Remarks by Acting Special Representative for the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships Thomas Debass at Meet Taipei

Remarks by Acting Special Representative for the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships Thomas Debass at Meet Taipei (Photo: AIT Image)

Thank you.  What a privilege it has been to represent the U.S. Department of State in Taiwan during Global Entrepreneurship Week and be a first-hand witness to the incredible creative and entrepreneurial pulse permeating through daily life here.

Over the past three days, I’ve met with Taiwan officials and agencies, including Digital Minister Audrey Tang and the National Development Council, to hear about the ambitious Asian Silicon Valley Development Plan underway here, which includes a big push to help further cultivate the start-up ecosystem and calls for increased cooperation with the U.S. As Acting Special Representative for the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships, one of the top questions I have received during these discussions has been: “How do we recreate a startup ecosystem here in Taiwan and broader Asia that replicates Silicon Valley?”  While I’m happy to provide a few examples of successful stories that have shaped a culture of entrepreneurial success in the United States and hand you potential models to shape your startup culture around; frankly, I think the answer to success lies not in solely modeling yourselves after Silicon Valley and recreating the conditions that birthed it, but rather, looking at the creativity and great wealth of resources already in place in Taiwan and ensuring that both public and private sector stakeholders continue to foster it.  It’s clear from listening to President Tsai’s remarks that Taiwan is resolutely heading in this direction.

Take a look around you now—you are all representative of the innovative spirit and capacity of Taiwan and you’re here to connect with others who breathe that same energy in their daily lives. Among the top ranked countries for business formation, expansion, and growth; you’re the 1st in Asia and 6th worldwide, just after the U.S., Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden. You score particularly well in economic freedom and the percentage of new businesses with high job expectations.  That is something to be proud of! Whether you’re a startup founder, marketer, investor, or artist; you represent Taiwan’s talent for hard work and innovation. It’s thrilling to see how much creativity, energy, wealth of innovation, and artistry exists in Taiwan.  You have so much to work with!  My advice is to keep going— look within at your strengths, and maximize them.  A successful start-up eco-system lies within the fabric of your culture.

In fact, we at the U.S. Department of State are acutely aware of the innovative spirit that lies within each of you. Did you know that the global winner of this year’s third annual Fishackathon—which brought together coders, technologists, aquariums, organizations, and companies in 40 cities across six continents for a weekend of crowd-sourcing innovative solutions to address sustainable fishery challenges—was a team of volunteer coders from Taiwan?  Team Akubic received a $10,000 cash prize, awarded by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, for their solution—a unique low-cost water sensor designed to help monitor the potential locations of devastating Asian carp invasions in the Great Lakes region. The team’s application is a real-time tool complete with hardware, software, and cloud algorithm technology to identify these high-risk zones.

Supporting the ingenuity of Team Akubic and other coders and innovators is integral to the continued growth of innovation not just in Taiwan but around the world.  We need you!  We’ve seen the success of public-private partnerships in the U.S. and encourage the public sector in Taiwan to realize the benefits of engaging with the private sector and vice-versa, especially in forwarding entrepreneurship.

One of our successful partnerships is LIONS@frica, a P3 with major players such as Microsoft, Nokia, and the African Development Bank.  It was a platform developed in 2012 to  deepen and strengthen the landscape for tech entrepreneurs across Africa and help innovative ideas come to fruition even in areas exposed to conflict and hardship.  Within one year of its creating, the partnership had touched over 3,000 entrepreneurs in some way.  It has become a flagship initiative for us, so we decided to replicate it in Southeast Asia.

So, TIGERS@Mekong was born.  Like LIONS, it is a platform to super-charge innovation and entrepreneurship in an effort to boost competiveness and growth in the Mekong region.  It supports in particular young innovators and entrepreneurs.  Last year, TIGERS@Mekong hosted the first Mekong Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Summit which brought together early-stage investors, leaders of technology incubators, and organizers of co-working spaces and startup competitions, as well as universities, training providers and government officials.  The Summit promoted cross-border entrepreneurship and people-to-people linkages, and even provided seed funding for three multi-country initiatives to promote connectivity.  Through TIGERS, we also just held the Mekong Angel Investor Forum in October.  The Forum matched angel investors with promising startups, and gave new investors the opportunity to learn from more experienced investors.  I’m happy to report that there are already five deals in the works with early stage startups, and that there are active angel investor groups in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Programs such as TIGERS@Mekong and LIONS@frica are just two examples of ways in which the government and the private sector can work together to forward regions’ startup and innovation ecosystems.

