Thai tech startups come to life under Covid-19

BANGKOK – Unlike Singapore and Indonesia, Thailand has so far failed to produce any national champions in Southeast Asia’s tech startup space. But the Covid-19 pandemic may be providing an unexpected catalyst for the kingdom’s laggard sector.

Singapore has Grab, a cab-hailing app similar to the US-based Uber which was actually founded by two Malaysian nationals (both Harvard graduates) who launched the service in 2012 as MyTeksi in Kuala Lumpur.

Between 2014 to 2020, Grab raised $5.5 billion in capital from groups as diverse as Softbank, Toyota and China Investment Corp, making it one of the world’s most liquid “unicorns” – startup jargon for a privately held tech company valued at over $1 billion.

Indonesia has GoJek, another cab-hailing app similar to Grab and Uber but powered more by motorcycles. In June this year, GoJek raised more than $3 billion in capital injections from various sources, including US tech giants Facebook and PayPal, along with Indonesian conglomerates Djarum and Astra.

Both Grab and GoJek have expanded rapidly into Southeast Asia, taking the region’s traditional taxi providers by storm. And they have both demonstrated their survival skills during the Covid pandemic by swiftly shifting their business models from cab-hailing, which took a dive during Covid, to food and grocery deliveries instead, which boomed, especially during the lockdowns.

Both startups have pioneered Thailand’s voracious market. Grab entered the Thai market in 2018, after buying out Uber’s Southeast Asian businesses. GoJek entered Thailand last year in the form of a joint venture with Thai tech startup Get. FoodPanda, arguably the first such food delivery startup in the region, has been operating in Thailand since 2012.