Chronicling John Keells X Part 01: What unfolded in April

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The John Keells X Open Innovation Challenge is a startup accelerator program run by the largest listed conglomerate in Sri Lanka John Keells Holdings. Currently, its latest batch is going through the pre-accelerator stage. Lasting three months, this stage aims to help the 15 startups accepted into the program, get their basic business model right, build an MVP, and find their first customers. Here’s what’s unfolded in this pre-accelerator stage during the first month.

Identifying problems and know what NOT to do

The very Tuesday meetup of the pre-accelerator stage was held on the 2nd of April. During these meetups, the leadership of John Keells Holdings share their learnings and experience with the young startups of the program. This first meetup featured Nayana Mawilmada – Sector Head Property Group / EVP JKH. He was joined by Roshanie Jayasundera-Moraes – Head of Sales and Marketing Property Group / EVP JKH.

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Nayana Mawilmada speaking at the first John Keells X Tuesday Meetup

Nayana shared how John Keells Property was tackling the issues associated with urbanization. Their solution is the Trizen apartments. The goal would be to provide great housing to as many people as possible, in the heart of Colombo. To achieve this goal and tackle the underlying issue of urbanization, it meant the designers went back to the basics.

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Roshanie Jayasundera-Moraes speaking at the first John Keells X Tuesday Meetup

This meant asking questions like, “Why do we need balconies?” The research showed that besides one balcony in the living room, no other balcony was used. Roshanie too encouraged asking such questions. She emphasized the importance of bringing the voice of the customer to the table while trying to find the answers to such important questions.

Lessons from the travel industry

At the second meetup on the 9th of April, we saw Nalaka Amaratunga – CEO of Leisure Inbound / VP JKH. He was joined by Dileep Mudadeniya – Head of Brand Marketing Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts, CEO of Cinnamon Life Mall and VP- JKH. The duo from the travel and tourism industry shared the lessons they had learned with the startups.

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Dileep Mudadeniya (L) & Nalaka Amaratunga (R) at the second Tuesday meetup

Nalaka opened by sharing how he started his career and joined John Keells to leading Walkers Tours. Having shared his story, he went onto highlight how technology has helped their operations. One example he shared was how by introducing a simple chatbot, their operational efficiencies increased significantly.

Nalaka highlighted there was still room for more innovation as many of their processes were still done manually. “If we have these problems then the other operators do as well,” he said inviting the startups to propose solutions.

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Later Dileep shared his expertise in marketing with the startups. He shared the story of how the Cinnamon brand was born and later highlighted the importance of planning for the future. Hence the Cinnamon life project, which was being built to ensure the Cinnamon brand tackles future competition as leisure spending would increase with increasing per capita income. His key lesson to startups was to place great emphasis on what their brands stand for while building a strong product.

Understanding how Intellectual Property Works

Later on the 30th of April, there was a workshop for the startups accepted into the program delivered by the John Keells Research team. This workshop introduced them to how Intellectual Property law works and how startups can utilize it effectively to protect their brands and other intangible assets.

In a nutshell, Intellectual Property refers to the intangible assets owned by a business. These are protected by law through a variety of measures such as patents, copyrights, trade secrets, and trademarks.

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During the workshop, the startups were introduced to these various measures and for what types of intellectual property they could be used to protect different intangible assets such as brands, products, manufacturing processes, and more. Of course, depending on the measure chosen, it can be an expensive process to apply it.

Furthermore, they have different effects and outcomes. While a patent can provide 20 years of protection, a trade secret can provide indefinite protection. Hence Google opting to classify its search algorithm as a trade secret rather than patent it.

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During the workshop, the startups also learned that there are processes to receive global protection for intellectual properties. Towards the end of the workshop, the John Keells X team offered to assist startups in the program receive such protection. Ultimately, the key takeaway from this workshop was the importance of brands and other forms of intellectual property. After all, this is what Facebook paid $1 billion to buy Instagram.

When technology doesn’t go so smoothly

Following the workshop was the next Tuesday meetup. This meetup featured Dirk Pereira – CEO of Union Assurance and EVP JKH. He was joined by Harsha Senanayake – GM IT at Union Assurance and VP JKH. The duo shared the challenges they faced in the life insurance industry and unique learnings from launching the Goyo fitness band.

Dirk shared that initially, they had done their market research. This research told them that there wasn’t going to be a large market for fitness trackers. Nonetheless, they pressed ahead. They commenced operations by outsourcing some of the key functions such as marketing and product development.

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Dirk Pereira at the John Keells X Tuesday Meetup

Dirk shared that initially they had a rocky start. So they took a step back and decided to refocus. They also believed in the vision of encouraging people to lead a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, they took the decision to bring everything in-house and look at all the aspects to make it successful.

While they still have an uphill battle to win, things look more promising now. Harsha reminded everyone of the importance of looking at the data while trying new approaches. Meanwhile, Dirk reminded the startups of the importance of credibility. He implored the entrepreneurs to always deliver whatever they promise.

This is only the beginning for John Keells X

These meetups and workshops are only the first lessons that the startups gained during the pre-accelerator stage. There are still many more workshops, webinars, and tuesday meetups planned. These are planned to give the startups ample opportunity to learn from the experienced leaders of John Keells, the panel of judges and international trainers. So stay tuned to find out more.

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