mai Bangkok Business Challenge proves there’s still room for the entrepreneurial spirit

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One of my great concerns about the global economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis is how central banks’ money-printing bonanzas are falling way short of reinvigorating the economic engine. Instead of using the newly-created money to finance businesses, banks are using it to speculate on the markets – cases like the ‘London Whale’ serve to emphasise this point.

This comes at a great cost to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship and new business start-ups play a crucial role in any modern economy. Many of the technological giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Apple began life as small start-ups with big ideas. The German economy, which seems to be propping up much of Europe right now, would be nowhere without these vital components. Going back in history, the resurgence of post-war Japan, Italy and France and even the economic emergence of the US in the late nineteenth century were all formed on the basis of entrepreneurs and start-ups.

It was with great pleasure then, that I was invited once again to be on the judging committee at the mai Bangkok Business Challenge at Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration. In the Challenge, representatives of business schools from all over the world presented business plans and competed for H.M. the King of Thailand’s Award as the best entrepreneurs with the best start-up business. The Challenge was first held in 2002 and has gone from strength to strength ever since. In the last two annual editions, most of the plans involved technology and products that were environmentally friendly and socially beneficial.

The 2014 version of the Challenge took place a couple of weeks ago, where 16 semi-finalists were split into four groups.  They each provided a business plan to the judges and the winners of each group moved on to the finals, where they presented their business to the judges. Chanitr Charnchainarong, Executive Vice-President of the SET, was chairman of the judging committee.

The entries were hugely impressive and made me optimistic that entrepreneurship is not dead and buried even in this era of limited access to investment. Business plans covered a vast array of sectors, namely: solar-powered energy, water supply, agriculture, building materials, software, disaster relief, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, packaging, biomechanical engineering, education and food. It was very heartening to see such high-quality innovation in so many areas which touch ordinary people’s lives.

The winning entry was Lemna Cropping System, from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia – the second straight year that the winner has come from this institution. The company is a producer of an alternative source of high-value, high-protein animal feed made from lemna, an aquatic plant crop. Over two decades of university and government R&D has shown that lemna far surpasses traditional plant protein sources such as soybean meal and the team showed how this could be put into use.

The runner-up was RediGen, from the host institution, Sasin. The team presented a material invented by one of its members, called Multifunctional-composite (MF-cpo), which is produced from 100% recycled components that can mimic and enhance current materials used, such as brick, drywall, wood and plastic.

The four other finalists presented business plans for a chemical blend which inhibits corrosion (A-76 Corrosion Inhibitors from Rice University, USA); an Asian internet platform which provides a marketplace for trading surplus chemicals (Offstock Pte. Ltd., Nanyang Technological University, Singapore); providing solar lanterns to rural communities in India (Vikaas, INSEAD, Singapore); and the eradication of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ZYMtronix Catalytic Systems Inc., Cornell University, USA).

As well as the H.M. the King of Thailand’s Award and accompanying prize money which went to the winners, there were also awards for the best plans and pitches in each group, best exhibit and four Recognition of Sustainability awards, which went to the teams with the most environmentally-friendly projects.

Seeing the combination of exceptional research and development, innovation and a large dose of entrepreneurship gives great relief from the overall economic doom and gloom which is amongst us today. If the central banks could get the money to such enterprises, we would see a real economic upturn than benefitted the majority, not just the very few.

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