Jeevan Gnanam’s inspiration to seek out new business opportunities comes from his grandfather, the “godfather of industrialisation in Sri Lanka” who developed a shop selling scrap into a pioneering conglomerate, St Anthony’s Group.
Today, Gnanam is chief executive of St Anthony’s Industries Group, which has a 35% market share of PVC building material in Sri Lanka. While the business is primarily domestic, Gnanam hopes to export in the future.
His first entrepreneurial step was co-founding a ride-sharing app called Phone2Car while studying Economics and Business at college in the US. After returning to Sri Lanka in 2006, he started an e-commerce site for Sri Lanka, with his brother, which “failed miserably” as credit card penetration was still too low. This business later transformed into an IT-services company called SAKS Global (SA Knowledge Services) which employs 230 people.
Jeevan Gnanam’s inspiration to seek out new business opportunities comes from his grandfather, the “godfather of industrialisation in Sri Lanka.”
During this experience, he recognised a lack of infrastructure in Sri Lanka for IT companies and persuaded the family board to let him use land in Colombo 09 to provide a solution. Thus, Orion City was born. What started in 2008 as 10,000 sq ft of office space with Virtusa as the first tenant has increased exponentially, reaching 1 million sq. ft in 2019. The revenue for St Anthony’s Industries Group and Orion City combined is around $55 million. Gnanam is passionate about disruptive innovators.
As opposed to sustainable innovators who succeed by reinventing themselves in the same space—for example reducing the price of their plastic products—disruptive innovators are creating new markets and new value chains, that eventually disrupt existing markets. While growing Orion City he became very involved in Sri Lanka’s start-up ecosystem.
He co-founded the Lankan Angel Network to develop this support system for businesses and co-founded a crowd funding platform called Crowd Island. By the time he took over as chairman of the IT industry business chamber SLASSCOM, Gnanam had realised there existed a dire need for affordable workspaces. He went on to co-found Hatch, a collaborative and innovative space for startups in Colombo Fort. The creation of a co-working space was also driven by his desire to meet like-minded people and figure out how to build innovative businesses.
Developing Hatch is one of Gnanam’s two main focuses at the moment. He wants to establish units around the country, and is considering three locations in tier-two cities, in addition to the one they already have in Jaffna. At the moment Hatch’s revenue is around Rs10 million per month. As each floor in the Colombo flagship building opens, new businesses move in. But the focus is more about adding value to the startups, rather than merely providing a space.
Soon, a $3-5 million fund called MESH—to help startups get their first paying customers, strategise and find new customers—will support Hatch’s accelerator program. His second focus is on his AI company, Veracity AI, which he founded two years ago and is now its managing director. The company employs 16 data scientists and 12 engineers, and will open a Singapore office soon. He is also managing director at Digital Realty, a joint venture with Dialog Axiata that is Sri Lanka’s first high-density data centre, located at Orion City. Describing the business as pioneering, Gnanam says it will bring a new approach to the cloud in Sri Lanka.
AI is a game-changer for any industry, and Gnanam hopes that more companies in Sri Lanka, from startups to large companies, will deploy leading-edge technology like it to take their businesses global. Sri Lankan companies aren’t globally scaling well at the moment, and he believes this will require a mindset change because established businesses are reluctant to go outside their comfort zone. Once a company decides to join the global economy, it requires new skills to support the expansion.
Often these skills will have to come from outside the country, and Gnanam would welcome Sri Lanka allowing more global talent to work here, perhaps looking to Singapore as an example. Additionally, for the startup ecosystem to flourish, he would like to see more international venture capital supporting businesses. Presently, Sri Lanka is not well-positioned to support and develop disruptive innovation, “We’re in the early stages. We’ve come a long way from where we started, but there’s still a way to go before we can call ourselves a successful ecosystem.”