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A look into a design engineer's journey in the Philippines

Posted: 01 Sep 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:entrepreneurship? embedded system? ceo? management? technopark?

Michael Hansson set up a software firm while studying full-time at age 16.

What's a Swede doing in a country like the Philippines? When others have unwelcoming perception of the country's high-tech situation, Michael Hansson, on the other hand, is overcharged with idealism.

Hansson was born in a family of over-achievers - dad is a big-time transport economist based in London and mom is a geneticist. With good education and Einstein wits, any wise and ambitious person would probably book for a one-way ticket to prestigious Silicon Valley. But for Hansson, the allure of a fat paycheck is incomparable to the fulfillment of knowing that he can 'make a difference'.

At age 13, Hansson already developed programs with his first computer, the ZX81. And while studying full-time at 16, he opened up his first software development company in Zimbabwe named Icon Information Consultants; it lasted three years. He went back to Sweden to finish his master's in Computer Science and Engineering, majoring in computer vision and graphics, at the University of Linkvping. During that time, he also built a company with other consultants named Coda Software.

"In the university, I took up a lot of courses in embedded systems and had numerous extra-curricular activities. I was president of Ctrl-C. I sound like a nerd," he said laughingly. "At the same time, I taught robotics and programming. I also busied myself in an events organization called Stockholm's Nation. There are only five major universities in Sweden, so typically two out of three students are from out of town. The region-oriented groups are quite active and I was involved in organizing parties and events."

For his thesis, Hansson went to the Philippines to write about low-cost communications and control system for small-scale industries. "I got a pile of money to do a thesis in any developing country. I got two grants, one from the Swedish International Development Agency and the other from Telia Corp." After finishing the paper, he went back to Sweden to finish his degree. Twelve days after Hansson graduated, he immediately went back to the Philippines in his mother's hometown, Cebu City, far down south of the country's business capital Manila.

"Contrary to what many think, the quality of life is better here. I just love the Philippines. The climate is warm and the people are nice and accommodating," he said. "OFWs in the United States are overrated. I have friends who went there and wanted to go back home, but they didn't do so because they were ashamed that people would think of them as failures. It's a self-perpetuating myth."

Reality strikes
Fresh from the university, Hansson was very optimistic. However, he later found out that it was difficult to develop a market in the country. "I went to Cebu in 1993 to set up Synapse Inc., offering design services for embedded systems. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that the market for embedded-systems design in the Philippines is extremely limited," he described.

He then joined Timex Corp. as an engineer and ended up as one of the R&D managers. It was the first and last nine-to-five job he had. Hansson just wanted to see how big firms do things. "Any entrepreneur should experience working for a big company. I had a good salary and my own department. Some people would say I really made it," he said.

But all of these were not enough for Hansson. Being a true engineer and an innovator, he got bored of the job. "I became unhappy doing the same things," he added. "People told me I was crazy to leave my job. Back as an entrepreneur with no employees, a 75 percent pay cut and twice the work - but I was deliriously happy!"

Coming out of Timex, he felt more confident in challenging the market and competing head-on with larger companies. All entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature. "With Synapse Inc., I hired two employees and a Filipino engineer as a partner. We were involved in software development and embedded systems for Manila-based companies. We also trained the industry and the academe in DSP and embedded-systems design," he narrated.

With proper education, you can really make it in the Philippines because you can do more with less money. "Labor is cheaper, and you can easily train staff with the right attitude and a decent basic education," he said. "Swedish employees are less flexible, expensive, and in some cases, spoiled. But they're also highly educated. Here you have to set your sights slightly lower and train employees first. I hire people with a good head on their shoulders and a hunger for learning. Attitude is more important. I can always teach them what they need to know."

In 2000, M. Hansson Consulting was established. It's a systems integrator firm, supplying PC-based test and measurement solutions to electronics and semiconductor industries in Southeast Asia. Though company's focus lies in the development of ATE, it also services the industry with hardware and software solutions for customized test and measurement applications.

"It's an engineering-oriented company, not a trading firm," Hansson emphasized. MH Consulting delivers test engineering solutions for electronic test applications in a variety of industries like automotive, semiconductor, commercial, telecom, aerospace, military and biomedical.

As a member of the Electronics Industries Association of the Philippines Inc., Hansson is a passionate advocate of the Philippine high-tech industry, supporting a vision of putting up a Silicon Valley-type of environment. Hansson has also set himself to what seems an even more formidable aim: for the government, the academe and the industry to coordinate efforts in realizing this dream.

The plan of copying a Silicon Valley model is aimed to entice the local IT players and those from abroad to work together in one place. As of today, the Philippine's technological geniuses from the academe are nestled up north, while the industries are down south and venture capitalists are hanging out in the middle. Add up Manila's heavy traffic and you will know how difficult it is to put resources together.

As a 10-year resident of the Philippines, he feels that the local industry in general is stagnant. "Companies are getting smarter, but we can't translate the strategies into growth yet. We're now in a better position to get started since the global economy is down. Companies will come to us because we do business cheaper here. Hence, we should be billing on local competence. I haven't lost hope," Hansson emphasized.

Professors also need support from the universities. "I noticed that teachers don't have enough awareness of the industry because universities don't support them to do research and business. In Sweden, you do teaching, research and business all at the same time. The students are taught not only about the theories and technologies but also what the market needs. I'm saddened that professors here are actually penalized if they do business while teaching," he said.

Professors should have ample background on how to cost the products and how to market them. The best way for them is to build startups or tie-up with the industry, Hansson noted.

Hansson also suggests contests devoid of commercial purposes. Way back in college, there was a "sliced-bread firing toaster" contest with which his group won first prize. They used a clay pigeon shooter, which they borrowed from a sports shop, in modifying their toaster. They also used an industrial robot and a PC to load the toaster and fired it to a winning 26m. It is note-worthy that the first runner-up just used a $2 industrial rubber band.

Innovation need not be expensive
As Hansson already cited, the Philippines is a place where you can do more for less. Local high-tech companies or universities should sponsor student teams by teaching them and allowing them to use their facilities. "We built and tested our toaster in one of the lab rooms in our campus at 2:00 a.m. We were given the keys so we can come and go."

Competition is healthy. "Entrepreneurs should not be afraid to compete. If there were more competition and choices, customers will be more aware of all the possibilities."

His insights were illuminating and his statements precise. But far away from his computers and the bustle of an innovator's life, lies a 34-year old family man who loves to eat good food, scuba dive, play squash and fly ultra-light aircrafts. Now that's a different story altogether.

- Denice Obina
Electronic Engineering Times - Asia

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