if it can transform 14 countries with similar economic and environmental needs but vastly different political structures and infrastructures and turn them into one big market."