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Empowering students in Sri Lanka to form mobile-app startups

MIT Global Startup Labs program leads to student-founded startups 4Axis Solutions and PayMedia.
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4Axis Solutions co-founders (l-r) Minsara Madhawa, Dumindu Kanankage, Kapilan Karunananthan and Anuruddha Alwis
4Axis Solutions co-founders (l-r) Minsara Madhawa, Dumindu Kanankage, Kapilan Karunananthan and Anuruddha Alwis
Photo: Will Guyster

Growing up in a small suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Dumindu Kanankage never dreamed that he would one day build his own company from the ground up. Now in 2015 — four years since the MIT Global Startup Labs (GSL) launched its program in the island nation — Kanankage is the proud cofounder of 4Axis Solutions, a mobile-app startup. “When the GSL Program was first introduced to our university, we didn’t know much about entrepreneurship,” Kanankage explains, “or actually the whole IT industry.” Today Kanankage’s company boasts an impressive 6 million downloads for its first app, Drawing Desk.

In 2011 GSL, supported by Google, sent MIT grad students to the University of Moratuwa to teach a mobile technologies and entrepreneurship course in conjunction with the school. As part of the six-week course, GSL instructors showed the students how to think like entrepreneurs and introduced them to various startup CEOs, senior staff, and IT experts. Kanankage says, “We got the chance to network with these high-ranked professionals and, based on those conversations, learned a lot about creating a company in Sri Lanka.”

Under advisement of field experts and GSL instructors, the university students built their own startups which were demoed at the end of the course. In 2012, Kanankage launched 4Axis Solutions with three friends, two of whom were also GSL alumni. “Right now, we have 15 employees,” Kananage says, “and we are getting 10,000-15,000 downloads a day for ... Drawing Desk.” Drawing Desk now enables users to draw, sketch, and edit photos with its four modes: Photo Desk, Doodle Desk, Kids Desk and Sketch Desk. The app is currently listed as 19th in the productivity category on iTunes.

Since the first MIT team traveled to Sri Lanka in 2011, GSL participation has expanded island-wide and is supported by the apparel giant Brandix Lanka Limited and the innovative middleware company WSO2. This past summer GSL sent another four MIT student instructors to Sri Lanka and held a successful program for 25 students and recent graduates from five universities. All new startups presented at the GSL Demo Day, where a panel of industry experts provided feedback and encouragement. This year’s panelists included Sanjiva Weerawarana, CEO of WSO2; Udena Wickremesooriya, director of Brandix; Jeevan Gnanam, CEO of Orion City; Fayaz Hudah, founder of the "spiral-ation" tech accelerator; Anarkali Moonesinghe, deputy CEO of the CIMB Investment Bank; Shehara De Silva, founder and catalyst of IDEAHA and Institute of Social Design; Madu Ratnayake, head of digital, SVP and general manager of Virtusa; and Girish Anandsobti, entrepreneur and investor who is former head of SAP South Asia). 

One of this year’s startups — PayMedia — has already been recognized with three awards including the Gold Award for Best Startup of the Year from the National Best Quality ICT Awards in Sri Lanka. PayMedia, a company that provides custom solutions for finance and telecommunication domains, was founded by GSL students Kanishka Weeramunda, Dinesh Eranga and Thilanga Liyanage under the guidance of their GSL instructors from MIT: Perla Villarreal, Pallavi Mishra, Joseph Yang, and Nitah Onsongo. “Our Smart Banking product is nominated for the Asia Pacific ICT Awards (APICTA),” says PayMedia founder Weeramunda. “I was also recognized as the Most Valuable ICT Entrepreneur of the Year for starting PayMedia.”

Launched in 2000, the MIT Global Startup Labs Program trains and funds top MIT students to teach technology incubator courses around the world. GSL participants mentor startups, network with entrepreneurs, and learn and teach real-world technology platforms. Celebrating its 15 year, GSL has launched 59 programs in 18 countries: Algeria, Colombia, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Zambia. GSL is managed by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), a program in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), in collaboration with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) in the School of Engineering and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

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