YANGON -- On a balmy December evening in downtown Yangon, a diverse crowd packed into the sprawling offices of Phandeeyar, an information and communications technology hub. The event marked a milestone in Myanmar's "connectivity revolution" -- the group's second birthday and a new phase in its training and investment programs for the burgeoning tech community.
On this particular night, the normally intense atmosphere -- buzzing with lectures and tech training sessions for aspiring entrepreneurs -- echoed the exuberance of a vibrant nightclub. The loud music and excited chatter stopped only when David Madden, Phandeeyar's Australian founder, took the microphone.
"Myanmar faces huge challenges... but technology can accelerate this country's growth and development," he said. "At Phandeeyar, we're investing in the most promising startups ... and we're also doing cool things that won't make money but will help ordinary people -- our interactive open data program, for example, and a new app that helps people engage with their parliamentary representatives."
In its short life, Phandeeyar, which means "creation place" in Burmese, has caught the wave of Myanmar's emergence from decades of harsh military rule. The group has grown from a few tech enthusiasts setting up "hackathons," coding events where developers and IT entrepreneurs compete to design tech solutions to specified problems, into a self-proclaimed "innovation lab" with nearly $5 million in grants, 32 full-time staff and a mission to "foster Myanmar's tech and innovation ecosystem," as Madden puts it.
Many thousands of people from both inside and outside the country's nascent tech community have passed through Phandeeyar's doors since then, attending literally hundreds of events, from talks and seminars to practical trainings and coding competitions.
Man with a mission
For Madden, 41, an integral part of Phandeeyar's mission is to train and invest in Myanmar's new generation of tech entrepreneurs, as well as help develop applications to improve the lives of people in one of the world's poorest countries, from basic fintech services such as mobile money transfers to more "out of the box" innovations.
Madden is passionate about what he calls the "empowering quality" of technology in contemporary society. After postgraduate studies in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, he ran a digital strategy agency in New York, among other activities. Then came the life-changing move to Myanmar in 2012 with his wife, who had taken a post with an international organization in Yangon, and their infant son. The family (now including three children) arrived just as the government of former President Thein Sein was moving to liberalize telecommunications.
Back then, SIM cards for mobile phones cost more than $250 and internet access was close to zero. "It quickly became apparent that the administration was going to use a mobile operation tender process to show how serious it was about opening up to the world," recalled Madden. "I was sure that if they ran the process properly and picked some experienced international operators, then the market would explode. Even in 2012 walking around the streets of Yangon you could see all the mobile phones stores and people carrying smartphones -- even if they didn't have a $250 SIM card, they'd use their phones when they could find wifi."
While intrigued by the liberalization process, Madden was more excited by the prospect of helping Myanmar to "harness the potential of this coming connectivity revolution," he told the Nikkei Asian Review..
Initially, he set up a marketing agency to help international companies entering Myanmar. But he quickly decided to focus on the burgeoning tech sector after seeing the tremendous hunger -- and local talent -- for innovation. At a presentation he gave on technology and social change, he was "blown away by how many people showed up, and how excited they were by the subject -- the energy and enthusiasm was incredible," he said.
That dream became a reality after he met Stephen King, partner at eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's $1bn investment fund, Omidyar Network. "That was an important meeting because Omidyar Network had backed the kind of space elsewhere that I wanted to create in Myanmar. The most famous of these was the 'ihub' in Nairobi in Kenya, but other great examples included the 'Co-creation Lab' in Lagos," he said.
The catalyst for Phandeeyar was the phenomenal public interest in the first hackathon Madden organized, called "Code for Change Myanmar," in early 2014.
"I'd learned from previous entrepreneurial efforts that the best way to get something funded was to start doing it and demonstrate that it's a great idea," he said. So in late 2013, Madden persuaded the World Bank and others to support Myanmar's first-ever hackathon. "I thought it would be a great way of testing out the viability of a tech hub in Yangon."
In the 48-hour marathon coding contest, 76 young developers, designers and entrepreneurs competed in 17 teams to come up with solutions to problems devised by six non-governmental organizations. The problems ranged from helping women manage birth spacing (intervals between pregnancies) to helping farmers to optimize irrigation. The hackathon participants spent all weekend developing technology-based solutions to these problems. The first prize (of $1,000 and a tablet device) went to a team that built a sophisticated smartphone app to enable farmers to share and receive alerts about nearby pests and diseases. Overall, the range of ingenious ideas and talents was "astonishing," said Madden.
