Those familiar with Colombo’s start-up scene would describe its growth as exponential. However, they also acknowledge that much needs to happen for these firms to reach maturity. Across the Sri Lankan capital today, discussions and debates about these changes are being held.
Back in 2015, a report from Sri Lanka Association for Software and Services Companies (Slasscom) highlighted the dismal supply of affordable workspaces, minimal support from the banking system and, most crucially, a lack of access to investors and advisors. Four years later, these conditions, while far from perfect, have improved. The newest version of Slasscom’s report states that 400 start-ups have been created in the past year, and that these companies have been granted permission to bid for government tenders.
As start-ups are an integral part of Sri Lanka’s growth strategy, the government has taken various measures to support entrepreneurs. These include fully automating the company registration process and offering loans with a subsidised interest rate as part of the Enterprise Sri Lanka programme.
Access to mentoring and investment from the private sector has become easier, too. There are now organisations that offer resources to help entrepreneurs go from idea to product, while meet-ups, conferences and pitch competitions now dot the calendars of the city’s entrepreneurs.
Run by venture capital firm Blue Ocean Ventures, Venture Engine (VE) is one of the biggest such events, and connects local talent with overseas investors. General manager Prajeeth Balasubramaniam says: ‘VE has had a tremendous impact on the ecosystem. Local tech talent is getting access to India, South East Asia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which are all within a five-hour flying range.’
Sri Lanka and its population of 21 million is a safe testing ground for concepts, but start-ups need to look beyond the island. Balasubramaniam is certainly doing so. ‘If we can get it right, we believe Sri Lanka can become a tech and innovation powerhouse,’ he says.
The Person: Jeevan Gnanam and Nathan Sivagananathan
Opened in January, Hatch is Sri Lanka’s largest co-working office space and business incubator. The 60,000-square-foot facility at Fort, the commercial centre of Colombo, is billed as a workspace that provides support and brings start-ups and budding entrepreneurs together.
Founders Jeevan Gnanam and Nathan Sivagananathan have been involved in the Colombo start-up scene for years. Gnanam was CEO of Orion City, Sri Lanka’s first operational IT Park, and a founder member of the Lankan Angel Network investment platform, while Sivagananathan – who grew up in the UK and returned to Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s – was the chief growth officer at lingerie manufacturer MAS Holdings.
Upon entering the start-up scene, the pair noticed that the local business culture is rooted in the belief that ‘Success is dependent upon others’ failures’. As such, they decided to create a space where collaboration and support would be championed. A little over six months since operations began, the space has already attracted a wide mix of tenants from local start-ups and branches of international organisations to government entities. Gnanam and Sivagananathan are also looking to open locations in other parts of the country, as well as expanding into Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Service: Simplex Delivery
Founded by Inas Jenabdeen and Thilina Fonseka in 2015, Simplex Delivery’s vision is simple: to become ‘the largest and the fastest logistics company in Sri Lanka’.
One of Simplex Delivery’s first major clients was the popular e-commerce platform Daraz, for whom it provides next-day deliveries and online tracking services with a system built in-house. While the company was initially self-funded and run part-time by Jenabdeen and Fonseka, it has since expanded hugely thanks to funding from Sri Lanka- and Singapore-based venture capital investment firm BOV Capital.
Now with 30 fulfilment centres and nationwide delivery coverage, the company caters to 270 clients, the majority of which are online businesses.
Competitors are springing up, but Jenabdeen told online platform Roar Media that he is confident in Simplex Delivery’s operation and technology – foundation blocks that have won the co-founders trust throughout Sri Lanka.
Ones to Watch
The winner of the Sri Lanka round of the 2018 Seedstars World start-up competition, this fintech company was lauded for bringing mobile payment technology to Sri Lanka.
Specialising in kithul treacle – a sweetener made from tree sap – founder Chanchala Gunewardene works directly with small farms to create her products. The brand won the 2019 Impact Entrepreneurship Award.
Considered Sri Lanka’s answer to Uber, PickMe is one of the country’s most successful start-ups. The company has six types of vehicles available – from tuk tuks to luxury cars – and operates in Colombo and big cities nearby.
Cathay Pacific flies to Colombo from Hong Kong seven times a week