Vickers Venture’s Deep Expertise in Emerging Trends: Our Goal is To Give Back & Own the World of 20 and 30-Somethings

Tan, though, remains unfazed. He says the firm’s first three funds are seed-stage funds, which take a longer period of time—about 15 years—to mature. The underperforming Fund III, says Tan, still has another four years before it will be closed. Vickers has already signed to partially exit two companies which will return 20% to the fund, bringing the DPI up to 37%, he adds.

“We have also received interest, including one term sheet that could see another 60% returned to investors, which we are still considering. We still have some time so we will weigh the DPIs versus overall return from an IRR perspective,” explains Tan.

Investments Recently Made by Vickers Venture Capital Partners

Investments Recently Made by Vickers Venture Capital Partners

Vickers does have some exit prospects on the horizon. Several companies in its portfolio are looking to go public in the next few years. One of them is US-headquartered analytics company KPISOFT, which Vickers first invested in via its Fund V in September 2016. “They originally wanted to go public last year using the JOBS Act in the US, but we looked at the companies that went public—they didn’t perform very well and the liquidity was low,” says Tan.

These are the three companies that I’ve bet on using 15% of a fund. So far, two (Samumed and Baidu) have paid off handsomely, and RWDC is on track to do the same as well. I think it will be a unicorn by the end of 2020 or early 2021.


Instead, the company has now decided to go public via the conventional route. This means it will take a few more years to build up its revenue and size. “We’re targeting to go public in 2022, and hopefully it will be a unicorn by then,” says Tan.

Big bets
As it looks to raise a further US$300 million for Fund VI, though, Vickers is banking heavily on Samumed’s prospects to attract LPs.

Vickers has a rule when it comes to betting heavily on a single company—it is only allowed to invest up to 20% of the fund on one company. Vickers invested 15% of its US$81.1 million Fund IV into Samumed.

Tan was introduced to Samumed by his San Diego-based co-founder Khalil Binebine, who was a practicing medical doctor in New York. “The first call [Binebine] gave me [after meeting Samumed] was, ‘Finian, I’ve found god’s bill’,” he recalls. “That was the beginning. The rest, as they say, is history. We’re very, very excited about Samumed and it’s the largest company in our portfolio at the moment.”

In documents accessed by us, Samumed is Vickers’ “best-performing” deal so far. The firm expects it to deliver between 10-83X returns, although there is yet no exit on the horizon so far.

Samumed is attempting to develop drugs that could repair or regenerate human tissues by targeting the Wnt signaling pathway, a regulator for cellular processes. The company’s lead project, lorecivivint, is a drug meant to treat knee osteoarthritis.

How Deep Tech is Perceived in the Funding Space And What Kinds of Rewards it Gives Back to Investees

Vickers’ other exits include real estate investment firm Cambridge Industrial Trust, which went public in Singapore in 2005. It subsequently sold to a joint venture between the National Australia Bank and Oxley Capital in 2008. That sale saw Vickers make a 26X return with an internal rate of return (IRR) of about 190%.

But it was in 2009 that the firm began to morph into the deep-tech-focussed entity it is today. This happened after Tan realised the hard science knowhow abundant in his team. Out of a team of 23, eight have a doctorate in hard sciences. Tan himself has a bachelors, a masters of philosophy and a PhD in engineering—the latter two from the University of Cambridge.

Mediocre fund performance

Mediocre fund performance

Towards the end of March, a full-page story on Vickers’ US$200 million fundraise appeared in Singapore’s Business Times newspaper. Along with it, there was a table of its funds’ performance, taken from the firm’s website.

It is unusual for a global venture firm to display its fund multiples and IRR like this, says a venture funding consultant who asked not to be named. But while Vickers’ transparency could be applauded, the contents of the table didn’t make for particularly good reading.

Armed with this expertise, Tan realised Vickers was better than most at understanding whether a technology would work, as compared to evaluating consumer-focussed companies.

After Vickers’ pivot to deep tech, Tan realised that the firm’s projected returns moved from single-digit multiples to double-digits. “Our write-off rate used to be about 21% and now it’s about 9%,” he told us in an interview.

More IPOs

Vickers might also have another exit up its sleeve that could materialise by end of the year, says Tan. However, it is also dependent on public market sentiments as the unidentified company plans to go public in China.

While financial data platform Preqin declined to share specific fund performance details with us, others are decidedly unimpressed. The co-founder of a regional VC firm says that the performance of Vickers’ second and third funds was “horrible”.

