A chat with the Founder and Executive Director of BoardPAC Inc and IronOne Technologies
Lakmini Wijesundera, Founder and Executive Director of BoardPAC Inc and IronOne Technologies
(Pics by Pradeep Pathirana)
- If you’re a student these companies give free credits irrespective of whether you’re in Sri Lanka or US
- We are the fourth best market for cost-effective talent, but that doesn’t mean we are cheap either
- We think that because Sri Lanka is an island it’s alright to not adopt technology fast
- We are high in the talent side, but we are low in the venture capital aspect
Lakmini Wijesundera, Founder and Executive Director of BoardPAC Inc and IronOne Technologies will deliver the Dr. Ray Wijewardene Memorial oration today (September 8)on the topic of ‘Globalizing Sri Lankan technology : The BoardPAC Journey’. BoardPAC is an innovative product that is ranked as one of the best global Board Governance technology platforms by Capterra of Gartner Inc, the leading global technology advisory firm. Embarking on her entrepreneurial journey in the tech industry, she draws parallels between her passion and what must have compelled Dr. Ray Wijewardene. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Wijesundera shed light on her inspirations to advance her career in the field of IT, how the IT sector has evolved, startup ecosystems, issues pertaining to funding and why Sri Lanka needs to prepare itself in advance for a boom in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Q What inspired you to advance your career in the field of IT?
It was a journey that I took one step at a time. I studied maths because I liked maths and everything I have done was because I wanted to do it. In my time only four students did maths out of around 19 students. I had my primary education at CMS Ladies’ College, Colombo and we went through some troubled times. So my parents sent me to London to study electronic engineering. There were few girls back then and the situation was similar at Imperial College, London. But I always wanted to come back and do something here. Curiosity drives me and I was looking at what other people were doing. At the time there was a startup called Ceycom, a subsidiary of the Ceylinco group and this was a time where internet was barely available in Colombo with modems. So Mr. Kothelawala wanted to democratise the distribution of internet and the technology that came about were VSATs (Very Small Aperture Satellite). The project didn’t get realised the way it wanted as the technology wasn’t cost effective for the people. That was my next move. I was initially employed at a funded startup by Ceylinco and I was the first or second employee there and learned about engineering. I then joined LankaBell to see what a large company would be like. When I work for someone’s company I have to be within their scope of work, but I felt that there was something more global as both companies I worked for were local companies. I then looked around and talked to many people from overseas to see what was going on overseas with regard to my field of work. We then started a company from my parents’ garage. My mother came from an entrepreneurial background and she was very supportive of my work. I also didn’t have career pressure as such.
Q You specialise in mobile-based IT solutions and software development. How has this field evolved from when you first started off your career?
If I take certain sectors such as startups, in my case when I started, the startup ecosystem of technology didn’t exist. There were a handful of companies and there was no ecosystem there. Even ICTA came about much later. But today a young person from anywhere across the island has the ecosystem. One big player in the ecosystem is ICTA Sri Lanka. Then there’s a bunch of others such as Hatch, John Keells which have accelerators. There are multiple parties in the ecosystem today that if you want to be a technology disruptor or to start a company there are many programmes such as Hackathons etc. Now everything is being democratized. The internet speeds that and what we have are almost similar to that of US although there could be differences in parametres. If I have an AI company we have to use some kind of cloud system. So we can tap into AWS and if you’re a student these companies give free credits irrespective of whether you’re in Sri Lanka or US. The area that hasn’t evolved properly is the funding. The technology is there. We can build and create as good as everyone else but to grow the companies we need money. We find the various ways in which Sri Lanka operates in terms of foreign currency. Taxation wise we are better than the US but if we want overseas funding it’s almost impossible if you’re asking for a bigger sum.
If we take statistics, I can refer to www.startupgenome.com which is one of the world’s leading policy advisory and research organizations committed to accelerating the success of their startup ecosystem which indicates that we are ranked at the top in categories such as Asia’s affordable talent. From a global standpoint we are number 4. This means that we are the fourth best market for cost-effective talent, but that doesn’t mean we are cheap either. We are also ranked No. 35 in the Asian ecosystem of funding because Asia has many other countries which are ahead of us.
“The area that hasn’t evolved properly is the funding. The technology is there. We can build and create as good as everyone else but to grow the companies we need money. We find the various ways in which Sri Lanka operates in terms of foreign currency. Taxation wise we are better than the US but if we want overseas funding it’s almost impossible if you’re asking for a bigger sum”
Q Does this mean that the West is not interested in funding Sri Lanka’s IT sector?
