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What is MOX, A Mobile Only Accelerator Doing in Taipei?

A hopeful look at the future of Startup in Taiwan

by Nicole on January 26, 2016

Have you been following the Taiwan startup scene? If the answer is no, I don’t blame you. Every time I take a peek I seem to be greeted with a series of unoriginal, often hyper local, me too pitches at events going over the basics of what it means to have a start up. Is this a harsh assessment of the scene? Absolutely.

Taipei is a city in flux, changes over the past few years have been substantial, government attitudes are changing towards startups and civic beauty has begun to weave it’s way through the tree lined avenues. When I found out that SOVC, a Chinese venture capital firm, US Fund that launched MOX, the city’s first Mobile Only accelerator in Taipei, I had to find out why.

Update: Looks like the government isn’t changing their attitudes towards start up after all, new news indicates restrictions are not being lifted)

mox 3

SOVC is a US fund which first appeared on my radar while in China a few years ago and stayed there because their accelerators have specific intent. Under their umbrella they’ve got HAX (Shenzhen/SF), for hardware, IoT and connected devices; Food-X (NYC), for food ventures; IndieBio (SF/Cork Island) a synthetic biology accelerator; and China Accelerator (Shanghai), which is the most ‘general’ as a mentorship based seed-fund obviously focused on China.

MOX, is their newest accelerator program and it’s designed for startups looking to develop a presence in South and Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. The accelerator targets the “next four billion”, which is the current portion of the world’s population that is still largely offline. Late last year we reached a tipping point where more people have typed on glass (aka a display) than have on a physical keyboard. Why they’ve launched a mobile focused accelerator aimed at emerging markets isn’t the question, anyone half paying attention will find their proposal painfully obvious. The question for me was:

Why Taipei?

image credit: Lee Photography

image credit: Lee Photography

MOX is the love child of SOVC and GMobi, a Taiwanese mobile advertising and Internet services platform. Startups in the program will have access to GMobi’s mobile payments SDK, as well as its advertising infrastructure. GMobi was was born of from an internal initiative at MediaTek, match making between app publishers interested in emerging markets and regional smartphone manufacturers in need of software. In 2011, the team spun off from MediaTek and started GMobi. Like most successful Taiwanese startups, they didn’t actually get any Taiwanese clients until later in the game, despite ASUS, HTC & ACER being an MRT ride away.

This answer makes sense, but if you’ve born witness to the startup scene here as long as I have, you would find this answer particularly satisfying.  Like a broken record I just kept asking “Why Taipei”, but before we get into the far more interesting and less official responses for what they are indeed doing here, let’s take a look at who thought coming to Taipei was a good idea.

Who is Looking to Take Advantage of MOX?

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Colin Hodge (left) & Alok Kumar Singh (right)

Eight companies are taking part in the first batch of the eight-week program and each receive US$500,000 in free push advertising on the MOX platform which reaches over 100Million smartphones. They will have access to monetization strategies in target countries and a steady stream of mentors with specific geographic and regional expertise.

To give you an idea of the types of companies working in the space: TappyToon is the “Netflix of comics,” bringing hit titles from Korea to global readers. Gift on the Go a cross­border platform for offline and online gifts. Users can send flowers, cakes and number of e-­gift vouchers through this app (Alok Kumar Singh above); & Bubbleye is using AI algorithms and proprietary machine learning that understands the relationships between users and mobile games to optimize mobile ad targeting. If you’re looking for a complete list of the startups, here is the MOX press release.

Some are first-time founders with have less sexy ideas (Demyst Data, which aims to unlock financial services by leveraging structured and unstructured data) while others have experienced founders who presumably don’t need help raising funds or gaining initial traction. In the case of Down, they have an experienced founder who is literally working on sex. Yes, you read that correctly. Do you remember the much criticized app Bang With Friends?

Colin Hodge, the founder of Down and the man behind Bang With Friends, is now working on Sweet, a less controversial app looking to become the ‘Tinder or de-facto app for emerging markets’. If Bang With Friends sounds familiar it’s because it went viral back in 2013. This spot on the Colbert Report will give you a sense of what morally devoid/generationally appropriate concept today’s project evolved from.

Hodge is a dating app veteran with several romantic concepts under his belt; before Bang With Friends he was worked on a dating app similar in style to Hinge. Bang With Friends was born from a night of heavy drinking and later, due to a lawsuit from Zynga lawsuit (ie Words with Friends), was forced to re-brand as Down. The change was a blessing in disguise as it allowed Hodge to create something a little less crude. However, maintaining a brand while evolving it doesn’t leave much room for fundamental change. Sweet is a fresh start, a softer more female friendly dating app that will be more palatable in sensitive markets.

