February 09, 2012

Pioneering techpreneur creates 'angel fund'

MYLA VILLANUEVA may not have invented the thinnest computer, the smallest smartphone, or a faster way to transmit data over the Internet, but among her peers she is considered every inch tech royalty.

After having successfully sold the idea of networking computers via an Internet protocol in the late ’80s, a time when most companies still relied on clunky mainframe computers for data storage, she is now on her fifth startup and focused on mass-marketing technology. (She calls herself a “serial entrepreneur.”)

As co-founder and managing director of Novare Technologies, she is developing products, software and architecture for local and foreign mobile operators in the field of “Fixed-Mobile-Internet convergence.”

Basically these are mobile applications and solutions for clients which include Globe Telecom, GSM Association, Meralco, PLDT, Philippine Savings Bank, RCBC, Smart, Standard Chartered Bank, Sun Cellular, and Norway’s Telenor, to name a few. Among Novare’s partners are IBM, Oracle, Research in Motion, Sybase, Tata Consultancy, etc.

She is now setting her sights on expanding Novare’s footprint in Southeast Asia and China.

“Our next goal as a group of companies is to hit China and other southeast Asian countries, which is made possible through partnerships with telcos and Internet companies localized and establishing there.... I feel this is a wave bigger than that of the last two decades of the Internet’s exponential influence and growth.”

Ever on the forefront of tech breakthroughs, Villanueva has launched what could be described as her best innovation to date.

Last January 11, she announced her personal advocacy called “Wireless Wings”, a P111-million angel fund which aims to support deserving information technology ideas from colleges and universities nationwide.

“I am trying to ignite a culture that I think is very ‘thin’ right now. I want to encourage people to innovate. I want them not to be just builders. I want them to build their own companies, craft their own models and be successful.”

Aside from funding ideas, Villanueva says her team will also provide beneficiaries with mentoring sessions from seasoned IT executives, as well as link them up with multinational companies and major players in the IT industry.

This way, “we will be able to expose them to the corporate setting, and to the type of thinking that businessmen have, because it has always been my dream to find emerging innovations that we can send outside the country.”

She adds: “We want them to think forward and realize that their ideas and products could also be used in Asia, in Indonesia and China.”

Villanueva also invites “other companies who have the same advocacy” to contribute to the angel fund to be able to boost the chances of these new techpreneurs in the international market.

It’s easy to understand why she has chosen this particular advocacy, having once grappled with the challenges of breaking into new markets dominated by the big boys of technology.

Flushed with idealism and inspired by the tech boom in Silicon Valley where she had studied and was living (and no less inspired by Apple’s Steve Jobs’s success), Villanueva, then just 21, came home to the Philippines in 1988, set up MDI Group Holdings, and introduced the idea of networking computers via Internet protocol.

Back then, most government agencies and the top Philippine firms shared and stored data using those clunky mainframe computers.

“It is so old tech today, but I cannot understate the challenges that came along, starting a new company to sell this concept, and competing against the IBMs and Digital Equipments of the world, in a male-dominated industry which was then very conservative and comfortable with the status quo,” Villanueva now recalls. But she pressed on, knowing that computer networking would soon be the norm.

Her very first deal was with the Social Security System which saw the value in decentralizing its members’ contributions system. This was soon followed by projects with Meralco, ABS-CBN Corp., PLDT and other private firms.

More pioneering efforts in the local tech sector followed.

With her husband Jun, she introduced consumer electronics equipment, gadgets and design software to a mass market via Microwarehouse (1995); created Wolfpac (2000), a mobile applications and content provider which was subsequently sold to Smart Communications; then set up Meridian Telekoms (2003), the first wireless broadband firm in the country (later sold for $50 million to Smart and now rebranded as SmartBro). All these breakthroughs earned her the first Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2003) under Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year program.

At the GSM Association, where she is a member of the executive management committee, Villanueva had pushed for the globalization of Mobile Money Transfers. It now benefits millions of migrant workers, especially Filipinos, who easily send money home to their families just using their cell phones.

Looking back on her very first networking project, and her subsequent achievements, Villanueva says the key to her success is that she has “never been afraid of hiring people who are much better than me.” Also, she is able to spot the major trends in her field because she has a voracious reading appetite and a constant curiosity about everything around her.

When she isn’t thinking up more ways to break ground in yet another tech field or indulge in her advocacies, Villanueva, now 45, loves chilling with her husband and their two kids: Blanca, 17, and Luis, 10. Usually they are out sailing and discovering the Philippines via their catamaran, the TutuTango. “We also love to travel the world anytime we can. I guess we are a family of gypsies.”

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday at the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Jan. 27, 2012. Photo courtesy Myla Villanueva.)

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