It is not about not being interested. If you take the past year Sri Lanka went through an economic crisis and a period of instability. They are interested to invest in the company, but they want us to establish companies overseas, so that they could invest there and we can bring the money here if required. Therefore it’s a larger problem where we have to go out and bring these venture capitals and provide assurance that these policies are favorable to them. I believe that these are being attempted. We have had four years of this trouble. But there are success stories where Sri Lanka has received around USD 128 million in terms of venture capital funding between 2018-2022. But an average country usually gets USD 6 billion. So you can imagine how much less we are getting. We are high in the talent side, but we are low in the venture capital aspect. We have got exits which is where a company gets acquired. The genome says there have been six exits over the years, but the global average is that a country gets around 91 exits. There’s funding for smaller amounts. This is an area we have to focus on. In the case of my company we are looking for innovative products in order to take them global. But without funding we can only go so far.
Q Let’s talk about BoardPAC.
BoardPAC and IronOne have different journeys. BoardPAC comprise Forbes Global 2000 clients of the caliber of Mercedes, Petronas which is the largest oil and gas company in this part of the world, HDFC Bank, Bank of Singapore, Reserve Bank of India, Taj to ITC and other top Indian brands across all sectors and the Central Bank of Malaysia joined with BoardPac. We have done this currently organically where we haven’t taken equity funding from sources and we have done it with our money. But now we are challenged with moving our headquarters overseas in order to get the funding. BoardPac has six offices and clients from 40 countries. Things that helped me from within the country is recognition I received and now with the number of clients there’s due diligence. From a ranking point of view we are within the top three in our category globally for both portals. With funding we want to be number one.
Q Why is AI important to Sri Lanka?
We are living in the 4th Industrial Revolution ( 4IR) coined officially at Devos World Economic Forum in 2016. The 4th industrial revolution involves several key technologies such as AI, IOT, Blockchain, Drones, Robotics, Nano Tech, Quantum computing etc. -- AI comes forward as a key tech in 4IR.
Each past industrial revolution divides the world’s countries to two groups - the adopters and non-adopters. The adopters prosper and get ranked as first world countries, the non adopters decline and end up being the third world countries. The first Industrial revolution Steam engine, Second industrial revolution Electricity were both won by Britain and the western countries close behind, the Third industrial revolution was won by United States with western countries. This fourth IR has promise for many countries such as India, China and early adopting Asian countries such as Sri Lanka to leapfrog. But if we don’t adopt, we will be left behind from economic competition than in past IRs.
We think that because Sri Lanka is an island it’s alright to not adopt technology fast. But with AI the speed at which this will happen will shock us. Now somebody can easily ask a robot to write something and this would disrupt a journalist’s profession. Therefore journalists have to use ChatGPT to differentiate between an ordinary person who is just going to use it without any knowledge.
What will happen is they will write things that won’t have an actual value and normal people may not know the difference between a journalist and a robot. The same applies to industries such as agriculture etc. So we can’t be passive like how we were before. Earlier we could have survived, but now it will affect us. In fact our people need to be open-minded. AI is not to be feared. It’s an opportunity.
“The good news being a Sri Lankan is that President Ranil Wickremesinghe setup the National AI task force recently to officially announce and take action to be a technology / AI ‘adopter’. So Sri Lanka has set out its plan to be an early adopter and be in the first group of progressive countries
Q What is Sri Lanka’s readiness to be ‘an adopter’ and to work towards being a first world country before 2050?
The good news being a Sri Lankan is that President Ranil Wickremesinghe setup the National AI task force recently to officially announce and take action to be a technology / AI ‘adopter’. So Sri Lanka has set out its plan to be an early adopter and be in the first group of progressive countries. Sri Lanka is setting up plans to prepare and protect the industries and to be competitive ahead of flowing in external competition from AI and tech enabled countries. Plans are also underway to strengthen the work force of AI engineers and make people more knowledgeable by including AI in school curricular. This way children and the youth will be ready to embrace the massive flux that we will experience in Sri Lanka by 2030.If we do not get ready to take the opportunity and make it positive for Sri Lanka, we would perhaps be another non-adopter or a weak state.
Q What is your vision for Sri Lanka?
I have a lot of hope and optimism that Sri Lanka should do well. The ability is there. It’s not just up to the government. There are 22 million people and a good sized country with good talent etc. For the first time I heard a President say that he wants to steer the country towards a first world country. Many countries moved out of being a third world country, so why can’t we? Maybe there are other aspects as well but AI is one of those opportunities. The whole world has to move around a little and those who succeed in something that is trending could move out faster. AI and sustainability will help us get funding. In order to get skilled up we have to invite other people to come in and get trained along with them. If external entities come they are not given all the rights. The government is looking at it open-mindedly but people too have to get out of their island mentality.