Stirring up the Penang startup scene

  • BarCamp Penang, an ‘unconference,’ draws largest crowd yet
  • Exabytes CEO happy with buzz created from event
Stirring up the Penang startup scene

IT’S ironic that the northern state of Penang, the self-styled ‘Silicon Valley of the East,’ barely registers a heartbeat when it comes to the current startup scene in Malaysia.
The fact that Mark Chang of JobStreet is still considered Penang’s best known startup founder says it all. It was 18 years ago when Chang launched his first startup called and then selling it to Vincent Tan, founder of the Berjaya Group, before he moved on to launch his jobs and recruitment portal in 1997, moving to Kuala Lumpur to build the business after he got venture funding in 1999.
On the surface, Penang seems to have many attributes that should act as a fuse for a great startup ecosystem. Sun, sand, nightlife, a science and engineering focused university, a cluster of global tech companies in the semiconductor space, a pool of local entrepreneurs who have made money from being suppliers to the global tech companies, a relatively reasonable cost of living … and finally there is the food.
So why has it all failed to ignite?
Rather than bemoan their fate, blame the government or envy their peers in the Klang Valley, the current crop of startups in Penang is doing something about it.
Having formed a club called Tech Event 4 Penang, these startups are busy trying to create a regular series of events in the state to get those interested in the startup scene to attend and get excited with their interactions with established startups such as, and, among others.
The most recent event was BarCamp Penang, held last month. The third such event to be held, this year’s gathering had the largest attendance at close to 200 people. Described as an ‘unconference,’ it is a sharing and learning platform held over a full day.
The event in Penang is modelled after BarCamp, an international network of user-generated conferences (or unconferences) which are open, participatory workshop events where the content is provided by participants.
The first BarCamps focused on early-stage web applications, and were related to open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats. The format has also been used for a variety of other topics, including public transit, healthcare, and political organising.
 Stirring up the Penang startup scene
The Penang event however was solely on and about startups. Participants were mainly from the state, with a few from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and consisted of students, social media practitioners, startups, hobbyists and those just curious about the tech scene.
As one of the main sponsors, Exabytes founder and chief executive officer Chan Kee Siak said he was excited to see so many young entrepreneurs and those interested to become one themselves attending BarCamp.
“We always want to contribute back to the community and inspire more young entrepreneurs through our support for such events as BarCamp,” says Chan.
Besides sponsoring the event, Chan also shared his growth experience so far with a talk on the common mistakes made by startups.

All in, it was a good quality community event, he says of BarCamp Penang, which was held for the first time in a mall.
Organising chairman Ray Beh and TE4P community coordinator Curry Khoo say that the rationale for having it in a mall was to attract more members of the public to come and check out what all the excitement in the tech space was about.
The typical BarCamp is usually held in a university setting and indeed, next year, it reverts back to the usual venue with INTI University in Penang playing host.
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