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Ignition Venture Studio: Pioneering global business in the Philippine scene

/ 12:44 AM May 10, 2022
Paolo Villonco

Atty. Paolo Villonco sees impactful ideas shaping our future

MANILA, Philippines — Lawyer, entrepreneur, and policy adviser Paolo Villonco is leading the way for a new era in business. As the co-founder of Ignition Venture Studio, he along with his partners fosters the brightest Filipino minds in technology and business.

On top of this, they are serving as the bridge between technology entrepreneurs and government agencies.

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Villonco explains: “There is an oversimplification, and over-regulation at times when it comes to new ventures like cryptocurrency. Part of my advocacy also is to help the government understand what is the right level of regulation. Also, what are the consequences of over-regulation? We don’t live in a Philippine bubble. Sometimes, these regulators of ours, only think of it in terms of the Philippines. In this global digital economy, we have to also see ourselves in relation to other countries.”

Ignition Venture Studio is perhaps the future of the Philippines in the global context. After quickly adapting to the changes 2020 brought about, Ignition is opening up ways for the business sector to further explore emerging markets and services.

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In this interview, we learn more about Atty. Villonco and how he draws from his multiple disciples, the story of Ignition Venture Studio, and the next markers of their success as a pioneer in the Philippines.

How did you get your start with your multiple roles?

My family. I’m heavily influenced by two of my grandfathers. One was an entrepreneur, a serial entrepreneur at that, and the other one was a CPA lawyer who became an entrepreneur afterward also.

Entrepreneurship and the legal profession have always been part of my life growing up. Even while I was in law school, I always thought at some point I would venture into business also. Of course, I wanted to learn and earn my chops in the legal profession before venturing out so I’d have a sound foundation for things. It’s been an adventure, especially entrepreneurship.

Which of your achievements are you most proud of?

Keeping to my values is something that I’m very proud of. It’s hard in both the business and legal profession.

I’m not perfect, when I was younger I was more idealistic. I’m a little more pragmatic now. Throughout life, there are many compromises you make along the way, so it is difficult sometimes to keep your values the same or live by them. So, it’s something that I’m proud of.

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Recently, I was recognized with an award by the Securities and Exchange Commission. They gave me an award for being the “Ease of Doing Business Champion” for 2021. It’s all about helping SMEs (small and mid-size enterprises). I’m happy they recognized my efforts and contributions to the business sector, particularly helping the ease of doing business.

I’m curious to know more about Ignition Ventures Studio.

Ignition Ventures Studio was inspired by my experience in the Stanford Venture Studio. It is something I tried out while I was a grad student in law school. I liked the amenities of the university for entrepreneurship.

They had activities like startup weekend. I joined that and collaborated with other graduate students from the business school and the school of engineering, to come up with the business. I was actually an entrepreneur on campus. That business, unfortunately, didn’t work out but the experience I got, in the business itself and also the way Stanford created this platform, where people from different disciplines or backgrounds can come together, was really good.

Sounds like something a lot of people could benefit from.

I brought this concept back to the Philippines. I helped build a localized version of it. I pitched this to different people and schools but there wasn’t so much interest in it or they didn’t know what it was.

I ended up telling my friends, and soon we started to figure out a business model to be able to create this ecosystem and sustain ourselves. We then identified what points businesses always needed to start out: office space, bookkeeping, and compliances, so on. These are like pains the entrepreneur doesn’t want to do but they have to do. That, however, isn’t the core of the business. They want to build products; they want to serve clients. They don’t want to be bogged down by leasing or bookkeeping. Also, when you’re starting a business, you want flexibility. Not all startups can afford a one-year contract for office space, for example.

Nobody really was in the market for helping or providing these services in a very professional manner. It’s either you go to a very expensive law firm or accounting firm, or you go to a very cheap one that’s unreliable many times. That’s the market opportunity we saw. If you look at the number of businesses, maybe 95 percent are SMEs. In terms of numbers but in terms of revenue, the scale is different.

We then would help match people with the right contacts. It was networking all for SMEs, along with workshops. We helped chefs, FinTech, and even invite government employees to impart their knowledge. That was where it was pre-pandemic. We had to, in the latter part of 2020, close our operations.

