Accelerator network SparkLabs launches its newest program today in Taipei. Headed by managing partner Edgar Chiu (pictured above), SparkLabs Taipei will focus on preparing Taiwanese startups to enter other countries.
Chiu was COO of Taipei-based app developer Gogolook when it was acquired by Naver, one of Korea’s largest Internet companies, in 2013. Afterwards, Chiu became the founding general manager of Camp Mobile Taiwan, a branch of Naver’s mobile app development subsidiary.
“We already have a lot of accelerators in Taipei, but I think there is still a gap for Taiwanese startups that want to go global and I want to see more succeed. I think there’s a lack of experience on how to enter the global market and we want to fix that,” says Chiu.
SparkLabs launched its first accelerator in Seoul five years ago and now has programs in Beijing and Songdo (a new “smart city” built south of Seoul and funded by the Korean government). It will also open a financial tech accelerator in Hong Kong next year. SparkLabs claims that 79% of its 74 graduates have received followup funding and over $195 million in venture capital so far. Success stories from its accelerator include cosmetics company Memebox and online math-learning platform Knowre, both of which expanded into the U.S. with SparkLabs’ help.
SparkLabs Taipei aims to hold its first Demo Day by early next year. Each year it will host two batches of eight to 12 companies for three months. Startups get funding of up to $40,000 in capital in exchange for up to 6 percent in equity, office space and access to SparkLabs’ network of 150 mentors in Silicon Valley, Korea, China and Hong Kong. Chiu says founders will be matched with four to six mentors and encouraged to talk to them weekly.
The small size of Taiwan (total population 24 million) means that startups targeting rapid growth usually need to go abroad, but Taiwan still makes a good test market because of its high smartphone penetration rate and the willingness of users to be early adopters of apps and online services. While Taiwan’s startup ecosystem is frequently compared with other Asian countries, Chiu believes its best role model might actually be Israel.
“Korea was able to develop unicorns within its own markets, but Taiwanese startups should be more like Israeli startups where they had to seek to go global from the outset,” he says.
Chiu cites photo-editing app PicCollage as an example of a Taiwanese startup that found success abroad with 150 million users worldwide. PicCollage’s founders worked and studied in the U.S. before launching the company, but founders who don’t have that kind of experience can learn how to adapt for international audiences, Chiu says.
For example, he notes that Gogolook’s founders were born and educated in Taiwan, but decided early on to launch their main product, caller ID app Whoscall, abroad and seek international investors once they realized unwanted phone calls are a near-universal problem. At Gogolook, Chiu was responsible for securing global partnerships in Japan, Korea, the Middle East and Southeast Asia for Whoscall, which has been downloaded more than 50 million times.
“If you can find international co-founders or partners, then take advantage of that, but if you can’t, you need to be more aggressive to evaluate users from global markets and also do more product testing to know what they really want,” he says.
Taiwan’s tech industry is known for its hardware prowess; one of its most notable hardware startups is electric scooter company Gogoro. Chiu believes Taiwan’s hardware manufacturing resources has the potential to translate into startups that can not only build infrastructure for smart cities, but also integrate software that is frequently updated and adaptable to different markets.
Chiu will work with SparkLabs Taipei’s two venture partners Alex Wu and Tony Ling. Wu is currently vice president of marketing and communications at Newsela and previously worked at Quora, Facebook and Obama for America. Ling was previously managing director at Silver Lake Partners, where he sat on the boards of GoDaddy and IPC Systems. SparkLabs Taipei’s advisory board includes YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, Kabam co-founder Kevin Chou and Charles and Kai Huang, the founders of Guitar Hero’s first publisher RedOctane.