The firm debuted with a US$9 million fund. According to investment data reviewed by us, the fund has a distribution to paid-in capital (DPI) of 214.6%. In other words, it returned 2.1X of the first fund to its limited partners over the fund’s 15-year existence.

Fund II, which was closed in 2006 at US$32.7 million, has only generated a DPI of 104.3% as of September 30, 2019. For Fund III, which was closed in 2009 at US$62.5 million, the DPI was 16.9%.

“For a fund that is 11 years old, it should’ve been shut down and be done with already because a normal fund life is about 10 years,” says a regional venture capitalist who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to discuss a fellow investor publicly. “Second, this fund has only returned 16.9% of money to LPs—that’s quite a disaster.”

The Advantages to Shipping Multiple Products From One Company

Emergex, though, is still a risky bet for Vickers. The vaccine space is crowded; some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, like Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, and big donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and BARDA, are racing to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.

The crown jewel in Vickers’ portfolio, though, is Samumed, a San Diego-based regenerative medicine technology company. In 2012, Vickers invested 15% of its US$81.1 million fourth fund into Samumed. The company’s most recent fundraise—a US$438 million round—in 2018 valued it at US$12 billion. Almost single-handedly, Samumed has turned Fund IV into one of the top-performing funds in the world—Vickers has projected returns of 42X for it.

Turning to deep tech

Turning to deep tech

“We like deep-tech startups because they typically aim to solve a real problem in a breakthrough way. Because of this, the value is much more defensible compared to, say, a consumer-discretionary tech business,” says Paul Santos, managing partner at Singapore-based Wavemaker Partners.

“Many deep-tech startups will tend to have valuable intellectual property (IP) or trade secrets that allow them to earn high margins and basically ‘print money’ if they get things right,” adds Santos. Wavemaker focusses on seed funding in enterprise and deep-tech startups across Southeast Asia. Biotech companies like Emergex are particularly likely to grow in status and value given the prevailing Covid-19 crisis.

Samumed and deep tech notwithstanding, Vickers’ funds haven’t all been runaway hits. In fact, its fund performance has been rather mediocre, according to experts. With only five full exits (and six partial exits) to date, its limited partners are yet to see great returns.

Take its Fund II, for example. As of the quarter ended September 2019—some 13 years into the fund’s existence—Vickers estimates a multiple of just 2.58X. This sort of return is paltry, given how much time has passed. The fund’s internal rate of return (IRR) stands at just 11%. Finian Tan, Vickers’ co-founder and chairman, however, is a study in confidence.

Before Baidu

Prior to DFJ, Tan had a brief stint as the deputy secretary of trade and industry in the Singaporean government. He claimed to oversee the creation of the billion-dollar Technopreneurial Innovation Fund to boost tech investments in the city-state.

With the spoils from the Baidu deal, where Tan took up his carried interest in the form of shares, he began life as chairman and co-founder of Vickers in 2005. To date, the firm has raised just over half a billion dollars. One of its earliest investments was the Asian Food Channel (AFC), a Southeast Asian pay television channel. AFC was sold to American media company Scripps Networks Interactive in 2013 for US$66 million, giving Vickers a solid exit. According to a pitch deck obtained by us, Vickers exited AFC with a 5X return.

Prior to starting Vickers, Tan’s biggest claim to fame was a shrewd US$7.5 million investment in what was then a newly created and little-known Chinese search engine called Baidu. At the time, Tan was helming the Asian operations of Silicon Valley VC Draper Fisher Jurvetson ePlanet. By the time Baidu went public on the NASDAQ in 2005, the VC’s 28.1% stake was worth around US$1 billion.

Their success depends too much on funding and not enough on self-generated cash flow

Narayanan declined to comment when approached for this story. A Zilingo spokesperson said the nCinga team now manages Zilingo’s Saas business.

Like other Zilingo strategies, a core issue was inconsistent decision making. Despite significant hiring, many of the key leadership came from consulting or finance backgrounds and were early in their careers, the former employees said. High management churn in the US, too, made Zilingo prone to changing course, which was exacerbated by a disconnect between management and staff, another person said.

With a refocus on Southeast Asia, many of the octopus tentacles will be severed. But that may not be a bad thing in the short time, some company insiders believe.



B2B fashion sourcing for SMEs, small brands and manufacturers accounts for around 95% of Zilingo’s revenue, according to a senior executive at the startup. We previously reported that Zilingo’s take-home revenue is around $200 million per year.

