For a founder in their early 20s, today there’s a vast array of accelerators, incubators, and other initiatives for support. But what if they’re younger? As the Co-Founder of Smarter Me, Ee Ling Lim explains, “In their pre-teen and teenage years, they’re at their prime at the cusp of deciding what they care about and want to do in the future. Yet, there’s no path to pursue the answers to those questions.” This is where the Young Founders Summit Asia comes in, which is a global startup competition and accelerator programme.
Since its inception in 2018, it’s been helping thousands of young founders between the ages of 11 to 18 use innovation and technology to improve lives and change the world. Returning in 2021, the latest edition of the programme had much to offer these young innovators. At the recently held Young Founders Summit Asia Demo Day, we witnessed the culmination of their journey from taking a simple idea and transforming it into a budding startup. Of course, this is only the beginning of a long entrepreneurial journey.
The Young Founders Summit – Creating the Next Generation of Startup Founders
Every year, the Young Founders Summit receives several applications across Asia. This year’s edition kicked off in earnest in October after the 30 most promising teams were identified.
Between October and December 2021, these teams had access to live online masterclasses and workshops run by startup mentors and industry experts. These sessions covered topics such as customer validation and experiments, storytelling and pitching, as well as fireside chats with founders in the edutech, foodtech, and mental wellness sectors. At the same time, they also received 1-on-1 mentorship from industry experts. In addition to this, Ee Ling Lim, the Cofounder of Smarter Me shared that, “The Young Founders Summit also provides invaluable mentorship from top entrepreneurs, connections to a global network of young innovators, validation, and a real-world startup experience in the two months leading up to the demo day event.”
At the Young Founders Summit Asia Demo Day, the six most promising startups pitched their products to a panel of judges. The panel for the event comprised Prof. Reetika Gupta, Associate Professor of Marketing at ESSEC Business School; Rhea See, Co-founder of She Loves Tech; Leon Toh, Director of Damson Capital; and Janet Neo, Vice President, Corporate Sustainability and Governmental Affairs, Lazada. During her opening speech, Dr. Gupta highlighted the fair bit of disruption the pandemic has brought with improved access to customers and sources of funding. She also added that “Programmes like this Forum have been established to empower the youth and allow them to make decisions to implement a positive change in society.”
Top Teams at Young Founders Summit 2021
Out of the many teams that participated in the 3-month program, six were selected to pitch their ideas at the Young Founders Summit Demo Day 2021.
Handishelf from Singapore
The winner of the Young Founders Summit 2021, Handishelf, comprising of four 15-year old girls from Singapore, has been designed to improve the mobility of the elderly with its moveable drawers. Drawing inspiration from the paternoster elevator, a double pulley system is used to move the drawers in the Handishelf cabinet, reducing the dependence of the elderly, wheelchair users, and the disabled. The judges were impressed by the niche market Handishelf has now established itself in, following earlier implementation of successful prototypes in school classrooms of its founders.
New Life from Malaysia
A VR gameplay experience ‘Inclunation’ has been developed by New Life in an attempt to solve the gender inequality that is prevalent in STEM fields and close the digital divide. The application starts with a gender-neutral customizable character who is able to experience jobs in various STEM jobs of the future. The application tests the user’s technical knowledge, reaction rate, problem-solving abilities, and computational analysis through an incredible storyline. Upon completion of in-game tasks, the user’s performance is evaluated and stats provided. With this, online courses are also suggested for any improvements. Moreover, Inclunation has been developed with its own AI Discord bot to filter text and voice chats to detect toxic content.
Urvara from India
Uravara has been established with the goal of ‘Greening Mother Earth’. It is currently providing the agricultural sector of parts of India with a technique that helps one tree survive one year on one litre of water, thereby helping convert desserts into green patches. This hydroponic technique of enabling trees to access natural aquifers during the monsoon season has been used by farmers for over two decades in rural India. Uravara has taken the lead in commercializing this technique by mobilizing communities to enhance vegetation in dry areas. According to the founder, its pilot level tests conducted in early 2020 have shown significant growth of trees in under 4 months, which led to numerous CSR activities in the months that followed.
