Myanmar tech wizard helps the country embrace the internet age
KO Htoo Myint Naung clearly remembered his days as a student at the Computer University. At about 6:30 in the morning, he and other students would be joking with each other: “Here comes 41-years-old, here come 42-years-old”, as their school bus, which usually served as a funeral coach later in the day, would have the name of the dead person and his/her age attached to the vehicle.
“We made fun by guessing and betting on the age of the deceased on the label, just like betting in the illegal two-digit lottery numbers,” he said laughing.
During those times, one SIM card cost at least K3 million (US$1900) each; there was no internet, no readily available books and worse, there was no stable power supply.
“I never heard of the word “startup”, neither have I heard of the word ‘entrepreneur’. There was no development. Everything was at a standstill. The word ‘funding’ was as alien as the words ‘startup’ and ‘entrepreneurs’,” he recalled.
He remembered borrowing a 1000page software development book from the British Council library and having to read it on the school bus while on the way to his university.
Ko Htoo Myint Naung admitted being envious of the present generation of IT students, who have greater access to cheap mobile phones, stable Internet connection and steady power supply.
“It is different now. The situation is much better to produce a product and penetrate market. And there are institutions to help you do that today. We are able to apply our ideas more quickly than before,” he said.
But he said it was those trying times that developed his creativity and opened opportunities to jumpstart his entry to the world of information technology.
His first big break came when the government permitted controlled entry of mobile phones in 2005 and the Internet became available in the country. The local technology was not developed then and there were only keypad mobile phones.
As a budding software developer from the University of Computer Studies, he tried his hand at developing an application that would make available the use of Myanmar language in mobile phones.
“The application I built became a hit among many mobile phone users. It became widely used, so I needed to establish a company to sell and distribute it,” he said.
The application became known as the Myanmar SMS application, and he named the company he formed as “Technomation.”
From then on he never looked back and plunged into the brave new world of digital technology in the country. Aside from selling and distributing his application, he thought of his company as providing other tech products for the consumers.
But he needed capital for his venture and being a tech startup in a country that had been closed to the outside world was a herculean challenge.
“When I need money for investment, I had to turn to people giving out loans. If the wealthy people want to invest in the company, I had to relinquish half of my shares. It was like that in the past. There were many more problems for IT businesses back then,” he said.
“Back then, we could not turn back and would cost a fortune if something went wrong and so, I had to make choices with utmost care,” he recalled.
Ko Htoo Myint Naung, however, was not a person who would back down from any challenge. He knew he had a whole new opportunity opened up for him and for the country and would do whatever it takes to seize it.
The rest is history. Technomation has produced Burmese SMS, Messenger app (instant messenger like whatsapp, google talk, but using SMS as communication instead of internet), dictionary, directory, San Sar Ni Bo (fortune telling) Apps and so on.
“After I sold mobile apps, I got some money. We also bought a car but I didn’t know where I was on the road. It was too troublesome to drive and there was no Google Map yet. There were many satnav (satellite navigation) devices available in foreign countries but not in Myanmar. I really wanted to make one. When I asked people about it, everyone said they were having the same problem as I have, unable to navigate through the streets. It was one problem that every new driver had,” Ko Htoo Myint Naung said.
For every problem is an opportunity. Deep in his heart he knew that he could come up with something that could guide motorists in navigating through the streets in Yangon and Myanmar.
Before long, Technomation was able to produce the Polarstar Navigation Device, available in Myanmar language. It’s not just app this time, instead, it is a combination of hardware device and a software inside which can be installed in vehicles. Street names and places can be searched on it in Myanmar and English languages and it can give directions in voice in Myanmar and in English.
“Polarstar means Du Won Kyal. I named it Polarstar as it will be the guide for car drivers just like the actual northern polar star guiding sea vessels while traversing the vast ocean,” he said
In creating the Polarstar Navigation Device, he struggled technically and financially for over two years but Ko Htoo Myint Naung was able to deliver what the consumers wanted and kept his investors happy.
“It was in 2008 or 2009 when I first came up with it. Now, it is almost ten years. At that time, I produced Polarstar GPS. It was very difficult to sell. The people haven’t used GPS for directions before and so I tried a lot to share knowledge to the buyers. They are so worried,” he said.
At the time he created the Polarstar, the city Nay Pyi Taw emerged and it was a good chance for him to showcase his device. He tried hard for Polar Star to work in Yangon and also in Nay Pyi Taw. Currently, Polarstar can be used all over the country and it is now in its 13th series. Thousands of people are currently using it.
After Polarstar, Technomation’s next application is Startracker, a device created to enable companies to manage their vehicle movements in real time.
“Polarstar and Startrack are the devices created in integration with the technology that is being used to solve the problems that we face every day,” Ko Htoo Myint Naung said.
He said that at present he was fascinated with the idea that Polarstar would be able to steer the vehicles automatically in the future. The latest version of Polarstar already has a camera and Artificial Intelligence (AI) software. It warns drivers when it sees potential dangers on the road. We need more research into this AI where Polarstar can actually take over control of driving.
While there might be a slowdown in business at present, Ko Htoo Myint Naung, remained undaunted of the future and believes that tech-based companies, such as Technomation would play a key role in leading the country’s development.
“As I’ve already faced some hardships in the field, I’m well aware of the opportunities that may appear in this kind of situation,” he said. “If a business is more competitive, there are more chances for success.”
Ko Htoo Myint Naung believe that the only limit to business opportunities in imagination. If a person can dream of something he just needs to work hard to make that dream come true.
Quoting a word from the wise, he said, “A winner never quits. A quitter never wins.”
‘As I’ve already faced some hardships in the field, I’m well aware of the opportunities that may appear in this kind of situation.’