Lily Coder, copywriter, consultant, and cat lady. I'm a busybody who wants to know everything that's happening in Chiang Mai.

Alphabet Soup: Deciphering Thailand's Digital Departments and Agencies

Alphabet Soup: Deciphering Thailand's Digital Departments and Agencies

We may sometimes think of startups as pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but few things in this world are created in a vacuum. When it comes to developing essential resources like talent and capital, governments play a big role in making these available and massively affect the success or failure of a startup ecosystem.

In an emerging tech scene like Thailand, a lot of support for entrepreneurship and innovation comes from the top-down, and while I may have said a stern word or two about the effectiveness of this approach alone, there’s no denying it’s an essential component.

Read on to learn about some of the Thai government’s digital, innovation, and economic development agencies and the role they play in Chiang Mai’s startup ecosystem.

National Innovation Agency (NIA)

Empowering Thailand’s innovation, the National Innovation Agency (NIA) has a mandate to improve Thailand’s competitiveness and promote economic restructuring. The NIA operates under the Ministry of Science and Technology and is led by the ambitious Dr. Pun-Arj Chairatana (who happens to be a Chiang Mai native - sawadee jaooo!). 

“NIA functions as the key engine driving national innovation by co-creation, networking, fostering, and partnering different organizations from various fields such as academic, technology, industry, finance and investment. Its main focus is on utilizing knowledge management to achieve innovation, particularly to foster “innovation on cluster platform” which uses innovation as the principal tool in improving quality of life and driving towards an increasing competitive economy.”

While the work they do ranges from connecting academic researchers with corporate partners to providing startup grants, NIA’s primary driver is developing strategic partnerships. By facilitating these linkages, great ideas receive the funding needed to kick things up to the next level and emerging technology has a better chance to reach the market.

A national body, their logo will be found on all manner of startup event banners but much of their work is also conducted via sub-agencies under their umbrella (many of which are listed below).

Startup Thailand

One of the most visible public bodies, the aptly named Startup Thailand, are responsible for producing most of the events and media related to Thailand’s startup and innovation space.

“Founded as a national agency to support the startup businesses and its ecosystem based on the policy of the National Startup Committee (NSC), Startup Thailand operates under the Ministry of Science and Technology in collaboration with related organizations, helping startups to utilize local resources for their product and service development, and local employment and revenue distribution, leading to new target industries in driving the country forward.”

Headquartered in True Digital Park, Thailand’s (and quite possibly the world’s) largest startup campus, I was lucky enough to cover Startup Thailand’s annual marquee event, Startup Nation. With a stated aim to make Thailand a global startup destination, there is clear investment in broadcasting to the world that the country is open for business.

Startup Thailand also produce a magazine, videos and other resources aimed at educating startups and sharing ecosystem stories, primarily for Thai-language audiences.

Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA)

I had the pleasure of chatting with K. Chinawut Chinaprayoon, Vice President of DEPA at Techsauce Global Summit 2019 and found him delightfully switched on. The agency responsible for actioning the Digital Development for Economy and Society Act of 2017, this young organization works closely with startups and accelerators all well as digitally oriented SMEs to develop the ecosystem.

“The premier Digital Economy Promotion Agency to accelerate transformation in Thailand. The agency aims to support and promote the development of digital industry and innovation, support and promote digital technology adoption which benefit the national economy, society, culture, and security.”

DEPA manages a startup fund, runs an IoT & Digital Innovation Institute, produces the annual Digital Big Bang Conference, runs coworking and event spaces and much, much more, including overseeing the Smart City initiative. In Chiang Mai, you can visit their offices east of town in the Wat Ket area or check out their coworking space at Promenada mall.

If you’re a digital nomad who loves Chiang Mai, do give kudos to the incredibly hard-working K. Chadathacha Chantanaphan who has been the key voice in her office championing the worthiness of a digital nomad visa. While this initiative is unlikely to be fast-moving, there is work underway to gather data and assess the economic impact of this group (we hope to report more on this soon).

Thailand Board of Investment (BOI)

For entrepreneurs looking to set up their base of operations in Thailand, BOI offers incredible opportunities and perks. In addition to providing advice and incentives, they also provide a number of services aimed at making business incorporation and the usual hassles of issuing work permits easier and more streamlined, primarily through their One Start One Stop Investment Center.

