Pinoy engineers find niche for RFID in sports

When most graduates make seemingly endless rounds in business districts or endure long lines in job fairs in hopes of landing their dream jobs, Deogracias “Gary” P. Villame took the road less taken.
Fortunately, it led him to become chief executive officer of a tech company.

Deogracias “Gary” P. Villame, (3rd from right), with Itemhound co-founders (from left) John Paulo J. Adaoag, Tyrone W. Tai, Joel Joseph S. Marciano Jr., Roy R. Flores, and Mark Gil F. Manalangsang

A graduate of Electronics and Communications Engineering from University of the Philippines Diliman, Villame and his former classmates founded Itemhound, a tech start-up company that provides sports timing solutions to running and motor racing events through the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) hardware and applications.

Challenging headstart

Interestingly, the successful start-up company began as just a college thesis of Villame and his thesis mates John Paulo Adaoag, Roy Flores, Mark Gil Manalansang, and Joe Cris Molina in 2006.

Seeing the research study’s potential, their thesis adviser, Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano Jr. encouraged them to join Philippine Emerging Start-ups Open, a business plan competition organized by Ayala Foundation.

They won the competition and saw the prospect of creating their very own company. However, even with the prize money of P100,000, they felt that they were not ready yet.

“Parang di pa naming kayang pangatawanan (We were not ready to handle it yet),” Villame recalled.

Soon after graduation, Villame, Adaoag, Flores, and Manalansang pursued graduate studies in UP as scholars of Engineering Research and Development for Technology, a program of Department of Science and Technology. Molina, on the other hand, went abroad to work.

Meanwhile, the start-up plan took a backseat; but they never totally gave up on the idea.

Until the year 2009 when the four, who were still pursuing their graduate studies, were asked by UP to do a study for a big company on RFID applications. They took on the project and this made them realize that the time was ripe for their start-up company. Molina, then still working abroad, also welcomed the idea.

Soon, they pooled whatever they had saved from their stipends and other sources and made their first tough decision. In January 2010, Itemhound was formally incorporated.

“Hindi na drowing to, hindi na puro laway lang (This is reality, not just pure rhetoric),” Villame mused, referring to the competition they won a few years back.

Overcoming the hurdles

But like most ventures, starting up can be an uphill race.

Their biggest hurdle was penetrating the market. Villame revealed that even the company that commissioned them to do a study never became their client. Wooing a big company when they were just starting out did not come easy for them.

They also had to contend with being cash-strapped. “For the first nine months we practically did not have any revenue,” Villame recounted.

In the end, they figured that they needed to identify a market that is easier to penetrate. That period saw the growing popularity of fun runs, marathons, and other racing events. Villame and his team saw it as a big opportunity. They also found it easier to relate to the sporting community because of its less formal atmosphere.

In the last quarter of 2010, they had their first big break. Itemhound finally had its first client.

Racing towards success

Since then, the company has been on a dash in handling the timing of various running and motor racing events as it continued to develop its own timing products.

One of these is the Strider system which can be used in both high volume races such as marathons and small fun runs alike. The company was also the first to introduce paper-based timing tags in 2010 which have made it possible to provide more affordable timing to larger races without sacrificing accuracy.

Strider has figured in big running events in the country such as NatGeo Earth Day Run 2013, Alaska Iron Kids Philippines, Columbia Eco Trail Run, Merrel Adventure Run among others.

For motor sports, Itemhound has developed Racer, a race timing system designed for closed-circuit motor racing that uses economical reusable timing tags. Racer has been the official timing system of the Yamaha MotoGP series for three consecutive years and was the official timing partner of the Yamaha ASEAN Cup 2012.

Lessons learned as local technopreneurs

The first lesson they learned: “You need to be flexible. Your original plan might not work out so you need to be agile, to adapt,” Villame said.

As the CEO, Villame also has to deal with a lot of stress to make sure the company is able to stand the pace.

“Many people depend on you, not only in terms of money. I don’t only look after my own career development but also that of my colleagues. When things get hard I have to help boost their morale.”

In spite of the difficulty of establishing and keeping a start-up firm afloat, this self-made technopreneur is not giving up. “There’s something fulfilling in creating your own products, in creating your own business.”

He added, “Kagaya ng laging sinasabi ng DOST, kailangan natin ng entrepreneurs. Ang laki ng natutulong. Ang laki ng multiplyer effect. Malaking fulfillment din sa amin na nakakapagbigay kami ng trabaho (As what the Department of Science and Technology or DOST always says, we need entrepreneurs. They are very useful. They create a huge multiplier effect. The fact that we provide employment also makes us fulfilled),”

In retrospect, he never really found it attractive to work abroad or even in the local industry after hefinished his graduate studies. “I was very exposed to entrepreneurship because my father is an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship was my first choice for my career path; but, if I did not end up as an entrepreneur, I would probably teach or work in the government,” he said.

For those who are considering the technopreneurship track, here is his advice:

“Expect that you will do a lot of mistakes; but you don’t have to beat yourself over them. What is important is that you learn from them fast. For me, it is not a good sign if you’re not making mistakes anymore; because it means that you’re not trying hard enough.” – Luisa S. Lumioan, DOST-STII

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