Through Global Partnerships Week each year, we’re also committed to convening private and public sectors together to discuss the hows of partnership building. The U.S. State Department, in partnership with Concordia, Peace Tech Lab, and USAID, convenes public and private sectors together for a week each March to provide best practices on how to build successful public-private partnerships and features a series of programs and events to encourage partnership-building, as well as leverage private sector resources and leadership to promote sustainable development and opportunity around the world.  This year’s GPW, which kicks off March 6, 2017, will place a special focus on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are designed to promote global prosperity and include:  Goal 8, promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all; and Goal 17: revitalizing global partnership for sustainable development — particular areas of focus for our office.

The U.S. Department of State is also partnering with Unreasonable Group to launch a preeminent global initiative dedicated to scaling high-growth entrepreneurs worldwide who are best positioned to address the Sustainable Development Goals.   In recognition of the critical role entrepreneurs play in addressing global challenges and meeting the Global Goals, Unreasonable Group will identify 16 ventures – one for each of the global goals aside from Goal 17, which is addressed by the partnership between State and Unreasonable Group – and provide them with a unique 17 day accelerator program in the U.S. during the summer of 2017.  Throughout the program, we will align the selected 16 ventures with world-class mentorship, strategic financing, and access to a global network of support and policy makers.

The Department of State recognizes that tapping into the talents of our young people, promoting an entrepreneurial spirit, and engaging in cross-sector collaboration, is a critical mechanism for strengthening diplomatic connections, enhancing our development work, and promoting economic growth.

Just last week, Secretary Kerry was interviewed for Wired magazine where he was asked what the U.S. State Department would want from Silicon Valley.  He replied, “Partnership. Partnership; engagement.”  Why?  Because increasingly the U.S. government is looking to the private sector, academia, and civil society to help solve global problems.  Silicon Valley offers the potent mix of technology, innovation, optimism, and problem-solving that helps us work through global issues that we can’t solve on our own.  That is the beauty of public-private partnerships.  They give us the opportunity to combine our greatest strengths to solve often insurmountable looking problems—problems such as balancing cybersecurity with privacy, finding technological innovations to combat terrorism online, and finding new ways to balance our energy needs and economic growth while safeguarding our environment.

In speaking about Public-Private Partnerships in Asia, Bill Gates once said, “Public-private partnerships make it possible to multiply the impact that a single organization or company could hope to achieve working alone. These partnerships combine public sector organizations’ knowledge of local communities with private companies’ technical expertise and implementation experience. As a result, public-private partnerships can develop and deploy relevant and effective information technology solutions that solve specific challenges with much greater speed.”

However, we realize that classic barriers to entry for new businesses can sometimes include regulatory environments that are so stringent that they don’t allow for ideas to flow quickly and freely. So, how do we create an enabling environment for partnerships?  In the U.S. we are working to create easier paths for businesses to enter the markets.  At our Small Business Administration, we worked to shorten loan applications making it easier for small businesses to apply.  We also fund millions of dollars in loans each year to businesses that may not have qualified for a normal bank loan, making it easier for new ideas to get traction.  Efforts at the Department of Commerce’s U.S. Patent and Trade Office offer another example of how we are trying to support businesses.  In 2011, President Obama signed the America Invents Act to foster innovation in the market place.

It is essential for government to reach its audience through a variety of tactics and be available to help with issues.  Something we face in the U.S. is the idea that our government is removed from the people and unable to help businesses with their everyday challenges.  With programs like I’ve highlighted, we hope to dispel that idea and provide the government services innovators need to thrive.

Our message to Taiwan and to economies around the world is that an open minded approach to regulation encourages innovation and entrepreneurship not just in large corporate headquarters but also in small businesses and at a grass-roots level, to enable people across an entire economy to participate in economic activities in new ways.  And this is in part why, for instance, wireless technology developments in Taiwan are so exciting right now and emphasizing the cultivation of digital and tech talent is so important.

So, again, how can Taiwan create its own version of Silicon Valley?  It needs to harness and grow from the ground up what is already here, continue to foster the talent and innovation you already have in place, and then build connections with innovators around the world, in particular in the United States and South East Asia.

And yet again, the answer lies within yourselves—realizing where your strengths lie across sectors and working together for maximal impact.

So I invite you, Taiwan, during this Global Entrepreneurship Week, to think of ways in which you can continue working together across sectors to foster the great innovative and entrepreneurial spirit already in place here. This week celebrates people like you—the innovators, the job creators, brilliant thinkers full of bright ideas that drive economic growth and improve human welfare—and to be honest, make my job so interesting!  I’m happy to be here to help highlight all the good work you are doing and be your cheerleader for your work ahead!  Learn from each other, and support each other.  Thank you again for having me.