A year for resilience and laser focus – nation.lk – The Nation Newspaper

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Sri Lanka has a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the proof is in our vibrant start-up ecosystem. Even through the struggles of 2020 and 2021, we saw many people begin their own businesses, and those with their own businesses taking on the challenge of keeping afloat and going on to thrive. 

Part of why Sri Lanka’s start-up ecosystem is so vibrant is because there are also many platforms that look to nurture start-ups and provide them with opportunities to grow. The 10 years since the global financial crisis of 2008/2009 has seen many start-up accelerator programmes come to life, both globally and in Sri Lanka.
One such accelerator programme is John Keells X (JKX), the start-up accelerator and open innovation arm of the John Keells Group, which, since 2015 has contributed to the development of Sri Lanka’s start-up ecosystem. Starting with a business idea competition in 2015, over the years, JKX has evolved to offer not just funding to promising and diverse start-ups, but a host of other benefits as well through their platform JKX Accelerate. In December 2021, JKX launched two new but complementary platforms, JKX Innovate and JKX Elevate to further engage with the start-up ecosystem in more meaningful ways. 

JKX Head and John Keells Group Assistant Vice President Wishanth Wijesinha
With JKX currently in the midst of calling in applications for their latest cycle of JKX Accelerate, Brunch caught up with JKX Head and John Keells Group Assistant Vice President Wishanth Wijesinha for some insight into JKX’s latest programme and what he envisions 2022 to be like for start-ups and entrepreneurs. 
JKX: An open innovation arm that gives back
JKX primarily began as a competition by John Keells in 2015 that called for exciting new start-ups to pitch their business ideas, with the winning start-ups receiving a “no-strings-attached” cash prize. “From 2009 onwards, everyone was recognising the importance of start-ups,” Wijesinha shared, adding that the years immediately following the global economic crisis of 2009 also saw a big boom for start-ups globally, and around 2015, John Keells decided to venture into the start-up space: “Our senior leadership is quite passionate about entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation, which is important to any economy, and wanted to use this passion to support Sri Lanka’s vibrant start-up ecosystem.” 
Since 2015, JKX has evolved into a fully fledged start-up accelerator and open innovation platform with the formation of JKX Accelerate in 2017. “We at John Keells, as a conglomerate with over 150 years of experience across seven industry verticals, felt we had much more to offer start-ups than a no-strings-attached cash prize to take their companies forward ” Wijesinha said, and it was that which led to the model of JKX Accelerate it has become today – a platform where JKX invests in start-ups, with the mandate of providing ongoing support using their considerable expertise and resources to help the companies grow sustainably. Wijesinha added that JKX and its platforms are about marrying start-ups and corporates – the knowledge, size networks, and resources of corporates with the flexibility, creativity, technology, and fresh approach to problem-solving of start-ups – to create a powerful partnership for both sides. 
Speaking on what it’s like engaging with and nurturing start-ups on a daily basis, Wijesinha said that the diversity and specific challenges each start-up brings to the table makes each JKX partnership immeasurably unique. “I’m a father of two young children, and watching a start-up grow is like watching a child grow – there are so many firsts and successes that you get to celebrate, and that makes working with start-ups a very memorable and exciting experience,” Wijesinha shared, adding: “Knowing that you have had a role to play in helping a young business and an aspiring founder take their next step and being a part of the whole process, from the idea stage to starting up the business to generating revenue and seeing the business find its feet, is incredibly rewarding.” 
JKX and 2022
Last month, JKX launched its newest platforms, JKX Innovate and JKX Elevate, which in addition to their core platform JKX Accelerate, will open doors to a whole new level of meaningful engagement with all forms of start-ups from fledgling enterprises to established start-ups looking for help to take their businesses to the next level. 
JKX’s flagship platform JKX Accelerate is a corporate start-up accelerator programme where the John Keells Group invests in early-stage companies that are building innovative and disruptive solutions for real-life problems that have significant scale and guides these start-ups through the difficult early phases of building a company to the point where it is ready to take on follow-on investment. 
JKX Innovate focuses more on co-creating with start-ups that are building disruptive solutions. By bridging the demand and supply components of the innovation ecosystem, essentially, JKX Innovate brings start-ups and established companies together to work towards solving problems specific to their industries. JKX Innovate gives start-ups direct access to functional teams within their industry to gather domain-specific insights to inform their product road map, to create not just a better product for themselves, but a better experience for their customers. “It’s about combining our expertise with theirs and co-developing solutions,” Wijesinha said, adding: “This approach of co-creation allows each partner to leverage the strengths of the other and together build better solutions and achieve better business outcomes, eliminating a lot of waste in the creative and design process.” 
JKX Elevate is designed to serve as an amplifying platform for mature start-ups who have shown that their businesses have some degree of viability and have formed the groundwork to be able to scale their businesses easily if given the right investment. Ideally, start-ups that approach JKX Elevate would be companies that have been in existence for three to four years, with a growing team, some year-on-year growth, and proven business viability, and JKH would come on board as investors, injecting that crucial growth capital needed for the company to grow exponentially, aided further by John Keells’ corporate networks and partners. 
Start-ups and 2022
2022 has started on a somewhat complicated note, with Sri Lanka in the throes of one of its biggest economic crises to date. So what does that mean for start-ups and the start-up ecosystem?
Above anything, Wijesinha said that 2022 will be a year that teaches and develops resilience. “As a start-up founder or an employee at a start-up company, this year will definitely build character if handled right. It will also be an opportunity to assess your team’s character and learn how to stick it out under pressure because there’ll be lots of pressure and lots of opportunities to develop in these areas and build resilience.” 
Sharing his advice to start-ups and start-up founders, in particular, Wijesinha said it’s very important to find a support system – be it a mentor, fellow entrepreneurs, or even family – because it is easy for entrepreneurs to feel alone. His most important advice to any start-up is to find purpose for the start-up. “Ask yourself what your company’s purpose is and what problem it is solving and craft your journey based on that. Most start-ups that crumble don’t have this figured out,” Wijesinha said. 
Another key piece of advice Wijesinha shared for 2022 is learning to say “no”. “2022 is the year to say no to things that don’t make a lot of sense to you and to prioritise what is crucial to you and your start-up. Learn to say no and maintain laser focus on the problems you are trying to build solutions for.” 
Applications for JKX Accelerate for the year 2022 are now open and will close on 30 January. To apply for JKX Accelerate or to learn more about JKX Accelerate, JKX Innovate, or JKX Elevate, visit www.johnkeellsx.com.


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