A make-or-break moment for startup-government lockdown ties

The Philippines, in contrast, is still in the early stages of such relationships. While tie-ups have been forged with the government in the past, startups have rarely participated in paid public projects. Appointment of startup founders to government cabinet posts is also unheard of.

“Compared to Indonesia, the Philippines government is still some ways off in terms of leveraging the country’s innovation capacity,” Filipino serial entrepreneur Winston Damarillo tells us. “But the crisis massively accelerated that.”

However, there’s a risk when the interests of the public and private sector are too closely aligned. In Indonesia, the Covid-19 crisis has blurred the lines to an uncomfortable point.

One initiative, in particular, has been called out in Indonesia—the Pre-Employment Card. Introduced to support first-time job-seekers, it has hastily transformed into an aid programme for those losing jobs.

The Indonesian government has doubled the programme’s budget to US$1.2 billion, controversially with funds from the Covid-19 relief package. Controversially because the initiative is being channelled through specific digital platforms like Ruangguru and Tokopedia. And no one quite knows how they were vetted.

The Philippines and Indonesia provide an interesting contrast. One worth studying at a time when the health crisis has made it necessary to define the rules of public-private partnerships.

Cuffing season

Cuffing season

The Philippines government was just starting to learn how to work with startups when Covid-19 happened, according to Damarillo, founder of Developer Connect Philippines (DevCon). DevCon is a nonprofit that aims to cultivate Filipino developer talent through various initiatives.

As the country’s startup ecosystem is in a relatively early stage, the government is trying to support startups. Last year, the Philippines enacted the Innovative Startup Act, which seeks to introduce tax breaks and funding for startups as well as visas for foreign startup founders and workers.

That’s not to say startups never forged agreements with the government before. Grab in the Philippines, for example, has had a tie-up with the local government of Valenzuela to make GrabPay a payment option for when businesses apply for government permits. Grab also provides first-aid and safety training to the country’s Highway Patrol Group, according to Grab Philippines public affairs manager Nicka Hosaka.

Since the pandemic though, such collaborations have ramped up

Grab has mobilised a specialised car fleet to five cities in Metro Manila to aid food and medical distribution. It has also deployed e-scooters to seven city governments that healthcare workers and village officials can use for short-distance commutes.

“From the inception of the Innovation Startup Act, the government already saw the value of startups and I think they had potential collaborations in mind. But Covid-19 has brought about the opportunity to collaborate more concretely,” says Grab Philippines’ Hosaka.

DevCon, meanwhile, with the help of 1,000 volunteer developers, has rolled out some vital apps:

RapidPass – a QR code scanning system to speed up vehicle and personnel inspections at checkpoints. Through RapidPass, individuals performing essential tasks can register and secure a QR code, which may be printed or shown via smartphone.