Ministries will fund Chiang Mai startup hub

The northern city of Chiang Mai could become the next startup capital for Thailand and the Mekong subregion thanks to a joint venture between the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Industry to create an ecosystem hub for regional tech entrepreneurs, an official with the National Innovation Agency (NIA) said last week.

The joint venture between the two ministries is called Chiang Mai & Company, and the ministries said it would be officially launched before the end of this year. The company will open a one-stop service center that will, among many functions, issue smart visas.  The government recently introduced smart visas for those working or investing in startups and advanced industries such as robotics, health care and aerospace. Smart visas allow a foreigner to live and work in Thailand for up to four years without the need to apply for a work permit.

“The NIA will serve as a facilitator to set up this new startup hub. I think that Chiang Mai province is one of the most popular cities for startups from abroad as well as those based locally,’’ said Pun-arj Chiaratana, director of the NIA.

He said the attractions of the north would serve to draw ‘digital nomads’ and other entrepreneurs, as the area is already a magnet for foreigners. Techco, a website covering the global startup landscape, cited Chiang Mai’s affordability, climate, connectivity and culture as reasons to base a startup there. “Chiang Mai is often called the top destination for digital nomads,’’ the website said. Techflier website said that “Chiang Mai may not be as lively a tech hub as Bangkok, but the popular tourist destination is nurturing a vibrant ecosystem of innovative startups.”

Pun-arj envisions Chiang Mai as a home for technology trailblazers from neighboring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Those countries are lagging behind Thailand in terms of economic and technological development, and so Thailand would be a natural location for their small but growing numbers of digital savvy pathfinders who are seeking a place and a community that can support their ideas and goals. The joint venture company will assist them in doing so, Pun-arj said.

“Chiang Mai & Co will be able to attract digital nomads to the city and build up the growth potential of startups in the region,” said Pun-arj.

Chiang Mai has had a reputation for decades for attracting more traditional artists, craftsmen and business people from the region and further abroad who appreciate its culture, and quieter, greener environment compared to the capital Bangkok.

In addition, the NIA will also offer “angel seeding” grants of $47,000 to selected startups chosen under a program the details of which are still being worked out. The grants would also be available for students studying in over 800 universities and vocational colleges across the country who have solid ideas for startups, especially in the field of information technology.