How did you start again after 2020?

We reorganized late last year. But this time we had to, we reorganized our investor group and also our services and advisers.

Before we were an enabler, we enabled entrepreneurs to do their business. We’re advising you, helping you do this ministerial work. Now, we are more of a co-builder. Our engagement with the client is more intimate.

We are more of a partner of the ventures. Some of my partners in the Ignition team have invested actually in these start-ups ourselves. Some are board members of the company. It then creates a more intimate relationship.

We advise venture capital. We advise in capital raising, raising money for startups. We also help them negotiate strategic partnerships for growth. We also focus on market entry. We also help foreign tech companies that want to enter the Philippine market.

Can you tell me about your star ventures?

I would like to highlight three of them and I think it gives a flavor also of what we do.

The most popular one is in the Philippines right now. It’s Nichele Gaba. He’s a founder of the Philippine Digital Asset Exchange, all about cryptocurrencies. He’s probably the hottest name right now on crypto. He’s raised a lot of money and his valuation is gone up. He’s one of the superstars in the tech scene here right now.

Another entrepreneur that I’d like to highlight is Lieza Danan. She’s not so well known in the Philippines because she’s been living in San Francisco. She’s one of the stars in Biotech and an amazing woman. I’m so happy that, you know, we are collaborating and helping each other out. She started; she co-founded this company called Intervenn. I think last year in July, they raised USD 201 Million. They’re on their way to an IPO in the US

Danan is also a scientist, so I’ve been helping her also. She has a start-up that’s also in the biotech sector. What I like about her is, and what our common passion is, to help transform Filipino scientists into entrepreneurs. We are thinking of how can we get Filipino scientists more involved in global startups, and in this niche start-ups that the Philippines hasn’t really seen.

We also have at Ignition, Jin Tomioka. He is a good friend of mine and he was in the Standford Business School. He started a robotics company, Telexistence, the idea of which is to address the labor and population situation in Japan. Given their older but highly educated population, some jobs are not suited to their workforce.

Telexistence allows people to work with robots over long distances. This allows for labor mobility. Filipinos will be able to work in Japan through these robots without having to leave the Philippines. We’re giving them higher wages here and without the evils of having to migrate yourself to Japan, leaving your families oftentimes. Here, you’ll be working where your family lives. This is one of the things close to my heart. I was a labor lawyer also in the early part of my career, and I was exposed to OFWs, and I’ve heard many of their horror stories.

What does the post-pandemic business landscape look like?

I am cautiously optimistic. What we’ve gone through is no joke. I don’t think we’ve felt the full effects of it yet. We are starting to. Global supply chains have really been affected; inflation is hurting the common person. I then think we need a leader that can navigate all the changes we’ve been through and we will go through. That person needs to see the Philippines in a global setting. They can’t have a myopic view of the economy at this point. And so that’s why I’m cautious. There are so many factors at play.

But why am I optimistic? We have one of the youngest populations in the world. The average age of Filipinos is about 22 years old. The peak consumption is around 35. Thus, there is a long way to go. We have high potential consumption levels. We also have one of the fastest-growing middle-class populations in the world. These are my takeaways from a presentation World Bank did with Ignition.

We then have a young population, a fast-growing middle class. We have one of the highest usage rates of the internet and social media. Thus, a lot of potential in the digital economy. The pandemic must have jumpstarted that, but I think we haven’t reached our full potential.

What are your next goals?

I had a realization during this pandemic. I used to be such a goal-oriented person, milestone-driven.

The pandemic did a number on me, and it really made me realize that I can’t be too attached to goals because I can’t control everything. I became a more open-minded person without very strict goal posts.

When it comes to goals, I hope to help build on these business ventures that I’ve gotten into. These ventures all have to be in my mind, Philippine-centric and nation-building ventures. Also, I want to build companies that truly can help, aligned with things like such as environmental issues. For example, we are working with another venture that addresses carbon reduction, mga ventures. I want to build impactful businesses, not just profit-centric businesses.

ATM

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