SmartStart’s long view on investment

Kevin Livingston

Smart Axiata Co Ltd chief executive officer Thomas Hundt was all smiles when he met with a group of Cambodian undergraduates, finalists of SmartStart, a nine-month young innovator program in its third year,

Smart Axiata Co Ltd chief executive officer Thomas Hundt was all smiles when he met with a group of Cambodian undergraduates, finalists of SmartStart, a nine-month young innovator program in its third year, at the Cambodia Korea Cooperation Centre. The program is part of Smart’s start-up venture to develop tech entrepreneurship in youths.

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“Fostering start-ups and encouraging young entrepreneurship is something that can benefit the country,” Hundt says, stressing the importance of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem and a tech culture among Cambodia’s young people, which is the program’s aim.

Although telecommunication network provider Smart sees no financial reward for its hefty investment, he says it is about taking the long view.

“For me, SmartStart is one of the most meaningful events in our portfolio,” he says of the finals, where five teams out of a 15 were awarded $5,000 and a six-month incubator program at Impact Hub to evolve their ideas into full-fledged businesses.

They are accessed for free space, resources, mentorship, inspiration, and collaboration opportunities. The team with the best progress in this phase will be awarded with a sponsored tech trip to Google, Facebook and Microsoft in Singapore. Smart is also ready to invest in an idea after the full SmartStart cycle is completed. “We believe in the next generation of entrepreneurs, particularly tech entrepreneurs,” Hundt says.

While SmartStart is a young innovator program with a goal of enabling and empowering local university students to launch their own tech start-ups, it is actually part of a larger framework supporting the government’s vision of encouraging entrepreneurship, start-ups, and nurturing information and communications technology (ICT) talents.

This includes venture capital funding through the Smart Axiata Digital Innovation Fund, a $5 million fund to invest in Cambodian-based digital service companies and start-ups with the aim of spurring the digital ecosystem in the country. There is also SmartSpark, a 10-week incubator program focused on tackling social and environmental issues and turning creative ideas into viable businesses and solutions. Also part of the portfolio is SmartScale, a three-month early startup entrepreneurship program. Eleven start-ups are part of the program now.

These programs are supported by the government, as shown by the presence of key government figures at the SmartStart event. Education, Youth and Sport Minister Chuon Naron says it is vital to promote technology in the country. “How can you solve Cambodia’s problem?” he asks. “Ten years ago, what we are talking about (today) was just a dream. We must catch up.”

National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) director-general Chea Serey emphasises risk-taking, in reference to some of the biggest US tech companies that were founded by people who dropped out of college. “If you have a dream, follow it,” she tells the SmartStart students. “I encourage you to take more risk. You are going to fail but you are going to learn.”

Kan Channmeta, Secretary of State for Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, says the SmartStart Young Innovator Program encourages youths and university students to express their ideas and create new business that will help the economy grow.

The mood inside the centre was a mix of nervous laughter and giddy excitement as 15 teams made their final pitches, covering a range of ideas, including applications for renting farm equipment, renting clothes, and ordering food. The apps were backed by elaborate business plans featuring payment plans, cost and revenue projections.

The panel who judged the pitches comprised Hundt, Serey, Mekong Strategy Partners Co Ltd partner and investment manager Kem Bora, global start-up competition organiser Seedstars SA acceleration program manager (Cambodia) Adriana Collini, and boutique office developer Raintree Development Co Ltd co-founder Zoe Ng.

In the end, five teams were screaming and hugging as they ran to the stage to accept their giant checks. The chosen teams respectively created RenTech, an app to help students find affordable housing, Phum Cake, to order customised cakes online, SpeakOut, for people facing depression, Sers Chborng, to offer mentor service for high school students, especially those applying for scholarships and exchange programs, and Style, to rent expensive clothes online.

“We are very happy and excited,” says Kimheng Sok of Phum Cake team. “We wanted to bring this idea to Cambodia.”

Hundt says the level of ideas and technology continues to improve each year. Of the 10 teams that made it in the past two years, he says just four or five are actually around today. But learning how to fail was a theme expressed throughout the evening.

One person who took note was Mao Yuklin, a young software engineer who pitched an app that links schools and parents with updated information about student performance. She describes the process as being more fun than expected as she has friends that are interested in developing apps.

Although her team did not win, Mao was not deterred.

“At first, winning meant everything,” she says. “Not so much anymore. We are going to do it anyway.”

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