Helping Young Entrepreneurs in Cambodia Teeming with Ideas
Part of an international network helping young entrepreneurs, the Phnom Penh Impact Hub runs accelerator programs, provides prototyping funds to start-ups, and advice to entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. Mainly led by young women, the hub partners with universities, and is starting to decentralize its action. Its managing director describes the hub as the best representatives of the vibrant ecosystem of Cambodia.
The Impact Hub is a global network of over 100 hubs, across 5 continents, and more than 50 countries with the common goal of driving social and environmental innovations to create measurable positive impact through the lens of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Mélanie Mossard is the Director of Entrepreneurship & Innovation. The young woman was part of the co-founding team of Cambodia’s Impact Hub, an innovation focal point lending a helping hand to youth and startups in the country to solve social and environmental issues through entrepreneurship and leadership. With some 68 percent of the Cambodian population under the age of 30, there is no lack of novel ideas, innovation, and start-up candidates.
Mélanie sees herself as a cheerleader. “My role over the years has been to develop a curriculum to support our new generation of local change-makers”, she said. “Entrepreneurship has the power to make a sustainable change in the country.” “If you are a young innovator with a great idea but you don’t know where to start, [the Impact Hub] is the place to come to.”
The Hub helps innovators to go from an idea to a prototype, to understand how to do market research, and the first steps to take on the way to commercialization.
Six years after its inception the Phnom Penh Impact Hub has a lot to show. The Hub has run 27 incubation programs attended by over 900 participants, whether they were aspiring entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs. The Hub awarded over US$360,000 in prototyping funds to 65 start-ups, providing critical cash flow to invest in machinery and production capacity. Some 70 percent of the beneficiaries are still active today. The Hub’s funds are coming from aid agencies’ grants, such as USAID, the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance, with the bulk of the funds provided by national telecom companies.
No one is left behind as the Hub’s programs address innovators’ concerns and needs whatever the development stage of their innovation. They might only have a good idea, but be at a loss on how to proceed further, and benefit from the 3-month incubation SmartSpark program, helping them turn creative ideas into viable businesses and innovative solutions.
More advanced innovators can get help to create a complete business model along with a financial plan, and a go-to-market strategy in several incubators, such as DakDam, a 9-month agriculture incubation program.
The Hub is also partnering with Michigan University, and the Royal University of Agriculture of Cambodia to support researchers in agriculture to develop innovations with the potential to go to market. Each of the four researchers of the BHEARD (Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development) program received a grant of US$16,000 to invest in research and development for one year.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, SmartSpark has also been working on solutions to problems created by the health crisis and which will protect the country from future outbreaks’ fallout.
Impact Hub Phnom Penh, co-financed by Khmer Enterprise, a Khmer Ministry of Economy and Finance-funded program, and the Ministry of Tourism, launched the Khmer Tourism for the Future incubator to help build resilience and innovation in the tourism sector, badly hit by the Covid-19 crisis. The goals of this tourism incubation program are to rebuild and re-imagine tourism, invent new business models for sustainable tourism, focusing on the domestic market.
Beyond business incubation Programs, the Hub is seeking to scale up its impact by developing online courses, and inviting expert guest speakers. Over 3,000 users are returning visitors on the Hub’s online platform. Among the courses provided: How to Build a Startup, and a Business Resilience Program.
However, to make a bigger systematic change in Cambodia, “that change has to go through the educational system,” Mélanie said, further explaining that the Hub has developed a curriculum in Khmer to be used by universities to teach entrepreneurship. The Hub entered into partnerships with 10 universities, almost a third of the country’s, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Telecom and Education, and provides a training module for teachers, as well as for former entrepreneur alumni who wish to join the teaching effort.
The Hub is also seeking to decentralize its services, and is currently piloting “Phum Impact” initiatives (phum means village in Khmer) in Siem Reap and Battambang, which will be joined by two more cities in 2022. Each Phum Impact is set up with three co-founding members.
According to the Hub’s website, “Phum Impact is a grassroots initiative to launch locally rooted communities outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, to scale the Impact Hub methodology to new parts of Cambodia.” The Impact Hub is providing seed funding, coaching, resources, and community-building methodologies.
The Phnom Penh Impact Hub now has 16 staff, ranging from 22 to 30 years old. “We are maybe the youngest team of the Impact Hub, and the most active,” Mélanie pointed out. “We are super passionate about our job and it’s very rewarding as we see the direct impact of our efforts in the youth we train.”
Women, starting with Nipoan Cheng-Chavigny, Managing Director, Kosoma Kim, Business Development & Digital Impact Director, and Thiny Keo, Finance Director, hold all the leadership roles, and outnumber men in the team, although “it was not meant on purpose”, specified Mélanie.
"Impact Hub’s growth in Cambodia in the last five years has been exponential. From a few incubation programs to multiple pre-incubations, and incubations programs per year, our Hub is today one of the best representatives of the vibrant ecosystem of Cambodia,” Ms. Cheng-Chavigny added. “As our mission remains the same (Inspire - Enable and Connect generation of change makers), IHPP is making sure the youth and young entrepreneurs in the country get the support they deserve to be part of a more sustainable Cambodia”, she concluded.
The amount of paperwork and procedures to get intellectual property protection are sometimes discouraging innovators, often busy with pressing matters such as improving their technology, and the successful and sustainable market launch of their products.
The Impact Hub is however encouraging all young entrepreneurs to at least protect their name and their brand. Indeed, trademark protection proved valuable in several cases where the trademark holder could defend her/his brand against copying.