Unlocking Cambodia’s nascent start-up scene

Ismail Vorajee / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
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Winners of Smart Axiata initiative “SmartStart”, a young innovator development program aimed at helping university students nurture their own tech start-ups have begun to reap benefits thanks to the leading mobile operator’s funding, support and mentorship for young entrepreneurs.

The initiative started in February this year with an initial 30 groups (each consisting of 3 to 4 university students), which was whittled down to five young teams of tech innovators, who in May were awarded $4,000 each and given six months of leading incubator funded-support.

For one of the winning groups which devised a gift consultation, wrapping and delivery service called Prestige, SmartStart was the root from which their business idea could be cultivated, brought to light and allowed to grow, explained group leader Chhar Voanramonineath.

“We’ve learnt a lot in terms of business and team management.”

“Most importantly, we were able to upgrade our business from just a service while harnessing the power of digital. We started off as just that [a service], where we would help customers with picking out gifts, wrapping and delivering,” she recalled.

“When we joined SmartStart we knew that with their backing, we could begin to explore developing a digital platform for our service. This would enable us to be both more visible and serve our customers better.”

Now midway through the six-month incubation period, their business plans have been scrutinised, studied and analysed in an effort to help transform their ideas into viable businesses.

“Most of our training is at Impact Hub Phnom Penh. There we get mentoring and support about our business plan, financial issues and marketing.”

Fellow co-founder, Kheang Sovimean, echoed his business partner’s sentiments and said the world-class assistance from a giant like Smart for their comparably small start-up is an opportunity which Prestige values greatly.

“Our online channel began life as a service on Facebook,” he explained

“We found that with the help of Smart and the SmartStart program, we have at our fingertips a wealth of tools and expertise previously out of our reach.”

However, Kheang is aware that there is plenty of work still to be done. “There are still many things we need to improve and work on. Among them is creating a new functioning website rather than just relying on social media which we have been using since our launch.” 

The nine-month “SmartStart: Young Innovator Program” was launched with strong backing from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of Cambodia.

The program also receives constant expert support from Smart and other development partners in the tech start-up space and is managed by Impact Hub Phnom Penh, a co-working space, business incubator and social enterprise builder located in the Cambodian capital.

“We believe that long-term, tailored support with the potential for investment is crucially important for the development of the start-up ecosystem in Cambodia,” stressed Laura Smitheman, Co-Founder and Programs & Innovation Director at Impact Hub Phnom Penh.

“An initiative like SmartStart is so important because it not only provides the spark for the inspiration of new ideas, but also makes available high quality resources, supports a wider entrepreneurial community, offers start-up investment to actively encourage experimentation and then longer term potential for funding from the Smart Axiata Digital Innovation Fund.”

For Impact Hub, the decision to become involved in SmartStart was not a difficult one to make.

“Impact Hub is passionate about creatively supporting up and coming new entrepreneurs, so we are very happy to work with Smart to design and deliver an entirely new programme which created new teams while providing high quality resources, money to invest in the start-ups and long-term coaching and support,” Laura noted.

For Smart Axiata CEO Thomas Hundt, success stories like Prestige and the other winners of the SmartStart program are indicative of a boom in the Kingdom’s nascent start-up scene – and funding coupled with sufficient mentorship will be essential in keeping the momentum going.

“SmartStart is yet another reflection of our long-term commitment in serving Cambodia and supporting the country’s digital ecosystem through impactful and meaningful initiatives. The abundance of digital talent that was discovered through this program is really encouraging. We are very pleased that we are able to help these talents while we continue being a crucial digital enabler in Cambodia,” said Thomas.

With the success of the inaugural SmartStart, all parties involved are looking ahead to what exciting new teams and projects might come to light in the initiative’s future.

“Smart believes the young generation is the future and we want to unlock and develop their untapped ingenuity. I’m positive that this annual program will continue to generate more ICT talent and resources towards achieving a Digital Cambodia,” Thomas concluded.

For more information and updates on SmartStart, and Smart’s sustainability and corporate responsibility initiatives, follow Smart’s “Smart for Cambodia” Facebook page at www.facebook.com/smart4cambodia or visit www.smart.com.kh.

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