Umar Saif is Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and heads the Saif Center of Innovation (SCI, pronounced as ‘sky’), an incubator and training center for technology entrepreneurs and enthusiasts. Dr. Saif received his Ph.D. from University of Cambridge (2001) and Postdoctorate from MIT (2002), in Computer Science. Before joining LUMS , he worked and taught at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) for four years, where he was part of the core team which developed system technologies for project Oxygen. STEP’s Salman Basit spoke with Dr. Saif about SCI and the challenges and opportunities for technology start-ups in Pakistan.
STEP: What is the Saif Center of Innovation and what was your rationale behind establishing it?
Umar Saif: It is common in universities like MIT for professors to be involved in startups. Indeed, companies like Akamai, RSA, and 3Com were all started by MIT professors and have gone on to generate billions of dollars in annual revenues.
When I moved to Pakistan around five years ago, I found that, with some effort, I could carry on doing good research, but starting a high-tech venture seemed quite out of reach. Basically, there was no eco-system for a true startup: a small company focused on an innovative product or business model that makes many multiples of the initial investment. There was no VC money available, no clear exit route (acquisition or IPO), very weak corporate law with little provision for things like co-founder options or vesting schedule. Above all, even the best students from a university like LUMS were running after jobs from outsourcing joints, with no real potential for growth beyond a certain glass ceiling (the largest IT company in Pakistan is less than 300 people).
All of this became painfully clear to me when I started BumpIn.com in a small guest room in my house. It wasn’t exactly in the garage, but it was close enough (the guest room was directly above the garage!). We toiled, dreamed, and persevered for more than 2 years to be reminded over and over again how difficult it is to do a Silicon-valley style startup in Pakistan.
This eventually led to me to setup SCI. SCI is facility for startup incubation. It is big and well-provisioned (4 floors, 18,000 square feet of covered space, dedicated fiber-optic connection), but the biggest strength of SCI is its inhabitants. Everyone at SCI works for a single purpose: to create innovative products that can result in a $100 million company. My highest point of the day in SCI is when I see two entrepreneurs from different companies share their vision, technology insights, and dreams.
In a sense, SCI is not very different from incubator models like the Y-combinator or tech-stars, albeit we do not have the same level of funding, visibility, or access to lots of successful entrepreneurs as mentors.
STEP: SCI is an incubation center but also a “training center for technology entrepreneurs and enthusiasts” (statement from the SCI page). What kind of training does a technology entrepreneur in Pakistan need?
US: The training is mostly informal. What we share with each other on a BBQ on our rooftop is at times much more valuable than what 4 years at MIT taught me. I learn everyday from our budding stars. We hope to formalize more training programs going forward, e.g., business plan competitions, workshops on technologies, pitching.
For the activities, a startup is mostly an art, not as much as science. Our activities involve everything from discussing and refining business strategy, developing business plans, preparing sales pitches, raising funding, finalizing contracts, developing new tools, organizing PR campaigns etc.
STEP: Do you think that incubation centers can work in Pakistan in the long term?
US: Of course. They have worked in many countries. I was in Seoul a few years ago and was told that there are close to 300 incubators in Seoul alone. An incubator lowers the barrier for brilliant entrepreneurs to start a company. An incubator shares the risk, shares the highs and lows and mostly takes care of the mundane aspects of running an exciting tech venture. I hope more incubators will take root in Pakistan.
US: There are many levels of graduation. The first 3 startups — BumpIn.com, SMSall.pk and Seenreport.com — have all become profitable ventures and moved into bigger spaces with access to more resources and more room for expansion. We are looking forward to the time they outgrow the facilities at SCI and move into their own space.
I firmly believe that if we can churn out one success out of SCI, we will create a wave of brilliant students all wanting to do a startup. All we need is one success story – but its many times more difficult to come by in a country that no investor on Sand Hill Road is willing to touch with a 10 foot pole, and where electricity is available for only about half of a working day.