Founder Spotlight: Lionel Belen and Artie Lopez of BrainSparks
Creating a Spark in the Philippine Start-Up Scene
TechShake recently had the opportunity to interview BrainSparks’ Lionel Belen, its founder & CEO and Artie Lopez, one of its start-up coaches. They have worked with different companies, from venture capital firms to mobile development companies and banks. They have proven that they have the experience for educating entrepreneurs. BrainSparks is an innovation hub both based in Makati City and Batangas. They provide a co-working space for future entrepreneurs that want personal mentoring and coaching.
Q1: “What is your company’s profile?”
BrainSparks is an innovation and start-up hub established by the First Asia Institute of Technology and Humanities (FAITH) with an exclusive close partnership with First Asia Venture Capital Inc. (First Asia). BrainSparks, together with FAITH, brings research and innovation to the start-up community by providing networking experience, mentorship programs, and personal coaching to entrepreneurs. We also do the business matching for our start-ups to introduce them to their potential clients, investors, and suppliers. The purpose of BrainSparks is to turn our client’s ideas, skills, and talents into valuable jobs.
Q2: “What is your personal background?”
Artie Lopez: I graduated from De La Salle University-Manila with a degree in Information Technology. I worked as a product development manager for Chikka, a Philippine-based instant messaging application. I left Chikka to work for similar companies like mTouch, Interchan, Ayannah, and Bubble Motion. Since I was beginning to become restless, I left the corporations and the country to join The Founder Institute, a Silicon Valley-based start-up incubator. I served as a mentor for start-ups. During my time there, I realized that I want to do my part in contributing to the growth of the Philippine start-up ecosystem. So I left my job there in order to become a professional start-up coach in the Philippines, especially since Lionel invited me to join BrainSparks last 2015.
Lionel Belen: I graduated from Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in Economics. I joined RCBC Savings Bank after graduating from college. I started as a management trainee and ended up as a business system analyst. After working there for two years, I joined First Asia since it is our family business. During my time there, I developed a project to create a start-up incubator. I did my research on launching my own business and soon, BrainSparks appeared in the start-up scene last 2014.
Q3: “Where do you educate and provide coaching and mentorship for aspiring entrepreneurs?”
My father started five businesses before; four of them succeeded. First Asia was established to act as a holding company for these businesses. First Asia was since incorporated in 1983. He also founded FAITH, an institution of higher learning based in Tanauan City, Batangas, with roughly over 3,000 students. Because our vision is to educate the start-up community, we partnered with them (also because we had an office nearby) to reach out to a bigger audience by promoting intellectual leadership and global competitiveness to its students. As for our office in Makati, it serves as a technology-driven hub where we conduct our personal coaching and mentoring.
Q4: “How did you come up with the name BrainSparks?”
We were looking for a good name for our business. I was recently checking the name of other companies like Facebook and LinkedIn. You could see that their names were two words combined. In fact, a lot of start-up companies have the same concept. Those two words signify the company’s brand, and I want that to happen with our brand. We looked for many words and found that the words “brain” and “sparks” match our vision. Our idea behind our brand was to connect the components of the start-up community together, forming a network. The network signifies the “brain” and its members are the “cells.” Now someone has to connect them to each other so the “brain” would form a series of “sparks” – ideas for innovation and opportunities. We would serve as the connection between these “brain cells,” hence the name BrainSparks.
Q5. “What are the problems of the Philippine start-up ecosystem?”
We recently attended Tech in Asia Singapore 2016 last April. It is a conference showcasing different start-ups around the continent. We were surprised that there were no Filipino start-ups participating in the event, though there were five of them in last year’s run. This is an evidence of how lacking and young the Philippine start-up ecosystem is. There are less than 500 start-ups here. One of the problems of the local start-up scene is the lack of funding. Four years ago, only telecoms started incubators here. Most seed capitals are coming from local private investors. But when it comes to riskier ventures, the funding would come from foreign venture capital firms.
There is also the issue of media coverage. Filipinos are unfamiliar with the local start-up scene. They probably do not know it even exists. In other countries, the media showcases and distributes information on various start-ups. Their information is dispersed. But in the Philippines’ case, start-ups do not get any media coverage at all. The last issue is on education. Local entrepreneurs educated on tech entrepreneurship need to know how it works, its risks, and its returns. That is where we come in. BrainSparks offers them a chance to be educated on the matter.
Q6: “What kind of government support would be necessary to nurture start-up ecosystem in the Philippines?
Only recently did the government start a lot of initiatives to help the local start-up ecosystem. Senator Bam Aquino, the nephew of the outgoing president, was a social entrepreneur before he entered politics. Since he knows the struggles of growing your own business, he spearheaded the government’s contribution to the expansion of the start-up ecosystem. The legislative branch has passed bills and created budgets to support us. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has been bringing the members of the start-up community to schools to convince students that there are opportunities for them as entrepreneurs. Besides that, they are also allocating funds to plant start-up hubs in universities.
But it is not enough. We are hoping that government officials would create a safe environment for start-ups. One of the problems the start-up ecosystem faces is the tax. There are a lot of taxes (Income Tax, Value Added Tax, Withholding Tax, et al.) that prevents an entrepreneur from creating his own start-up. The second and most significant problem is the difficulty of closing a business. It would take years to close a company because you need to go through different agencies, process paperwork, and pay terminal fees.
I hope that the government would enact stricter but easier measures for us soon.
Q7: “What is the difference of BrainSparks from other innovation hubs?”
The biggest difference we have from the others is our priorities. If you would look at the other innovation hubs, their first priority is to earn a profit and not to innovate. For us, it is the other way around. BrainSparks’ main duty is to support entrepreneurs by educating them. Our main goal is to innovate with these bright individuals, not to function simply for the sake of earning a profit.
Q8: “What are the events BrainSparks’ hosts?”
“Looking For” is a community-networking event where entrepreneurs and investors share their start-up stories, get to know each other, and build relationships. This event would help the participants get to know their future mentors, co-founders, and employees. Meanwhile, we have “Connect,” a series of talks where our invited speakers present their experiences and observations about their respective professions. It is meant to teach the start-up community. The last event we host is “Sparkathon.” It’s hackathon where we invite web engineers and designers to teach the attendees the basics of Open Source Hardware, Design Thinking, and Customer Development.
The purpose of these events is to foster common understanding within the community while collaborating to solve problems of the local start-up scene.
Q9: “Do you think the local start-up trend would continue to rise?”
Even though the local start-up scene is young and not as developed as others, you could not deny how fast it is rising. What people do not know is that our country is not affected by external problems. For example, we are not affected by Greece’s financial crisis or China’s stock market crash because we are still detached from the foreign market. In my opinion, even if the start-up investment in the US declines, the investment here would not be strongly affected. On the other hand, I do expect that our local start-up trend would continue to rise because investments would increase. Our infrastructures and the quality of our businesses are expected to improve, attracting foreign investors around the world.
Q10: “What kind of co-working space do you want to create in the near future?”
In other countries, start-ups and investors are clustered together. In the Philippines, they are dispersed everywhere. I want to create a hub that brings each component of the local start-up ecosystem under one roof. Everybody should be in a single space to connect better. I believe if the Philippines’ most intelligent entrepreneurs and investors formulate ideas while working together in one area, we could then provide solutions for our problems. It is the right time to be competitive. We would not achieve efficiency until we are fully connected with each other. I want my future innovation hub to do just that.