Umar Saif is just 35 years old and his name is already synonymous with technology in Pakistan. He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010, selected as one of top 35 young innovators in the world by MIT Technology Review in 2011 and received a Google faculty research award in 2011.
Saif got his PhD in computer science from England's University of Cambridge at 22. Then he joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do post-doctoral research. He worked at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory where he was part of the core team that developed system technologies for the $50 million Project Oxygen.
Saif now wears multiple hats in Pakistan; he is an associate professor at Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS); he works for the Punjab government as the head of Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB); he is vice chancellor of Information Technology University and he is the founder of Plan 9, a government-financed tech startup incubator in Lahore. He says there is a possibility that he might soon move to Islamabad to work for the federal government as its Chief Technology Officer.
PITB's work in Pakistani Punjab under Saif has been described in a recent World Bank report as "unprecedented in the public sector in developing countries". The objective of these efforts is to reduce corruption, increase productivity and improve service delivery in both private and public sectors. Saif said other provincial governments, particularly KPK's PTI-led govt, are now asking for his advice and help for similar projects in their provinces.
After a brief introduction by OPEN's Riaz Karamali, Saif started his presentation by talking about his work on SMSall messaging platform and how it has been used by relief workers, protest movements, political campaigns and social activists in the country. In particular, he mentioned Imran Khan's PTI's extensive use of his platform as a tool to organize the party's election campaign last year.
The featured speaker then briefly described a couple of companies in Plan 9 incubator: Groopic and Tunacode. Both of these companies are in a Silicon Valley Immersion Program funded by Google. He said Plan 9 offers facilities such as free office space on the 9th floor in Arfa Karim IT Park, a modern building in Lahore. In addition, there are monthly stipends, free laptops, uninterrupted power supply, internet connectivity, mentoring, training workshops, legal advice, connection with potential investors and customers, etc.
|Story of Pakistan's Plan9 Incubator
Saif then sought the help of his Silicon Valley audience in promoting technology. In the ensuing discussion, a number of audience members pointed out some of the work that Saif seemed unaware of.
I mentioned a Forbes story in its current issue that talks about Pakistan as one of a dozen countries where Sequoia Capital funded companies' founders were born. Fireeye and OpenSilicon are two such Sequoia-funded companies with Karachi-born founders. OpenSilicon has a design center in Pakistan. Rehan Jalil, a Pakistani-born Silicon Valley entrepreneur who graduated from NED University of Engineering and Technology, has a development center in Karachi for his latest cloud security startup Elastica. Wichorus, Jalil's earlier startup later acquired by Tellabs for $150 million, also employed engineers in Karachi. Idris Kothari's Vertical Systems Inc. (VSI), a hospitality IT company, does most of its engineering work in Karachi, Pakistan.
Sajid Sohail of Jadoo TV, who was in the audience, pointed out that his company employs 100 engineers in Pakistan to do the development work for his streaming TV box and network that delivers Urdu channels. Muhammad Irfan, CEO of Whizz Systems, said he too has engineering offices in Pakistan.
As the meeting came to a close, there was broad agreement that Silicon Valley Pakistani-Americans can and should do more to help promote technology in Pakistan. Muhammad Irfan of Whizz Systems suggested setting up a basic legal framework and a transparent process to fund young companies in Pakistan through a Pakistani-Americans' angel network. In my view, the first steps toward this goal should be as follows:
1. Analyze risks, allow the usual risks associated with tech startups and offer legal and financial protection against unacceptable risks from terrorism, violence, corruption and malfeasance.
2. Look at a Silicon Valley style term sheet for high-tech venture capital investors and build a legal and policy framework to ensure enforceability of its terms.
Without creating adequate investment environment, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to attract private venture capital in Pakistan.
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Arfa Karim's Inspirational Legacy
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NEDian Rehan Jalil's Startup Elastica Gets $6.3 Million VC Funding
Pakistani-American Stars in HBO Comedy "Silicon Valley"
Pakistani-American's Fireeye Goes Public
Organization of Pakistani-American Entrepreneurs
US Promoting Venture Capital in Pakistan