Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Are Mighty

It's almost one in the morning as I write this but I'm still too pumped up with excitement to feel sleepy. I've just come home from Manila with Ateneo de Davao's contingent to the finals of the first Philippine Startup Challenge competition.  I say "contingent" because we were really that many: six teams of three students each, accompanied by four faculty members, myself included.  And I say that I'm still pumped up because it's only now that it's starting to sink in that we won, and how!

The Philippine Startup Challenge (PSC) is a nationwide competition organized by the Department of Science and Technology-ICT Office (DOST-ICTO) and the Philippine Software Industry Association (PSIA).  They announced that event in June this year and kicked it off with a series of boot camps all around the country on startup companies.  Our own boot camp session in Davao was led by Joey Gurango of Great Plains fame (Mr. Gurango sold his company to Microsoft back in the 90s and was one of the early Filipino tech success stories.)

The PSC coincided with our newly revitalized course on technopreneurship.  Our cluster offers technopreneurship as a subject to our IT students in the first semeter of their fourth year.  Our lead technopreneurship teacher Novie Pelobello used the opportunity to compel all her students to submit an entry to the startup challenge.  The enthusiasm was such that even CS and IS students, who do not take up the subject, also joined the teams. In the end, we had 15 teams apply to the competition.

Sheer numbers alone don't make for good quality entries.  Who really marshalled our student teams to produce fine-tuned business plans was our new faculty member and Ateneo de Naga import Bernie Jereza.  Bernie embraced the contest and organized, together with former students and now-teachers Paolo Villanueva and Nap Joseph Calub, off-class orientation and mentoring sessions for the students.  This took several months, from June through September, of consultations and revisions.

The 3rd Davao Startup Weekend, which Ateneo de Davao hosted in August, became an intermediate proving ground.  Startup Weekend is a different but similar competition to PSC.  As per the name, participating teams are supposed to come up with a business plan over the course of a weekend.  Two of the three winning teams were our alumni but our student teams didn't fare so well. Nevertheless the lessons from the contest provided valuable input to their entries to the PSC.

As I learned later on, there were 51 entries to PSC from all over the country.  The screening committee pared this down to 20 finalists.  Eight teams came from Davao.  Of these, six came from Ateneo de Davao. (The other two slots went to our distinguished competitors Jose Maria College and University of Southeastern Philippines.) Ateneo was the school with the most number of shortlisted candidates.

Overall, I was quite happy with the spread and representation of the finalists.  One would think contests like this to be dominated by schools from Metro Manila (well, you know which ones) but this time the regions dominated the list.  We were from Davao, Cebu, Bacolod, Legaspi, and Ifugao Province.  No affirmative action of any sort, a member of the screening committee assured me in one of our conversations; they judged on the merit of the entries alone and that was it.

And so it all came to a head today, the day of the finals.  All the teams would pitch their businesses to a new set of judges, themselves founders of startup companies.  Manila had proven to be a big challenge to all of us: we arrived the day before to a horrendous traffic jam, and it took us three hours to navigate from the airport to the venue in Ortigas (some other teams took as long five hours.)  We managed to squeeze in some dinner and shopping at Megamall but after that it was back to work.  Bernie, Nap, and I (and one other new faculty recruit, Pat Paasa) went around to each team for a final walkthrough.  We ended at half past one, but the students kept right on working till three or four in the morning.  

As I listened to the pitches of our students, I confess there were moments when I cringed ("No, no, why did you say that?" "I thought we TALKED about that already!" "Why is that slide still there?") but they were really very few.  I felt...pride.  These were students that I had taught since their second year (Python Programming) and now they were graduating seniors, more akin to colleagues now, and they were pitching their business plans and products to the professionals.  

At the same time and all throughout, at the back of my head, I was wondering whether the vans we commissioned would actually show up and bring us to the airport on time,

Two things then happened around three in the afternoon.  First, the driver called: they were already in the hotel basement parking.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Second: the judges had finished with their deliberation and they were announcing the winners.

The first winner they called was Team Nosemicolon, one of our teams!  Marielle Banawan, Justyn Mearns, and Noel Magutta had pitched a concierge service and mobile application.  We were not going home empty handed!  But would we have more than one?

The second winner they announced was the team from University San Jose Recoletos with a Twitter sentiment analysis app.

The third winner was Team Gecko, another Ateneo team! Chanly Basa, Justine Yu, and Jayvee Dagaang had pitched a crowdsourced scholarship system.  Two winners! That was such a big honor already.

The fourth winner was the team from University of the East with an intern and job matching service.

And the fifth and final winning team: Team WiseGeeks, yet another Ateneo team!  Arlene Adrienne Go, Max Macua, and Adulf Respecia had pitched an Xbox and Windows Kinect game.  They were the only team to show a working demo of their product.  Three in the winners circle!

So there, the final outcome: six teams shortlisted in the top 20, three in the top five.  Not a bad haul, not bad at all.  As you can probably tell, I am mighty proud. Not just of the winners, mind, but of all of them.  I very much liked the attitude of those who did not make the cut: "We're going to fix out model.  We're going to try for that other incubation program!" No greater joy for a teacher than to see his students grow and come into their own.  And these students have indeed just that.

Really, the work is just beginning.  The longer road lies ahead as we turn these pitches into actual businesses.  But we won't be daunted.  We are mighty.