One of the former employees, who was involved in the US operations, told us that building out Zilingo’s base could give it a foundation for a renewed pitch to brands and influencers, starting in Southeast Asia. “Combining technology and the B2B supply chain is still a billion-dollar idea,” they said.

Investors, too, have pared down expectations in the short term.

“The main focus now is B2B sourcing,” a Zilingo investor told us anonymously as they are not permitted to speak to the media. “It is still very valid and what we are excited about.”

The investor said the closure of retail stores, supply chain uncertainties and more still give Zilingo a chance to make “significant impact.” But they did concede that the business will be less aggressive with its private label product and fintech services. Zilingo’s loan business, for example, has been frozen given the impact the Covid-19 outbreak has had on SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and small seller cash flow.

Zilingo is also attempting a Covid-suited strategy. One global brands such as Gucci, Armani and Bulgari have tried—by switching their production output to masks and equipment in response to a shortfall in protective gear for healthcare workers. Zilingo is using its manufacturing connections to build a capacity of “up to one million units per day of near-ready stocks of N95 and surgical masks and gowns,” according to a LinkedIn post from Bose. The difference is that it doesn’t directly own the supply; there is plenty of competition in this market and Covid-19 lockdowns make logistics a challenge.

Cleaning up

Half of Zilingo’s manufacturing partners are currently lying idle due to the impact of the coronavirus. The company hopes to encourage them to manufacture PPE and products like perfumed sanitisers.

A sales sheet obtained by us shows the company is offering products that include FDA-certified masks from around US$0.10 per piece, gloves from US$0.46 per piece and protective suits from US$10.64. One businessman selling masks from China called the project “ballsy” given the price volatility. They requested anonymity because they did not want to be seen discussing a competitor in the media.

The issue underscores a broader problem facing Indian start-ups that rush to scale before finding a sound business model

Zilingo does e-commerce and it does not specialise in garment making or design,” they said. “The sellers have the product and they go to the website to sell, but that doesn’t give Zilingo a fashion industry core.”

Having spent heavily on sales and two offices, management balked at the lack of revenue and refocused on sourcing for fashion brands in late 2019. But it didn’t serve to improve Zilingo’s “core”.

“We didn’t hire specialists, which is essential in fashion where you have different strategies for sports or casual wear. You really need to specialise,” another ex-employee said of its failure to hire local industry personnel to front the US push.

Covid conundrum

Covid conundrum

It’s almost like Zilingo wasn’t steadfastly focused on fashion alone. It had a lot going on.

CEO Ankiti Bose often refers to the business as an octopus. with its tentacles dipping into many businesses. Zilingo wanted to do many things beyond simply selling fast fashion to consumers, and it was that octopus-like ambition that signaled its expansion into the US and Australia.

Narayanan declined to comment when approached for this story. A Zilingo spokesperson said the nCinga team now manages Zilingo’s Saas business.

Like other Zilingo strategies, a core issue was inconsistent decision making. Despite significant hiring, many of the key leadership came from consulting or finance backgrounds and were early in their careers, the former employees said. High management churn in the US, too, made Zilingo prone to changing course, which was exacerbated by a disconnect between management and staff, another person said.

High profile

At 28 years old, Zilingo CEO Ankiti Bose is the most visible female startup founder in Southeast Asia—she was dubbed “Southeast Asia’s tech sensation” by Bloomberg. She founded Zilingo after a visit to Bangkok inspired the idea to bring Asia’s street fashion vendors online. She maintains close links to Zilingo investor Sequoia, having started her career as an analyst with the firm’s India office.

The octopus strategy—which ran from financial services like working capital for fashion sellers to more outlier proposals such as ethical fashion sourcing using RFID and blockchain technology—proved more challenging to execute. The former employees suggested that fewer ideas with more focus would have been easier to manage.

One such example is Zilingo’s desire to be a digital version of Li & Fung, a 113-year old Hong Kong company that manages sourcing and supply chain for fashion brands in the US and Europe—including Walmart and Kate Spade & Company.

In December 2019, as part of that push, Zilingo spent US$15.5 million to buy Sri Lanka-based nCinga, a software business that digitises manufacturing companies which counted Zilingo as a customer. The deal—Zilingo’s first acquisition—would enable it to bring technology to manufacturers and, in doing so, connect them to its global supply and potential customers like REVOLVE or celebrities from CAA.

