Team from left to right: Vani (Project Specialist), Aileen (Community Manager), LeiLei (CFO) and David Kuo (Co-founder)

If you’re keen to tap into Taiwan startup ecosystem — one of the most vibrant and prosperous markets in the world — you would probably see the succinctly illustrated ecosystem map below.

Like any other great project, this map is created by the joint efforts of many ecosystem builders in Taiwan, and behind the scene, there’s this man spearheading the whole initiative when nobody believed in its value at first. He is David Kuo, the founder of iiiNNO and curator of Puzzle-up Taiwan Startup Ecosystem Initiative.

I had the chance to talk to Kuo about the value of iiiNNO in Taiwan startup scene, the mission behind Puzzle-up Taiwan Startup Ecosystem Initiative, and where he sees Taiwan in the next 5 years across the global digital economy.

A hope for the next generation

“At first we were trying to co-organize Startup Weekend — a 54-hour entrepreneurial challenge powered by Techstars — to learn more about startup industry,” Kuo explained.

“As time went on, we realized there were only scarce resources to support startups from ideation to Series A funding in Taiwan, so, iiiNNO was founded with this vision to bridge the gap by providing people with the pre-acceleration programs and networks. We aim to give each entrepreneur a hope that, via proper resources, they’re able to launch a startup.”

“However, after we dug deeper into the macro problem in Taiwan nowadays, it’s actually more complicated; it concerns to a critical structural issue – wage stagnation, and this is the actual root problem I am trying to solve now through technology and startup innovation programs,” Kuo added.

Also Read: Whoscall, Taiwan’s answer to Truecaller, secures US$11.7M funding

Kuo‘s comments reflect a serious societal issue in Taiwan, which has been called ‘22k Curse’. 22k Curse can trace back to 30 years ago, when there were 4 developed markets in Asia that won the global recognition and the name of ‘Asian Dragon’.

These 4 dragons were Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. At that time, Taiwan topped the rest by showing unrivalled competitiveness through its annual economic growth, annual exports, foreign exchange and gold reserves. However after the Asian Recession in 1997, Taiwan economy has been stagnating without much progress. One of the key causes is the dominance of original design manufacturing (ODM) industry, where everything is about driving cost down, including employee salary.

“Because Taiwan was so specialized in ODM, we shifted many young talents into this industry, hindering the development of digital economy. This is the pain-point I am trying to extract now. By facilitating the growth of startup industry, I want to bring more value-added businesses into this island and offer our future generations a better place to work and live with.” He said, and exclaimed: “Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing this for my kids, your kids and any other generations to come!”

With this vision in mind, Kuo has been empowering startups to grow in iiiNNO with 3 major focuses on fundraising, market access and government resources. Each of them comes with a programme to support the specific group of audiences. For example, in fundraising vertical, there’s a ‘90 days angel fundraising camp’ to enable the startup founders to be investment-ready via a series of mentorship and actual angel investment matchmakings.

In startup world, it’s all about give-first

After founding iiiNNO and assisting startup partners with resource programmes, Kuo began to think of the next step and what can be done better to further help the regional ecosystem, and ‘Puzzle-up Taiwan Startup Ecosystem Initiative’ was the idea that came to his mind.

He said, “I saw a need when people in Taiwan were very lost in this fast-changing startup world or would like to contribute their insights back to the society but found no place to start with. The information was there, but scattered and unrefined. We need someone to compile all credible sources together in a specific portal or platform. And since our goal is to solve the industry structural issue, we’ve decided to act on to this without knowing that we were venturing into a whole new territory.”

To add on, Kuo highlighted that “at first it’s very tough because nobody trusted us. They felt we were sharing their critical information with their competitors. However, what we were doing was provide a thorough understanding across the ecosystem so that everyone can benefit from it regardless of the industry vertical, funding stage and whether they are competing with each other It’s about contribution to accelerating the information exchange, product ideation and cross-region partnerships.”

Also Read: AI and Robotics takes centre stage in Taiwan’s latest programme

Luckily, after continuous visits and pitches to the many ecosystem partners, ‘Puzzle-up Taiwan Startup Ecosystem Initiative’ managed to gain more support and shifted the online platform from a closed Facebook Group into an invite-only Line Group (500 people) and create its first ecosystem map in 2015 addressing up to 100 key ecosystem players, events, and platforms.

“It was a huge sensation! Ever since then, we have built up our own credibility and endorsed by many partners on how we should define the terms of each stakeholder and whom we should include in the ecosystem map.” he exclaimed.

Moving forward, ‘Puzzle-up Taiwan Startup Ecosystem Initiative’ aims to help international teams by offering guidances on expanding to the Taiwanese market, working with local government to develop more programmes, and scout out preferred regional vendors for different kind of business services such as, conference, media, soft-landing and more.

Taiwan – a united brand to expand overseas

In recent years, Taiwan has become a hotbed for startup innovation and is now ranked the 5th in the most high-tech cities in the world. Though it has no unicorns yet  Taiwanese startups have been catching global attention, through various news media, such as Appier17 Entertainment and The News Lens.

To echo with the ongoing ecosystem vibes, Kuo said “With the momentum created by recent startup activities, I hope to see Taiwan  shortlisted as the go-to market among every international startup founder, investor and other ecosystem players’ minds for soft-landing and market expansion. This is the ultimate goal of iiiNNO and ‘Puzzle-up Taiwan Startup Ecosystem Initiative’ as we are trying to make Taiwan a united brand to kickstart more regional inbound and outbound partnership with a consortium.”

“Sometimes the hardest part is not about finding the problem but about knowing the problem yet being unable to solve it. Thankfully, with the support across the ecosystem and efforts of iiiNNO and its partners, I am confident to see that in the next 5 years, Taiwan will grow into a mature and solid market catered to the startup industry. When that day comes, I know the time to end the 22k Curse is near.” concluded Kuo.