National Incubation Center:
Fueling Pakistan’s startup ecosystem
Pakistani startups have turned a corner in recent years, raising around $300 million so far this year. Safety & Security Today recently had a conversation with Parvez Abbasi – a veteran of the ICT Industry – who is also the Founder & Project Director of the National Incubation Center and a co-founder of Teamup to understand the remarkable work being done at NIC and Teamup, effectively fueling Pakistan’s startup ecosystem.
Safety & Security Today (SST): May we know about your education and early career?
Parvez Abbasi (PA): I grew up in the streets of London as a minority. I have mentioned this because growing up in a minority community helps you see things differently because they are treated differently. I am an engineer by profession and studied telecommunications. After graduating I started working for British Telecom. I didn’t stay there for long because I felt being a minority background my career is not progressing as it should be.
I always had an inclination towards mobile phones, even in the 80s when they were not so common. After my stint with British Telecom, I started my own business of selling and repairing mobile phones.
SST: What made you move back to the homeland?
PA: One day while in the U.K. I was browsing a Pakistani newspaper and got to know that the government is issuing licenses to set up mobile networks in Pakistan. I immediately looked up to see which companies had got the license and made calls to them. I came to Pakistan to explore the opportunity of working with the newly launched telecom companies.
SST: How much of a cultural shock did you get when you came to Pakistan?
PA: It was more than just a cultural shock. It almost felt as if I have landed on another planet. Back in the early 90s, there was a huge difference in how things were in Pakistan compared to where I came from. These days we have the same mobile phones and technology gadgets available here that are available in the rest of the world. Thirty years ago things were not like this, even fast-food chains were a novelty in Pakistan. Even today, how things are done in one country is often how things are not done in another country. But as I said now the gap has reduced significantly.
SST: How has the journey been from the time you moved to Pakistan to heading NIC and running multiple other successful ventures?
PA: Often when we see a successful entrepreneur we only look at their achievements. We rarely look at the years of struggle and hard work that led to success. Every successful person has a history, a history of unsuccessfulness, difficulties and learning.
When I came to Pakistan the telecom industry was just starting. I was very fortunate to work for companies at a very early stage. When you are young and starting something new it’s an exciting experience to build from scratch. This experience allowed me to understand how to build an organization at a very early stage. Mobilink (now known as Jazz) was one of those companies. Today it has 70 million customers and over 4,000 employees. Starting from scratch and building something so successful the process is immensely rewarding in terms of learning.
Then in 2001, I started my own company by the name of MobileZone. It all happened because I found myself at the right place at the right time. Around that time, Pakistan had a budding demand for mobile handsets but because of the situation arising due to the Sep 11 attack, many companies were not willing to come to Pakistan.
I was able to meet with these companies and bring their products to Pakistan. This was an altogether different experience from the corporate sector where you have a lot of resources. When you launch something of your own you are short on resources but you have to make the best use of them to grow. My corporate experience helped me a lot but starting from scratch to a billion-dollar company was another phenomenal learning experience.
As a company, MobileZone sold over 50 million handsets. This is not it, we also helped to develop and design phones for Samsung that were sold not just in Pakistan but in Bangladesh and India as well.
We didn’t stop there, we expanded to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East as well. Effectively managing operations at such an enormous scale was an exceptional learning experience considering the financial discipline and human resource management that is required in an organization when you’re generating millions of dollars in revenue every month.
SST: How was the idea of NIC conceived and how has the journey been so far?
PA: In 2014, I was living a semi-retired life in the U.K and I met my old friend and colleague Zouhair Khaliq (who is a co-founder of NIC). We wanted to give something back to the country that gave us so much. From our experience, we knew that when given a chance (like at Mobilink), young people bring new ideas and energy to make things happen. We had also seen how cellular services had not just empowered people but improved their quality of life as well, especially in the rural areas. We were convinced that if young people are equipped with the right technology they can make a difference and compete with the rest of the world.
Around the same time, the Federal government was planning to set up an incubation center. This announcement aligned with our vision and after going through a competitive process, we along with Jazz (as partners) were awarded the facility in 2016. NIC is a successful public-private partnership between the Ministry of IT & Telecom, Ignite – National Technology Fund, Jazz and Teamup.
We have an outreach program where people can apply online and go through a shortlisting and interview phase before being inducted. The incubation cycle for a startup is typically between 6 to 12 months that enables the founders to take their startup to the next level.
We conduct networking events for startups, have a curriculum and provide all other facilities ranging from space, internet to electricity free of cost for the period of incubation. Since its inception, NIC has been a tremendous success for everyone involved.
SST: Just to get a better understanding of the linkage between Ignite and Teamup, can you tell a bit how both organizations work?