However, the status of Zilingo’s nCinga-fronted digitisation is uncertain. Sid Narayanan, Zilingo’s head of Saas products and the executive who led the acquisition deal, left Zilingo during the restructuring. A prominent venture capitalist told us that Narayanan has started his own company.


A flaw in its business model meant the company expanded too boldly

One key strategy investors saw opportunity in was its expansion to markets like North America and Australia in 2019. Zilingo aimed to capture the imagination of Hollywood, international celebrities and influencers. To work with them on developing their fashion labels. It barely scratched the surface.

Beyond the ideas, brands and influencers wanted to see success stories. But Zilingo’s few celebrity brands were from Southeast Asia—including Indonesian actress Pevita Pearce—and not recognised in the US. The firm also apparently struggled to get its promised supply chain together. Zilingo could really call on fewer than 100 factories for manufacturing, one former employee said, despite projecting far bigger numbers in public.

A bumpy month for start-up Zilingo

Instead, the ‘soonicorn’ finds itself pulling out of these markets. Zilingo is now pushed to refocus its efforts on Southeast Asia—its homegrown but less lucrative fashion buying market. But the pandemic is no time to rebuild a business in an already less lucrative market either.

With its shiniest growth engines removed, Zilingo faces a crucial period if it is to live up to its billing.

“You’re always valued on future growth potential, the bigger the promise the higher the value but have to deliver. It’s a gift and a curse—you get a lot of money but a lot of pressure.”


Hollywood (not) calling

On paper, Zilingo had the credentials to break the US. It boasted a supply chain of 5,000 manufacturers across Asia, it knew e-commerce—through its consumer and business-facing online stores—and it pledged US$100 million to building out its North America operations. To top it all off, it had Jay-Z’s branding to propel it forward.

Zilingo opened offices in New York and Los Angeles to fashion business and crack Hollywood. It hired local design teams to adapt to market flavours, and it even recruited a six-person sales team dedicated to the US.

Hollywood (not) calling

The idea was simple. Any celebrity or influencer with a large online following could develop their own fashion label using Zilingo and its supply chain network. The strategy was modeled on the success of celebrities like Kylie Jenner—who sold her Instagram-first cosmetics brand to beauty giant Coty for US$600 million in November 2019.

Those already in fashion, like fast fashion labels, could tap that network to quickly iterate on new ideas. With Zilingo, designs would become finished products in months—rather than a year—meaning faster reaction to trends and more sales.

The pitch won Zilingo audiences with big names like Creative Artists Agency (CAA)—Hollywood’s top talent agency—and Revolve, a pioneering online fashion brand that raised over US$200 million in a 2019 NYSE IPO.

But while Zilingo’s ‘move fast’ approach worked in the startup world, it didn’t port to fashion. The US push culminated in a handful of products, one highlight of which was a set of towels for a brand, former employees said. The issue was much the same in Australia, where promising meetings did not translate to sales.

Creating an Amicable Attitude to Difficult Customers

“A delivery person could do four food orders in the time taken for delivering one Genie item,” Sunder says, adding that compensation has been designed to nudge delivery executives to put the customer first.

Dunzo’s mission now is not to win over every neighbourhood, but win in neighbourhoods that make the most economic sense on its path to finding 25 million transacting customers. These 25 million represent the lowest hanging fruit—digitally-savvy users with significant disposable income. The number isn’t plucked out of thin air either—India is estimated to have around 25 million credit cards.

Different strokes

In foodtech, even competitors revere Swiggy’s preparation. “They go step by step—first pilot something for a long time, and only then roll it out. Measure the data in one or two locations. Swiggy is very systematic,” says an angel investor in a competing cloud kitchen company. Swiggy is hoping this strategy will let it pip rivals who’ve spent years mastering the areas it is only now entering.

But while Swiggy can tap into the large customer base from its food business, it needs to convince people to think Swiggy when they think of essentials. That means competing for mindshare with the likes of Bigbasket and Dunzo.

This will not prove easy. Because in much the same way Swiggy has become a verb for ordering food, Dunzo has done the same with concierge services. In that sense, Genie marks a clash of two verbs: Swiggy and Dunzo.

Building a Positive Company that Gives

Building a Positive Company that Gives

And even as Swiggy has moved to realise the hyperlocal opportunity during the lockdown, Dunzo has seen a surge in both users and usage. Its organic app downloads have shot up 4X since the lockdown, claims Kabeer Biswas, CEO of Dunzo. Order volumes up until 20 April, he says, have organically surpassed the volumes for all of March.