Tinder hasn’t gained serious traction in many South East Asian countries and since there is no strong incumbent there is room for a new player. In terms of dating app adoption India, Thailand, Vietnam & the Philippines are behind the US which is due in part to the stigma still existing around using dating apps. But, it is clear that the dating app market in Asia is poised for movement, gay hookup app Grindr sold 60% to Beijing Kunlun Tech Company, a Chinese gaming firm,valuing Grindr at $155 million.

dating-apps

Dating apps in the emerging market have a strong potential for social change, in India some are looking promote equality for women and to break down the caste system. With such strong cultural divides between his intended markets, I can’t help but wonder when he looks at deploying Sweet in the predominately Catholic Philippines, will he consider marketing lines like “Jesus doesn’t look at your phone history” or “Do it for Jesus”?

Vying for a seat at the tablet, Hodge is looking to take advantage of Taipei’s prime location in Asia,since flights are cheap if you need to fly out or in to take a meeting. It’s also closer to the markets he’s hoping to serve with Sweet. MOX provides mentors with regionally specific expertise to provide advice on focusing the new product. Make no mistake, Sweet isn’t going to have the same frat boy vibe as Bang With Friends. Sweet will be focused on making the experience comfortable for women, “get the women and the men will follow”. According to Hodge, he’ll “be able to focus on the metrics and game the product experience. It’s something that you can’t do when you’re attached to your brand”. A more malleable brand will allow specific geographic customization which will be based on usage metrics.

Couple that with the MOX platform which among other things, will serve ads for Sweet to 100Million emerging market smartphones, and this should provide the breathing room he needs to focus on the experience of the application rather than merely gaining traction. Having said that, how successful the MOX platform is on actually delivering on those downloads remains to be seen, as this is the first batch of startups for the new accelerator.

No Seriously, Why Taipei?

taipei 101

The support that MOX provides is one thing, but the talent pool in Taiwan provides something completely different. Taiwan has talent and it’s not being utilized. If you’re not familiar with Taiwan, wages have stagnated for more than a decade; a new university graduate will make around 25,000NT or $800USD (that’s 10,000 a year!). A software developer with less than 2 years experience can expect a salary of 560,000NT to 840,000NT (18,000-27,000USD) in a Taiwanese startup. This is laughable compared to the six figure salaries being thrown around in Silicon Valley. The lovely Rui Ma wrote a nice piece about why Startups choose to be based in Taiwan if you’re looking for additional insight.

I kept on asking the MOX guys why they choose Taipei, GMobi has a large office in Shanghai so it would have been possible to run MOX there. But, if you make a quick comparison, Taiwan is less polluted and easier to live in… Personally I think they just wanted a break from the harder pace of life in China to indulge in the hot spring culture that sweeps the nation this time of year.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that they’re based in StartUp stadium which is government-run and has been desperately looking to build a community. Looking at the start up community in Taipei, it’s not absent, AppWorks has built a good following at consistent events, but even they aren’t upbeat about the future of tech in Taiwan.  My cynicism is not unfounded but after a few hours with the guys from MOX my cold dead heart was full of hope.

Why I’m based in Taipei…

Mobile Geeks is still very much a startup and we’re also headquartered in Taipei. I can certainly confirm that salaries are more affordable, counting my wages in there too since Taipei allows me to have a life style I couldn’t afford for similar pay in say, San Francisco. Living large on less allows me to have a work/life balance that I could not strike in more expensive cities. If you’re not following me on Instagram (you should) you’ll see my sampling of craft cocktails & indulgent foods high in cholesterol is persistent rather than occasional. Taipei is growing up and is convenience defined. It’s not as cheap as other South East Asian cities, but you have a strong, livable infrastructure which is often absent in less developed countries.

 Community Building One Pint at a Time

mox ryan

Courtesy of MOX Facebook page – Ryan Shuken

Every Friday night for the 8 week duration of the accelerator, there will be a talk aimed at providing insight, advice or free beer and nibbles to anyone who is willing. Though if you’d heard that this might be an event to meet some ladies, think again, between all 8 teams, there are only 3 women to be found. Granted tech events always skew heavily male this ratio lower than most.  Regardless, Taipei is in desperate need of community building events and of the two events that I attended I engaged in half a dozen truly compelling conversations and arranged for 1 other interview (FutureWard here I come!).

If you’re wondering what MOX get’s in return, it’s 6 percent of common stock in each startup. The eight-week accelerator kicked off on January 4, with its first planned demo day on March 3.

Sadly I won’t be in Taipei to see how it all turns out. I’ll be somewhere in Europe recovering from Mobile World Congress and preparing for CeBIT. But if you just have to know, the MOX fellas are active on Facebook where you can creep their shenanigans to your hearts content.