Will the first ever US-Thailand accelerator sink or swim?

The Houston Technology Center (HTC) is coming to Asia with its the first ever US-Thailand Startup Accelerator Program.

In collaboration with one of the best college programes in Thailand, Sasin Entrepreneurship Center, it is creating The Houston Technology Center (HTC) Asia Bootcamp, which is a two-month accelerator programme for entrepreneurs and startups in Thailand.

This might just be the single most exciting and difficult to succeed accelerator programme in the country. Forget its selling point as the “first ever US-Thailand Startup Accelerator Program” or all the features we’ve come to associate with such programmes (eg. mentorship, training, pitching experience, etc). The very nature of HTC makes this programme stand out as a potentially one-of-a-kind program available to Thai startups.

Google HTC and you’ll quickly realise why this program could be oh-so-special. HTC doesn’t mess around. They’re a non-profit, doesn’t-take-your-equities program that focuses on businesses that can change the world. We’re not just talking about “change the way you hook up” Tinder style here, we’re talking about the next step in human ingenuity. The word “technology” in the name is there for a good reason.

It has been named as one of “Ten Technology Incubators Changing the World,” and as one of “Twelve Business Incubators Changing the World.” It is not looking to make money, but to make a difference.
That takes care of why this is an exciting program, but why do I think it has a very slim chance to succeed in Thailand?

When you look at the areas HTC excels in

Houston Technology Center (HTC) is one of the largest hard-science startup technology incubators in the US and the only incubator with specific divisions devoted to:

  • Energy/Green/Clean/Renewable Technologies
  • Bio & Nano Technologies
  • Life Sciences & Industrial Information Technologies
  • NASA & Aerospace Technologies

Thailand is world-renowned for innovation in exactly ZERO of those areas. Aerospace Technologies doesn’t even exist in the Thai economy. We are almost completely consumers in all of these areas. It is very difficult to know how much talent for these industries there are in the Thai economy and so far, the talent has not been obvious.

This is not to say startups that focus on the more common areas, such as e-commerce, cannot enter the programme. At least I didn’t see any information that forbids such businesses from entering. However, it would be such a waste of the program’s specialties. There are already other programs that specialise in areas such as mobile content, which the Thai tech scene is more focussed on.

Furthermore, the conditions of this programme can prove to be a big barrier for many Thai startups. HTC is a non-profit, and the programme doesn’t gain any equity from the startups they help launch. However, they charge a fee for entering the programme: US$3,000 for the first member, and US$2,000 for the second to the fourth.

That is a fee much too high for most startups in the early stages, especially now that the Thai baht has devalued against the dollar to around 36 baht per dollar. The participants must also pay for travel fees and accommodation. I don’t know how expensive Houston is, but even just five days there could be a price much too high for Thai startups.

No pain, no gain

Assuming you can enter, this programme offers an extremely interesting and unique opportunity. While Silicon Valley remains the Mecca for many Thai Startups, as far as hard sciences go — Houston is one of the places to visit and learn from. Just take a look at what the program offers in terms of “field trips”
Your experience will include:

  • Intensive accelerator training at Houston Technology Center US
  • Visits and introduction to staff and operations at HTC multinational corporate sponsors like Exxon, Chevron or others
  • A visit to NASA Johnson Space Center
  • Pitching experience with investors and corporations
  • Academia visits to institutions such as: University of Houston – a Tier One US Research Institution; Rice University – home to the largest and richest startup business plan competitions worldwide; Texas A+M – one of the largest agricultural research institutions worldwide, and 1 of the top 10 International Engineering Schools; Texas Medical Center – World’s largest medical center operations; or others

It is no surprise that unlike all the other accelerator programmes in Thailand, which is usually supported by the telecom operators or SIPA, this program’s main sponsor is SCG, one of Thailand’s leaders in engineering and construction.

If I was a betting man, the one area of hard science innovation we may be able to produce is agritech, considering how big the agricultural sector is in Thailand. Otherwise, I genuinely cannot see much chance of success here, no matter how excited I am. Obviously, I hope I am proven very wrong. Maybe against all odds, the next “leap for mankind” can come out of Thailand.