Swiggy, though, would do well to look at Dunzo not just as its competition but, more importantly, as a cautionary tale. Over the past year, rather than trying to maximise its early-mover advantage, Dunzo has been scaling back. While it previously hoped to be in as many as 16-18 cities by 2020, it is currently only in nine. And even in those nine, it has withdrawn from many neighbourhoods as it looks to reduce its cash burn and sort out its unit economics.

Dunzo’s loss per order fluctuates between Rs 18-22 ($0.25-0.31), Biswas had told us in January. To improve this, Dunzo is withdrawing from neighbourhoods where it doesn’t see high order volumes. In Bengaluru and Pune, for example, this helped the company lower its loss per order significantly—to around Rs 10-12 ($0.13-0.16).

“If we don’t get enough orders, that geography is not going to turn profitable unless we charge customers a high delivery fee,” says Biswas. “So, the only way to make money in this business is by driving density. That’s why we don’t want to be in non-dense geographies that are not going to turn profitable.”

The Market Environment where Swiggy Strategy is Applicable

Classroom training was not possible. So, Swiggy began to virtually train up to 45,000 delivery partners to cultivate new habits. For instance, the food-ordering business requires a delivery person to just pick up a brown bag from the restaurant and ferry it to the user’s location. The restaurant takes responsibility for the contents of the brown bag.

But with Swiggy Genie and groceries, its delivery personnel are responsible for the contents and quality of items they pick up. Swiggy’s operations team prepared videos of step-by-step explainers of these new processes. In early April, Swiggy began an app-based video training programme for its delivery partners.

More than 25,000 experienced delivery personnel accessed these training modules on the delivery partner app, followed by a test conducted in various regional languages. According to a Swiggy delivery executive, the tests help to stay updated with small changes in processing orders. It typically takes him an hour to check these videos.

Modular learning

Modular learning

The learning modules focus on specific points like what is a grocery pickup, how is it different from a food pickup? What is the difference between a paid order and a non-paid order? (A paid order is for pick-up and drop errands. A non-paid order is one where the customer pays after confirming the order.)

To widen the scope of its store listings, Swiggy began to crowdsource information—asking its customers to share details of their favourite shops. “In a locked-down world where I can’t send people out to do a survey, and I can only rely on Google and other such public information to some extent, we had to ensure no popular stores are missed out. Just ask the consumer,” says Sunder of Swiggy.

Sunder says Swiggy previously did this while expanding its food services to new cities. “We asked consumers to tell us the most famous restaurants in their neighbourhood. Local intelligence is always good,” he says. Swiggy even launched food services in Manipal (an education hub) before Karnataka’s second-largest city, Hubballi-Dharwad, because a crowdsourcing initiative showed far more demand from Manipal.

Swiggy’s Wish Granted by the Genie

Swiggy worked out compensation packages for delivery personnel during the ongoing Covid-19 phase, as well as for when normalcy eventually sets in. “We are changing the way compensation structures work,” says Sunder.

Before the lockdown, the incentives were for maximising food deliveries. “But now, it is hard to generate many orders for delivery partners to be able to make what they are used to. With low order volumes, they won’t even come to work,” he adds. Instead, Swiggy extended a minimum guarantee to more delivery personnel to keep them logged in to Swiggy even during the lockdown.

The company also had to adapt its compensation system for its three line items—food, groceries, Genie. This is because the average distance of a food order for a delivery-partner is 3.5-4 kilometres. But for a Swiggy Genie order, distance is defined by the consumer. So, the compensation system has to factor in varied scenarios for distances that a Genie delivery demands.

Swiggy’s big wish from Genie—reinvention

“We kept talking to consumers last year,” says Vivek Sunder, COO of Swiggy. “We had constant quantitative data in terms of what they were searching for on the app,” he explains, citing search terms Swiggy gathered in the period. “We also did focus group discussions—a bunch of conversations with consumers on a specific topic.”

It’s all part of a conscious evolution for the company. In an interview with us shortly before the lockdown was enforced, company co-founder Sriharsha Majety indicated that Swiggy’s mission was no longer to change the way India eats. “Our mission today is to elevate the quality of life of urban consumers by delivering unparalleled convenience,” he had said unequivocally. With hyperlocal logistics as the engine, of course.

