Techstars is hosting the first-ever Startup Weekend focused on the food tech vertical from November 29 to December 1, 2019, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The event is organised in partnership with Thought For Food, MaGIC, Pona, and Me.reka.

Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event during which groups of aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, form teams, and develop a working prototype, demo, or presentation by Sunday evening. This food tech edition will bring together 100+ entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts, including founders of major Malaysian new food, D2C, CPG and agtech startups.

We sat down with Philip Seifi, Techstars Community Leader and Co-Founder of Pona, to learn more about Malaysia’s buzzing food scene, the upcoming Startup Weekend, and how he’s helping to bring Thought For Food to ASEAN next year.

What are the main motives behind bringing the first Startup Weekend Food edition to Malaysia?

Most of the pressing challenges the world is facing today are linked to the food value chain, as are some of the biggest opportunities in terms of financial returns. Unfortunately, the foodtech vertical is currently underappreciated in the Malaysian startup ecosystem.

There is a history of academic innovation in the agtech sector, and programmes such as Crops For the Future (CEO Sayed Azam-Ali is one of the judges at Startup Weekend Food), but their achievements frequently remain uncommercialized and misunderstood by the general public.

To the best of my knowledge, Startup Weekend Food will be the first major food tech startup event in Malaysia, and we hope that it will encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to start projects along the entirety of the food value chain, from farm, to fork, to landfill.

Who can join?

Anyone interested in changing the way we produce, think about, and consume food in the future is welcome to join the event! You can come with a startup idea in mind, or join a team that is aligned with your skills and interests.

We want to make sure that we have a balanced composition of team members, so we limit ticket availability evenly across the following four categories:

  • Developer 👩‍🎨 Your computer is in dark mode, you spend your weekends on StackOverflow, and you can spin up your team’s prototype with your eyes closed.
  • Designer 👩‍💻You always carry a notebook with you, your IG is the envy of all your friends, and you turn discussions into something that tells your team’s story.
  • Business 👩‍💼 You know which Grab reward has the best point/value ratio, you sold candy to your school friends, and you’ll help your team commercialise their vision.
  • Industry expert 👩‍🍳 When you order food, you know where it came from and how it got there. You can explain ‘FDA’, ‘cloud kitchen’, ‘wet sales’, and ‘new protein’ to your team, like you invented them.

Members of the press and general public are welcome to join us on Demo Day on December 1st for an opportunity to see what the participants have achieved over the weekend, network with food tech entrepreneurs and investors, and taste new foods by up and coming Malaysian startups.

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, your involvement at Startup Weekend and TFF?

As CEO of Pona, I connect families through a marketplace for home-cooked food. Previously, I worked in the ed tech sector for 8 years, culminating in a successful exit last autumn.

When my co-founder Oliver Capehorn and I started Edulift, I was living in the Czech Republic, and had barely heard the word ‘startup’. The first Startup Weekend I attended in 2012, in Dublin, was my first exposure to the burgeoning startup ecosystem in Europe. I’ve then remained involved in the franchise throughout my entrepreneurial journey, first as a participant, and later as a mentor at Startup Weekends across Asia and the rest of the world.

I’ve long thought of giving back to the Startup Weekend community and organizing an event of my own, but as a digital nomad managing a fully remote team at Edulift, I did not have the stability to do so. My work on Pona, and involvement in the organization of Thought For Food next year, have now finally given me the network and opportunity to make this happen.

How would you describe the current food and agtech innovation ecosystem in Malaysia?

The Malaysian food tech ecosystem is in its infancy compared even to the neighbouring Singapore, which has just 0.7% of arable land, and imports more than 90% of their food! Government initiatives have mostly focused on fintech, AI, and e-commerce, and I believe ag & food have not received the attention that they deserve.

That said, there are a number of successful Malaysian startups in this space.

Bryan Loo (another one of our judges) has grown Tealive into a juggernaut serving over 3.5 million customers locally, and overseas. Dahmakan is doing some great stuff with cloud kitchens, Ento and Life Origin for insect protein (you can try their fried crickets and black soldier fly burgers at our event), Supplybunny for the supply chain, and CityFarm for urban farming.

There are also inspiring social enterprise projects such as Grub Cycle (food waste marketplace), PichaEats (catering by refugees), and Langit Collective (empowering smallholder farmers).

Are there any solution areas that you are particularly excited about that have great potential to scale in Malaysia?

Malaysia is uniquely positioned to produce startups across the entirety of the value chain.

There is an established agricultural and aquacultural industry with a history of innovation, and major challenges (particularly in the palm oil sector). Kuala Lumpur has a very competitive food delivery market. The government has also been actively pushing for Malaysia to become a halal tourism destination, which creates some interesting opportunities in the tracing and product integrity space.

Globally, I believe some of the biggest opportunities are in ‘forgotten’ and underutilized crops — both from a culinary and environmental standpoint. And quite selfishly, I wish to see more ‘new protein’ and Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) startups launch in KL, as I love trying new foods!

What are the prizes that participants can win, and opportunities/ post-event support that Startup Weekend provide?

The three winning teams will get exclusive perks, along with free co-working space passes at MaGIC in Cyberjaya, tickets to the Thought For Food Academy & Summit, fast track access and mentorship through the TFF Challenge, and more.

When it comes to pitching, do you have any tips that are often overlooked?

54 hours is a very short time to go from idea to something that can pique the interest of judges who have seen hundreds of pitches in this space.

It is easy to spread yourself too thin, so my tip is to focus on market validation and business model above everything else. A well-designed deck and a prototype can be important, but you should think of them as a way to reinforce your message and show that your team can execute across the board. They will not save your pitch if the foundations are not convincing enough on their own.

Favourite Malaysian food?

Vegetarian Bak-Kut-Teh — a meatless version of a deliciously rich, herbal soup of Hokkien origin. Cooked by a Pona home-cook of course!

What’s next in #food in Malaysia?

#thoughtforfood! We are organizing this Startup Weekend Food with a view to catalyzing the Malaysian food & ag tech ecosystem. The TFF event in Kuala Lumpur will then be an opportunity to connect these entrepreneurs to industry leaders from across the world.

I fell in love with TFF after attending the conference in Rio last year. I’m now stoked to be on the organizing team for the TFF Academy & Summit in 2020. We’ve done tremendous work over the past six months to leverage Malaysia’s hungry startup ecosystem, and I am confident that this will take TFF’s programs to the next level!

More about Philip