#Asia Changes this year for the Vietnam-Finland Innovation Partnership Program

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Vietnam is fortunate to have many young people who are eager to learn, explore, and contribute their way to recognised success

vietnam

Earlier this year, all of the outputs of the €11 million (US$12.4 million) Vietnam-Finland Innovation Partnership Program’s major activities — the Training of Trainers (ToT) program and Innovation Accelerator Program (IAP)—were on display at the legendary Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City: 12 Vietnamese Innovation Consultants18 high-growth and innovative startups, as well as four innovation system developers — all took to the stage in full force during the final Demo Day. (Each system developer is a consortium of three or more organisations focusing on a structured program to impact their community in a more localised fashion since the IPP is a nationwide initiative.)

During the Demo Day on January 23, each team or consortium pitched their product, service, or initiative to the audience, which was comprised of investors, media, consultants, and other potential supporters.

One of the teams which presented, Hamona, meaning Harmony with Mother Nature, is a company that combined bio-technology expertise with agriculture, one of Vietnam’s major sectors ripe for innovation producing major crops such as rice, pepper, and coffee in addition to coconuts. Hamona’s team went through 100,000 coconuts before finding the ideal prototype to commercialise for human consumption — the result is a coconut which can be pierced by a straw for thirsty consumers, thereby eliminating the need for standard container packaging as found with popular brands in the US. Hamona has plans to expand its coconut water and meat product to the US (and Japan) this year, which is already a US$1 billion market.

Another startup, Abivin, which offers Big Data solutions, also went through the Innovation Accelerator Program. Founder and CEO Pham Nam Long studied in the United Kingdom and completed an internship in the US before launching Abivin. According to Long, “Before the IAP, we thought this would be another governmental project which has been well known in Vietnam to be slow and lengthy. However, the participation of the young coaches and other officials from both Vietnam and Finland has proven that they want to build the Vietnamese startup ecosystem successfully and we really appreciate their efforts.”

During the IAP, Abivin built an extension module for its software suite and successfully closed a major deal with a globally-known brand because of it. The team decided on developing an extension module due to close discussions it had with coaches and other mentors from the IAP — something that might not have been possible if the program had been larger with additional participants.

“There are still many things [that] need to be done for our startup such as extending sales, completing internal procedures or recruiting talented engineers. We are using every moment to make sure our product is what the market wants and our startup will be stronger over time,” stated Long.

A fellow team, ezCloud, has global markets in its sight post-Innovation Accelerator Program. According to Nguyen Ha Van, Partner Executive at ezCloud, “Our mindset has changed: we learnt about management and were trained in lean startup [methodology], which helped us increase our revenue and human resources [effectiveness]. We will continue to meet investors and focus on developing and refining our solutions [as we] prepare to go global.”

ezCloud, which offers a hotel management system, an online booking system, and a customer relationship management system on its cloud-based platform, helps manage over 20,000 rooms in over 40 provinces/cities in Vietnam, amounting to over 20 million transactions per year, according to its website.

What’s Next?

After the dust had settled from the Demo Day, Justin Nguyen, advisor at CoFounder Venture Partners who was in attendance stated, “Overall, I thought Demo Day was terrific and I was glad to be able to participate. I was especially encouraged by the passion, resourcefulness, and enthusiasm demonstrated by the teams. And, while there are certainly big challenges around depth and experience of both entrepreneurs and mentors alike, I’m feeling terrific about [our] prospects in Vietnam.”

However, now that the IAP is over, it does not mean that the teams are left to fend for themselves. Some will receive soft support and/or matching funding of up to €100,000 (US$113,000) from the IPP upon receiving outside investment (One of the benefits for the teams and their investors is that the IPP does not take an equity stake in the company, so the matching funding acts as a multiplier or an extension of a team’s runway).

Other teams may enter accelerators in Europe or in the US as did Beeketing in 500 Accelerator last year. Beeketing, which provides automated marketing services, has its main user base in the US, so other IPP teams targeting the US may join it in establishing their own American presences, especially with the recent announcement of Stripe: Atlas. Stripe: Atlas essentially allows foreign companies to set up operations in the US from abroad in a matter of days for a US$500 fee during its (currently) invite-only beta.

Even though it received approximately 200 expressions of interests from teams across Vietnam last year, the IPP will not accept any more startups this year—instead it will provide a grant for eight new consortium projects that will develop new services for startups in Vietnam.

Another key change in the program will be for the ToT2: whereas last year the focus was on training 12 innovation consultants from the public and private sectors, this year the focus is on personnel with education and training backgrounds so the program will seek to output 20 innovation consultants this coming batch.

Part of this shift is because the IPP wants to strongly emphasise the collaborative attitude and willingness to build the ecosystem jointly among actors (universities, companies, investors, NGOs, etc.). Additionally, the 20 innovation consultants will have the opportunity to go back to their previous university and training roles to deliver relevant and current curriculum on innovation and entrepreneurship.

A key output of the IPP is the core curriculum which which is under development for Vietnamese educational institutions; the curriculum can be used as a foundation for custom use, with the hope that Vietnamese universities, or any interested party can access and consume the content as needed.

An Innovative Future

Vietnam has an interest in growing and strengthening its innovation capabilities and Finland is often considered as one of the most innovative countries in the world. The IPP is a way for Finland to transfer its innovation know-how to Vietnam and is the capstone of a 40-year collaboration via Official Development Assistance (ODA) programs.

Even though ODA funding will eventually cease, the business sectors in both countries will continue to engage and share experiences with each other. Looking beyond this year, the window is closing for the public sector to foster private sector relationships as the IPP begins to wind down next year and will close out Phase 2 (its current phase) in 2018. Thus in 2018 Finland and Vietnam will have a different kind of relationship to look forward to, which will provide new opportunities for collaboration between the two countries.

One element of this future collaboration is already in place in the form of the BEAM—Business with Impact program, which will provide funding for a Finnish project portfolio totalling of €50 million (US$57 million) and is planning to collaborate with Vietnamese counterparts in finding Vietnamese innovation and business partners for Finnish companies. BEAM is jointly funded by Tekes, the Finnish funding agency for innovation, as well as Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and seeks to create new and sustainable businesses in developing countries like Vietnam.

Today, Vietnam needs lot of actions and actors to become a well-functioning environment for startups and high-growth companies. This is a realistic and achievable goal, and many stakeholders are already working towards this vision: entrepreneurs, foreign governments, NGOs, and others. Vietnam is fortunate to have many young people who are eager to learn, explore, and contribute their way to recognised success.

In fact, a few days after the Demo Day, two of the IPP portfolio founders were profiled in Forbes Vietnam 30 Under 30: Truong Manh Quan, Founder of Beeketing and Nguyen Thi Cam Van, Founder of HandiConnect, in particular. Eventually, we may see more young leaders like these at the forefront of Vietnam’s transition to establishing itself as a leader in innovation in this century.

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The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, submit your article here.

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