Changing its spots

Changing its spots

This change was also communicated to the company’s employees during a town hall in mid-March, shortly before the nationwide lockdown. Swiggy’s founders communicated two sharp messages during the meeting. The primary one was about protecting its food delivery business—focussing on building consumer trust and communicating the measures being taken to keep food deliveries safe, recalls a manager. He asked not to be identified as company policy prevents him from speaking to the media. The second part of their message was about the company’s diversification.

It was a logical step, says the manager. “We have a lot of our fleet roaming around the city. The peaks when the delivery fleet were fully utilised were the lunch hours and dinner hours. Between 3PM and 7.30PM, Swiggy is overstaffed. They don’t have enough orders between the two meal times. So, it makes a lot of sense to do everything hyperlocal.”

The question is: will Swiggy’s greatest strength—food ordering—impede its diversification? “They have to prioritise essentials delivery right now, compared to food delivery because there is a problem in that business,” says an investor in Swiggy. “It’s about how they focus on the new businesses, which may not have otherwise got enough attention because of the food-ordering business.”

Locked down, ramping up

While the number of restaurants on its platform dwindled, so too did Swiggy’s delivery fleet. 240,000-strong at its peak, these numbers have dropped significantly due to the lockdown, though Swiggy declined to offer any specifics. Despite its depleted fleet, Swiggy accelerated its plans to take Genie and Stores countrywide once the lockdown kicked in.

The company also told us that only 25-40% of the restaurants are operating in the 200 cities where they are permitted to be open. This takes a significant load off its fleet of delivery partners. Even with this, though, Swiggy was still up against it when it came to operationalising its new hyperlocal offerings.

Swiggy has already set about deprioritising food delivery. According to reports, plans are afoot to lay off up to 900 employees from its cloud kitchens business. It has also slashed marketing expenses and is no longer footing discounting—a ploy that has helped it scale rapidly—on its platform.

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Ruangguru’s CEO Belva Devara is also one of the expert staff members appointed by the president’s office, and this link made him a welcome target for critics. He eventually stepped down from this position.

“Why was there no transparent tender? Why were only several platforms included by direct appointment?” asks Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara, a researcher from the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), one of the most vocal critics of the Pre-Employment Card.

“I think it’s a conflict of interest. The skills problem the programme was intended to solve is different from the current situation with layoffs. The government should be focusing on direct transfers and securing basic incomes, not [channelling aid] through private companies like Ruangguru,” he comments.

Criticism also rained down on Andi Taufan Garuda Putra, the CEO of micro-financing platform Amartha. He’s another one of Jokowi’s expert staff members.

He had used an official letterhead to promote his company to subdistrict heads around the country, promising Amartha’s support in a variety of Covid-19 relief efforts.

It’s safe to say that it was not well-received. Andi Taufan also stepped down from his expert staff position after the incident. Adhinegara, however, sees this new face of PPPs as a relationship of mutual dependency.

New rules or no rules?

New rules or no rules

The Indonesian government needed the tech sector to fulfil Jokowi’s campaign promise of an innovative, forward-looking Indonesia that is open to foreign investments. Startups, many of them chasing scale and profitability, welcomed access to public funds and infrastructure, and the legitimacy government contracts gave their unproven business models.

“Some startups previously burned money profusely; they received money from abroad. [Now] some may struggle to achieve sustainability,” Adhinegara tells us. “They become interested in bureaucracy and government projects. It’s one strategy for startups to survive—get government backup.”

Adhinegara’s position is provocative. He coined the term “millennial oligarchs” to refer to the tech CEOs whose closeness to the people in government he finds concerning. Adhinegara even challenged Devara to an online debate, which the Ruangguru CEO did not respond to.

Millennial Oligarchs

Indonesia has seen its share of oligarchic power structures, especially during the 31-year reign of President Suharto, who was known for doling out licenses and government contracts to family members and cronies. Today, startup CEOs have been given advisory roles in President Jokowi’s office, and they’ve become close collaborators with authorities during the crisis. It’s a far cry from Suharto days, but critics warn of the potential rise of “millennial oligarchy” if checks and balances aren’t in place.

Others, including Ishak, whose developer community was involved in creating the Pre-Employment Card website, remain optimistic about the programme.

Upskilling young people remains a challenge that can only be solved with government-private sector tie-ups, Ishak believes, and the Card is on the right track. “The problem we see now is in the quality of the content. They are trying to fix this,” he says.

Lack of transparency is still a concern though, notes Nadia Fairuza Azzahra, an analyst at the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies.