The signs were up in Cebu: the site of the starry careers of design artists such as Kenneth Cobonpue and Monique Lhuillier; recognition from the British Council as a Philippine creative capital, and a local business community eager to adopt creativity as anthem. The University of the Philippines (UP) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) had responded to these signs as early as the first decade of the 21st century.
They felt they should be contributing to the economic boom. The creative industries were an obvious niche that technology businesses could boost. Cebu was ripe for DOST’s technology business incubation program.
And soon enough, the UP Cebu Business Incubator for Information Technology (UP CeBu InIT) was in operation, actively seeking out potential start-ups in schools and creative communities.
Established in 2010 by UP and DOST, it embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign beyond the confines of the campus in 2011 to encourage potential locators from Region VII or Central Visayas, where Cebu is right at the center. The facility located on the third and fourth floors of UP Cebu’s Arts and Sciences building achieved full occupancy within the same year, dominated by start-ups from outside the campus.
Hotbed of creative technology
The hype was real: Cebu, and the region, was indeed a hotbed of emergent creative technology entrepreneurs.
In six years, UP CeBu InIT has nurtured 62 technology start-ups, half of which have already graduated. In technology business incubator (TBI) terms, graduation means being able to locate elsewhere on commercial rates and to pay their employees.
“Incubatees—whether resident or virtual—access our mentorship, consultations, training, venture financing, referrals, intellectual property services, etc.,” says UP Cebu TBI manager Jeffrey Montecillos. “There are times when they would feel ready and voluntarily leave. But what we do is conduct our usual audit and advise them if indeed they are ready to move out, or if we feel they still have phases they need to improve. But we don’t stop them from leaving. Of course, the space and services could be offered to other start-ups,” Montecillos adds.
After six years at full capacity with this graduation rate, UP CeBu InIT is not only an affirmation of the region’s creative technology entrepreneurship potentials, but of the technology business incubation strategy: that indeed, the government and academe partnership can survive and sustainably launch small technology companies into business.
DOST had been supporting TBIs all over the country since the turn of the century, but had had to manage expectations. A first batch of six TBIs preceded UP CeBu InIT. They included the UP-Ayala TBI in UP Diliman, which have since been taken over by the private firm. Three simply became common service facilities, while one was phased out.
What could have gone right for UP CeBu InIT, which belongs to the second generation of DOST-supported TBIs? Montecillos says he could point to its openness to the region’s talents as the only thing the UP Cebu TBI must have done differently. Whatever, it has been recognized by DOST as a benchmark.
Open to regional talents, self-sustaining
Montecillos says that DOST chose it among the TBIs to host the first summit of TBIs in the country late last year because of that status. He adds that DOST was particularly glad about UP Cebu InIT’s sustainability. Like half of its locators, the facility has become self-sustaining. It weaned itself from maternal support in 2013, three years after its birth.
“After being funded by DOST, we now operate on our own, using our revenue to cover our operating expenses. And since the TBI was set up until now, it has never had to rely on the UP Cebu budget,” Montecillos says. “In two years we were funded by DOST, before the end of the program, we saved a net income of P1.2 million. We used that to start our revolving fund.”
He adds that “Of the second generation of TBIs, we are the only one who really developed an operations manual, which we improve now and then.”
UP CeBu InIT is able to offset its low rates with full occupancy. Achieving this enables it to do what it sets out to do. Technology start-ups get to enjoy student talents from UP and across other educational institutions as far as Cotabato and Surigao hired by UP CeBu InIT for on-the-job training (OJT). They enjoy the nurturing mentorship of UP technology transfer and business development experts.
UP CeBu InIT has even gone beyond nurturing start-ups to actively creating start-ups. “We are piloting a program for UP Cebu students. It is supposed to be interdisciplinary. Coordinated with the faculty, we grouped students from Management, Design, and Computer Science in 10 teams. We piloted the program together with Cebu South Bus Terminal and Cebu Ports Authority. We sent the students there to do research on problems and develop applications to solve these problems,” Montecillos says. “We are very happy that they have expressed an intent to pursue three of the students’ programs.”
Montecillos says they can apply this strategy in forming start-ups with other universities.
In his mind, lessons such as this should be shared. He knows firsthand the value of openness and going beyond UP. It was openness that led to his UP stint. He is not from Cebu but Iloilo, a graduate of STI College, an outsider now contributing to the success of UP Cebu and the region it serves through his marketing expertise. He thanks UP for letting him into the team and to be of service.
And he considers the Gawad Pangulo for Excellence in Public Service given to the UP CeBu InIT an affirmation of why he continues to serve. The award affirmed UP CeBu InIT’s policy of openness so it could better serve locators from UP and from across the region; students in need of venues for professional, artistic growth, and entrepreneurship training; and UP and other TBIs as possible models for a business development strategy that’s still in its infancy in the Philippines.