It takes serious guts to become an entrepreneur.
But try doing it in a country where you don’t speak the language fluently, and while you’re wanted for alleged political crimes in your home nation.
That’s the day-to-day experience of Nopporn “Nick” Suppipat, a wealthy Thai entrepreneur who fled his homeland in 2014 after being caught up in a corruption probe.
Suppipat has lived in Paris for the last two years as a political refugee, and has dabbled in France’s burgeoning tech scene. He is the lead investor in Blade, a Paris-based cloud computing firm which has just raised €51 million (£45 million) in a round including Vente-Privee cofounder Michaël Benabou.
He talked to Business Insider about getting involved in France’s tech scene — while being cut off from the country which made him a millionaire.
In person, Suppipat is a youthful-looking 46. He has barely any grey hairs and looks surprisingly chipper for a man essentially on the run.
Being a French political refugee was, he said, “almost the same as being a citizen.”
“But you don’t get to vote, and you don’t get to run for president.” Would he run for president? “Not until I speak fluent French,” he joked. “That’s not going as well as I want, because I’m so busy. I’m passionate about [Blade].”
Suppipat is in exile after the Thai military tried to arrest him
The details about Suppipat’s case are confusing, particularly if you’re not familiar with Thailand’s strict “lese-majeste” laws protecting its monarchy.
Suppipat, according to Forbes, was Thailand’s 31st richest man after founding local wind power firm Wind Energy Holding (WEH). According to WEH’s site, it is responsible for 92% of Thailand’s wind power.
As the story goes, Suppipat was on the road to taking Wind Energy Holdings public in late 2014. But then Thai police issued a warrant for his arrest, alleging corruption and insulting Thailand’s royal family.
According to a Wall Street Journal report at the time, the problems started with a loan Suppipat took out in the late 1990s from a company in which he was then a majority shareholder. His partners launched a lawsuit, alleging embezzlement. Suppipat tried to avoid a legal fight by repaying the money in instalments, but one partner refused to let the suit go. Nopporn tried to settle with the partner, and hired a negotiator to help come to an agreement.
That’s where it all went wrong. The negotiator — apparently without Nopporn’s knowledge — hired three men connected to the Thai royal family. They were three brothers of the estranged wife of the now king of Thailand.
The three brothers were arrested, accused of exploiting their royal family ties for personal gain, as part of a wider anti-corruption clampdown in the country. Nopporn, having indirectly contracted the three, was caught up in the scandal. He fled to France, knowing that the “lese-majeste” laws protecting the royal family could carry a hefty prison sentence.
Suppipat says he’s innocent — and that his refugee status proves it
Suppipat denies all of the charges. Rights activists have said Thailand uses its laws to clamp down on free speech, and Suppipat happens to be an advocate of democracy. Thailand has been ruled by the military since a coup in 2014, with freedom of speech deteriorating in the years since the takeover.
Suppipat told Business Insider that France handing him refugee status points to his innocence. “The fact that I received refugee status explained it all. I’m not worried. I’m sure people don’t believe all these accusations coming out of the military junta.”
Why choose France?
Suppipat describes France as “the most beautiful country in the world” and said it was among the first EU nations to condemn the coup. “It’s shown its stance in advocating democracy and freedom of speech. So I’m certain that this is a country that would give me protection. You have a regime where democracy and freedom is valued the highest.”
He added that the election of progressive French president Emmanuel Macron was a “breath of fresh air” after the Brexit vote and the election of US president Donald Trump.
He said he doesn’t plan to return to Thailand. His father still lives in the country, but most of his family live elsewhere.
From refugee to startup investor
Suppipat, for legal reasons, can’t comment on where his money is. Having fled Thailand, he was forced to sell WEH in 2016 in what he describes as a bad deal to another prominent Thai businessman, Nop Narongdej. “He shafted me,” Suppipat said.
After the sale, a WEH employee resigned and alleged that new owner Narongdej had misspent company funds.
But Suppipat’s investment in Blade was one positive outcome from his problems selling WEH.
His lawyer for the deal, Stéphane Héliot, decided to quit his job at his asset management firm, and cofound Blade, along with Acher Criou and Emmanuel Freund. Suppipat invested in Blade in its first early-stage round, and in the two rounds since.
Blade wants to kill off the physical computer, offering users a powerful PC in the cloud for a monthly subscription. You connect to Blade’s servers with a lightweight computer and, theoretically, Blade’s server takes care of the real computing grunt. The service is mostly targeted at gamers for now, but Blade wants to expand out of France to the UK and Germany with its new funding.
Blade isn’t the first startup to try this. OnLive also offered cloud gaming, but died in 2015 after failing to make its tech work. Blade isn’t trying to be an OnLive replacement — it’s starting out with gamers, but eventually wants to target the B2B market. Reviewers have said the service works reasonably well in tests, but it’s occasionally buggy. According to Suppipat, Blade is still refining its tech, but it isn’t clear yet how the company will overcome fundamental infrastructure and latency issues that bogged down OnLive.
Suppipat said he is not particularly tech savvy, but then neither are most business angels. He’s learning quickly, he said, and playing a lot of games through Blade.
“I can’t say I was a hardcore gamer,” he said. “I am now.” What does he play? “Battlefield 1. And Overwatch. But I don’t want to become addicted.”
Suppipat is highly committed to Blade — although not on the board of directors, he visits the startup regularly in an advisory capacity. And he isn’t working in any other startups, seemingly using Blade as a creative distraction from his troubles with WEH.
He is currently working on another venture though, to repay his debt to France.
“As a refugee — a pretty well-off refugee — I plan to do something a bit unconventional. I want to start a foundation that will help refugees become entrepreneurs so, like myself, they can contribute to the French society and integrate.
“I’m very optimistic about France, it’s home. I feel I owe a great deal to France.”
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