ReliefAgad – an app to facilitate the distribution of cash assistance to poor households. The app eliminates fraud in the disbursement as households can apply for aid directly, rather than going through village officials.
From the agreement signing—where compliance standards were set—to the rollout of the software, the whole process took about four weeks, with DevCon volunteers working round-the-clock, says Damarillo.
It’s important to note though that none of the tie-ups cited above involved disbursement of government funds and were done by the startups free of charge.
But where public funds are involved, startup participation is still uncommon, says Damarillo.
In the Philippines, PPPs, or public-private partnerships, are typically large-scale infrastructure projects (such as expressways) awarded to top corporations. There are service and management contracts—considered PPPs in a broad sense—but most such contracts are still large in nature. As they undergo public bidding, PPPs usually take time.
“And the bidding requirements are rigorous,” says Damarillo. Participating companies should be majority Filipino-owned, in operation for a certain number of years, and have reached the minimum capitalisation required.
Homegrown startup Lifetrack Medical Systems, for example, wants to contribute its technology to the rollout of Universal Health Care in the Philippines. Lifetrack’s software-as-a-service platform enables rapid access of medical images via the internet, versus traditional on-premise radiology software.
But its COO Carl Ng says to participate in a contract bidding, the startup will inevitably need to partner with a bigger company which qualifies. For instance, a distributor of CT scan machines. Generally, Ng says there’s also some hesitation from Filipino startups to get involved in government projects.
“Contracting and deployment are faster with private businesses. If you have limited resources and you’re trying to show traction and product-market fit, you can’t wait years for the government to give you a contract,” he explains. “Our approach is to focus mostly on the private sector but pursue long-term partnership opportunities with the government.”
Blurred and crossed lines
About five years ago, there was a shift in the way Indonesian officials engaged with the private sector, says Thilma Komaling, who works for local AI startup Nodeflux as a government affairs specialist. Suddenly, government contracts began to be extended to digital services. Komaling also advises government agencies on various tech-related programmes.
During Covid-19, Lifetrack offered its platform pro bono to the local government of Antique province in Visayas—another island group in the Philippines—to identify and prioritise molecular testing using CT scans. Lifetrack also features AI partners that help detect chest CT patterns presumptive of Covid-19. This means in Antique, a public hospital radiologist can access CT scans outside the hospital and consult the AI partner for insight. Ng says they consider the tie-ups as an opportunity for the government to trial their service.
Filipinos were basically on their own during this crisis. We couldn’t rely on foreign suppliers. Hopefully this brings more investor confidence in the Philippines startup ecosystem.
But while the Philippines is at a trial-and-error stage, Indonesia’s government-startup relationships have moved far and beyond. And might be too close for comfort.