The enthusiasm generated by that first hackathon gave Madden the proof to convince Omidyar Network to back his proposal for a permanent space, an "innovation lab," as he called it. .
Today, with more funding than he could have dreamed of -- and more in the pipeline -- Phandeeyar is branching into areas beyond its core focus of nurturing tech entrepreneurs into a wider community that encompasses media, civil society and fields such as fintech, or financial technology, to promote tech in daily life.
Among the group's flagship initiatives is Phandeeyar Accelerator, a recently launched program to provide Myanmar's most promising tech startups with resources and training. Under the scheme, promising startups are selected to receive $25,000 in seed funding, six months of intensive coaching, support from over 30 local and international mentors, more than $200,000 worth of services from strategic partners and access to a network of potential investors. Then there is the new Founders Institute Yangon, what Madden describes as a "pre-accelerator" program, utilizing Silicon Valley's famous Founder Institute approach to help aspiring entrepreneurs become startup founders. "Ideally the best graduates from FI will launch promising startups that will then be accepted into the Accelerator," Madden added.
Alongside these core programs are initiatives focused on using tech for social change, including the "Tech for Peace" program, a response to the rising wave of sectarian violence and conflict between ethnic armed groups and the army in parts of the country. Phandeeyar's initiative aims to help community organizations understand and use social media and digital content to promote tolerance and inter-communal harmony, noted Madden. He is also proud of the "Phandeeyar Makerspace" initiative, which helps small businesses and farmers utilize technology such as 3D printing.
Benchmarks of success
A powerful sign of Phandeeyar's success is the flurry of startups to emerge from the group's initiatives. "We know a handful of startups were launched after people worked together at the hackathons. We had more than 60 teams form at the Startup Challenge in 2015 and many of them have gone on to become proper startups. Two of the finalists from that competition built their businesses up and were then accepted into the Phandeeyar Accelerator program. A good number of the existing startups in the ecosystem had participated in specific trainings and workshops -- for example, our 'design thinking' initiative -- and almost all have been part of our regular Tech Founders MeetUp, which has benefited from the steady stream of visiting founders, angels and VCs," Madden enthused.
But the biggest accolade for Phandeeyar is the flow of grants and investment from some of the world's leading backers of tech innovation. "These people aren't easy to convince, they can recognize talent and ability to make things happen when they see it, and Dave is a natural," noted a Western investor who was attending Phandeeyar's birthday event.
Phandeeyar took off with initial funding of about $400,000 from Omidyar Network; George Soros' Open Society Foundations; and Google CEO Eric Schmidt's Schmidt Family Foundation.
Omidyar, who has taken a personal interest in the rapid emergence of Myanmar, followed up in early 2016 with a grant of $2 million. "That's what really enabled us to scale up our work," Madden said. Many other groups have supported specific programs along the way, including Google, Facebook, USAID, the World Bank, Asia Foundation, and U.S. Institute of Peace, while corporate sponsors have included HP; Ooredoo; Samsung Group; KBZ (Myanmar's largest bank); and Wave Money (the country's first mobile payments business).
Madden, with his keen sense for pushing the boundaries while recognizing the limits, is now looking at how Phandeeyar might make a broader impact in Asia.
"This is the world's first 'smartphone nation.' They've leapfrogged directly to smartphones and skipped earlier stages," he said. "Just consider the potential for Myanmar's tech and social entrepreneurs to pioneer solutions for their smartphone-only market, and for those solutions to be deployed elsewhere in the region."
<h2 style="margin-top:0;"> <a id="a_title" href="http://asia.nikkei.com/Features/Agents-of-Change-2017" style="font-family:georgia,times new roman,times,serif;font-size:26px;color:#000;">Meet other Agents of Change</a> <p id="p_lede" style="font-family:georgia,times new roman,times,serif;font-size:16px;line-height: 21px;">Business people, innovators, educators and artists to shape new era</p> </td> </h2>
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