“The Office of the Board of Investment is a government agency under the Office of the Prime Minister. Its core roles and responsibilities are to promote valuable investment, both investment into Thailand and Thai overseas investment. Our vision is to promote valuable investment, both investment in Thailand and Thai overseas investment to enhance Thailand’s competitiveness, to overcome the “Middle Income Trap” and to achieve sustainable growth in accordance with the sufficiency economy philosophy.”

Companies certified by BOI receive generous tax breaks and exemptions from import duties and are also permitted to be wholly foreign-owned (so none of the typical Thai shareholder mess), to employ foreign nationals with (with no ratio of Thai employees required), and even to own land. For businesses in certain sectors, including the broad categories of technology and innovation, BOI provides further support and incentives.

The BOI office is also the body responsible for administrating the Smart Visa scheme launched in early 2019. With special visas for Executives, Investors, highly skilled Talent, and - most excitingly - Startups, they provide an easier, faster pathway for entrepreneurs to legally operate in Thailand and begin setting up new, innovative businesses.

While the original requirements for the visa left much to be desired, the BOI office have been remarkably receptive to feedback and even organized a roundtable panel in Chiang Mai to discuss which requirements and qualifications could be reviewed and revised. The updated Smart Visa requirements, especially for the Startup category, are now much improved and worth a look for entrepreneurs and digital nomads curious about setting up a base in Thailand.

If you’re interested in learning more, make an appointment or visit their offices south of town near the airport. This team are exceptionally accessible for a government office with a direct line to the Prime Minister’s office.

Smart City Thailand

One of seven in the nation, Chiang Mai was selected to be a primary testing ground for DEPA’s Smart City initiative. With access to special government grants and resources aimed at developing public facilities, promoting tourism, and enhancing quality of life, initial phases of the program will be centered around the Chiang Mai University campus and the Nimmanhaeminda neighborhood.

“Smart City means a city that takes advantage of modern technology and innovation to increase the efficiency of the city service and management, reduce the cost and resource usage of the target city and citizen. It focuses on good design and participation of business and public sectors in urban development, under the concept of a modern and livable city development, for people in the city to have a good quality of life and sustainable happiness. The Smart City Development Steering Committee promotes and supports operations in order to formulate a policy plan and drive the development of smart city at the local boundary level.”

Urban development activities that fall under the purview of Smart City range from old-school infrastructure improvements like relocating power cables and renovating sidewalks to green-tech ventures like shifting over to using electric vehicles. Some on the inside hope that the tourism-focused scope of this initiative may be broad enough to extend to the creation of a digital nomad visa, or even just easing immigration pressures to this tech-savvy community so invested in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai & Co

A public-private partnership between the NIA and Aristo Group, Chiang Mai & Co is leading the charge to link local startups with accelerator programs, mentors and resources. One of fifteen targeted areas in which the Thai government aims to create Innovation Districts, Chiang Mai represents a unique opportunity due to its wealth of universities, cultural cache, close access to agriculture zones, and vibrant population of digital nomads.

“Chiangmai&Co founded by Startup Thailand, National Innovation Agency (NIA) and ARISTO Group. This is a partnership between the government and private company with the same goal to promote the ecosystem of the startup.”

With their own event/coworking space fronting Punspace Wiangkaew, Step 1 for this organization seems to be curating events and seminars (especially of note is their recently launched Startups in Residence program). Still in the works, Step 2 will be mapping and documenting all the startups and technology companies currently operating in Chiang Mai (great minds think alike!). With ties to the major government agencies, Chiang Mai & Co aims to feed data from program and grant applications into a central database.

Chiang Mai & Co also provides business and consultancy services, including helping interested startups and entrepreneurs apply for the Smart Visa.

The world of technology is incredibly fast moving. While Thailand’s startup scene is only around five years old, the level of investment and action on the part of the government indicate that Thailand 4.0 is not just talk and PR. It will certainly be interesting to see how these agencies and projects shape Chiang Mai’s startup ecosystem in the months and years to come.

Big thanks are in order to Nati Sang of Makerspace for the background to get this piece started, and to Munly Leong of Asean Nomad and BeachCity Media for facilitating connections that led to the insights captured above.