Hempisphere from Thailand
This company from Thailand is addressing the mounting local menace of plastic waste by promoting a hemp-cellulose alternative. Their product is a 100% decomposable bottle – the only one in the country to date. As per the founders, a key selling point of Hempisphere has been its ethical and well-researched source of raw materials that has given a strong statistic of 95% of their target market willing to pay a higher price for their sustainable and environmentally beneficial plastic bottle substitute.
Divinus from Japan
Combining the power of AR with online shopping, Divinus is a platform that was designed to virtually ‘fit on’ clothes in user-friendly dressing rooms before making online purchases. The application aims to not only help consumers get a better fit of their clothing but also to help retail stores reduce the number of returns they experience. With most people preferring to shop in person, Divinus aims to disrupt the retail fashion industry by drawing customer attention back to online shopping with this ‘game-changing’ application.
EcoGo from Hong Kong, India, and South Korea
In recent years, there has been a spike in the popularity of environmentally conscious businesses. Ecofriendly products have gained significant traction, despite limitations in accessibility. EcoGo solves this market gap by bringing sustainable shopping to one place with its dynamic and user-friendly platform. Listings of shops, products, and their locations are easily accessible together with comments and reviews from other shoppers. With this, EcoGo also takes the extra step in providing eco equal certifications through its benchmarking tool that assesses the sustainable nature of a product from raw materials to its final production stages to help its customers make an informed decision when purchasing.
Keynote Speeches: Advice from the Greats to Budding Entrepreneurs
The Demo Day of Young Founders Summit 2021 came to a close with two keynote speeches from Lousie Mabulo, founder of The Cacao Project, and Dione Song, CEO of Love Bonito. In her speech, Louise emphasized the need of the hour is sustainable products and regenerative food sources. “There is a growing demand for a green economy, and a mismatch between its current consumption and production.” She is a strong advocate for empowering the agricultural community, especially women farmers, and believes in cutting out the middle players who take a large portion of the simple entrepreneur’s profit. “It’s not about us, but about the services we create. Find your niche, dismantle negative cultural stigmas, and support and invest in local,” she advises.
Moving from a corporate job in finance to helming a high-growth startup, Dione shared five of the most important lessons she has learned during the process. Firstly, she asks all young entrepreneurs to love, understand, and thank themselves more. To her, gratitude for all things good and bad has helped her come a long way. Next, she encourages having ‘sisu’ (an immense grit and determination) and thick skin when it comes to entrepreneurship. Finding one’s passion and calling is the next lesson – “You can have a job but not a calling,” she quotes Jeff Bezos. Listening to feedback, failing, learning, and later iterating is part of the process and should not be ignored. Finally, Dione shares three ‘must haves’ for success – the ability to negotiate, the need for a good team and culture, not being afraid to speak up for injustice and discrimination.
The road ahead for the Young Founders Summit Asia
While the year ends with the successful conclusion of the Young Founders Summit Asia Demo Day, it’s really only the beginning. As Ee Ling puts it, “Entrepreneurship is a lifelong journey.” With its young founders now having taken their first steps, the initiative is committed to their continued success. As such, the next stage of the programme is an incubation period for the top six teams.
During this incubation period, the teams will have access to more workshops. These would cover more in-depth topics about running a startup such as how to generate sales and run mini-experiments to validate ideas. Thereby, allowing the teams to formulate a roadmap for the coming 12 months in close collaboration with their mentors.
Since 2018, The Young Founders Summit has helped inspire thousands of teenagers to pursue innovation and set them up for the world of entrepreneurship. “We’ve seen how teenagers care deeply about societal and environmental problems and how driven they can be to create solutions and make a difference. I’ve personally been touched and inspired by many young minds and look forward to how they will create startups that solve real-world problems,” expresses Ee Ling Lim. From organizers to judges, all parties believe that the 2021 rendition of the Summit is a continued testament to empowering the youth of today to build a prosperous future for themselves, society, and the planet.