PA: Ignite is a part of the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication. It receives the prescribed contributions from the relevant PTA licensees operating in the telecommunications domain. Through these contributions, Ignite funds its projects that include the NICs as well.
Teamup is a company I set up along with Zouhair around 5 years back and since then it has grown into a group of companies. NIC is not our only project, it is not more than 20% of what we do at Teamup. Basically, Ignite funds and Teamup runs it as a service delivery partner.
SST: What more is Teamup doing?
PA: The other work we do is consulting and advisory where we primarily focus on digitalization, human resource development and organizational transformation. Our clients include large organizations like telcos, banks, FMCGs, manufacturing plants and educational institutes.
We also have an Angel network that has people from across the world including Pakistanis who want to invest in startups. We hold events where startups have the chance to pitch to investors and it has been a huge success.
We also do a lot of work for educational institutes and have a platform called Career Launchpad. During our research, we found that approximately 500,000 students graduate from universities every year and another 350,000 graduate from Madaris (seminaries). There are not enough jobs for nearly one million graduates. NIC obviously helps in job creation and through our programs we have created over 110,000 jobs and more than Rs15 billion in revenue and investment. But when we talk to employers they say that 90% of fresh graduates are unemployable because they don’t have the required skillset. We are filling this gap through Career Launchpad. We offer three-month fellowships during which we do not provide just domain knowledge but also teach soft skills and conduct mock interviews.
Another thing we have managed successfully is Hackathons. How it works is that, over a three-month period we identify a certain problem. The problem could be related to any industry or area like healthcare or the environment. We then solicit ideas and crowdsource solutions to these problems.
This is just some of the work we are doing at Teamup.
SST: Globally, the percentage of female founders is relatively low when it comes to startups. Is it the same at NIC?
PA: We actually have a very high percentage of female founders. The global average of female founders is around 14pc, in the U.S. this rises to 17pc but here at NIC, the percentage shoots up to 21pc. The reason is that we have a daycare center with trained nannies. We also have an app that allows mothers to see their children in real-time while working. Our female founders don’t have to worry about looking after the kids while at work and I believe this is the reason we have a higher number of female founders.
Something I would also like to mention about NIC is that the facility is completely wheelchair-friendly. There are a number of differently-abled people that work here. We also have people from minorities, all in all, it is a very inclusive space.
SST: Are you satisfied with the growth of Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem in the last five years and what more can be done to further accelerate this growth?
PA: I am delighted with the progress we have made so far. In 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, $77 million were invested in startups. In just the first nine months of 2021, Pakistan has attracted more than $300 million as investment in startups. This represents an investment bigger than what has been invested in the past 20 years put together. Even the Prime Minister posted on Twitter back in August about the $85 million investment secured by Airlift.
SST: Is this investment likely to grow even more?
PA: There is huge interest in Pakistani startups. In 2016, there was not even one Pakistan-focused venture capital fund. Today, there are around twenty with a further seven expected by the end of the year. The Pakistani diaspora community is very active and wants to come to Pakistan and bring not just investments but their knowledge.
SST: Will this growth attract more young people towards entrepreneurial ventures?
PA: Definitely. Around 15 years back the percentage of young people who wanted to become entrepreneurs wasn’t more than 5pc. Today, more than 45pc of the students want to become entrepreneurs.
Not long ago there was a huge inclination towards securing government jobs because of the financial security they provided. Then there was a period where everyone wanted to work at multinationals because of the packages they offered. Today, youngsters want to launch their own companies and here at NIC, we want to facilitate them in doing so.
SST: Pakistan has a struggling economy. Can the growing startup culture in Pakistan become the tool of resuscitation of our economy?
PA: The common thing among global superpowers is that they have strong economies. These economies are driven by the major global companies we often hear about. If we take the example of the U.S., many of the companies there that are now the benchmarks of success like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google only started in the 90s or even later in many cases. Most of these companies had humble beginnings and started from dorms or rented rooms. These companies employ thousands of people, earn billions in revenue and pay massive amounts in taxes. They are effectively running the economy. These companies enable the superpowers like the U.S. to spend on healthcare, education and security. For Pakistan to become economically and militarily strong we need to raise similar companies and this can only be achieved through startups.
SST: Any advice for young entrepreneurs and young graduates?
PA: I often get invited to speak at universities and my interaction with students gives cause for concern. I say this because the majority of the graduating students don’t have any clue about what they are doing, why they are doing it and their future direction.
I won’t entirely blame the students for it because it also has to do with parents, the culture and the environment here. But young people really need to make an effort, they need to do things differently and utilize time effectively. Through our incubation and fellowship programs, this is something we teach with great success.
Research is something that doesn’t cost you anything, thanks to the internet. I highly recommend having an inclination towards research. For the final advice, I’d suggest book reading. Anywhere you get some spare time you should read. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People would be great to start with.