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Tech entrepreneurs find an oasis in startup-parched Myanmar

David Madden, founder and CEO of Phandeeyar, left, and his "Accelerator" team that will help mentor startups in fintech and other fields (Courtesy of Phandeeyar).

YANGON On a recent evening, a group of aspiring young tech entrepreneurs packed a room in downtown Yangon to learn how to pitch their ideas to venture capitalists. The venue, Phandeeyar, means "creation place" in Burmese, a lofty goal captured in its full title, Myanmar Innovation Lab.

Phandeeyar's trailblazing aim is to use technology to improve people's daily lives in Myanmar, still among Asia's poorest countries. Its scope ranges from basic fintech services such as mobile money transfers to more "out of the box" innovations, explains David Madden, Phandeeyar's Australian founder and chief executive.

"Fintech is very important for Myanmar. It's potentially a great example of the 'digital leapfrog,'" he told the Nikkei Asian Review, referring to the country's recent and rapid adoption of smartphone technology. "It's an amazing story," Madden enthused. As a late arrival to Asia's "tech revolution," Myanmar is perfectly positioned to take shortcuts while learning from other's mistakes, he added.

"It's massively unbanked -- a big country with a geographically dispersed population. Financial services are critical to development, but if we're waiting for banks to build branches everywhere then we'll be waiting a long time," he noted.

"Myanmar has many characteristics of the countries where mobile money has been most successful," Madden said. "What's especially exciting is that once you've established a strong mobile money network, then you can build a whole ecosystem of financial services on top of that -- and Phandeeyar aims to help accelerate the development of this ecosystem."

In its short life since 2014, Phandeeyar has made its mark as Myanmar's leading tech oasis. "Last year, even before Myanmar's mobile money regulations were approved, we held a big startup competition," said Madden. "We brought in Wave Money (a venture between Yoma Bank and Norway's Telenor Group) as the main corporate sponsor because we wanted the startups to begin thinking right now about all the products and services they could roll out using mobile money. Some great startups came out of that ... ."

In its large, airy space in central Yangon, Phandeeyar offers training, events and, for promising groups, some funding, office space, mentoring and free start-up services.

Like the groups it seeks to mentor, Phandeeyar began as a small venture with modest aims. Madden arrived in Yangon with his family in 2012 from New York, where he ran a digital strategy agency, and established a marketing business. But tech -- or using technology for social change -- remained his passion.

"We arrived just as the government was moving to open up the telecoms market. I've spent most of my career working in tech and I thought this connectivity revolution could be a game changer for Myanmar," he recalled.

The turning point for Phandeeyar came this year when it landed a $2 million grant from the Omidyar Network, run by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who had earlier provided half of an initial $400,000 that Madden raised for his venture.

The new grant and other partnerships enabled him to establish Phandeeyar Accelerator, a form of incubator to help early-stage startups. He hopes the program will have a multiplier effect by creating models that can inspire more entrepreneurs. Successful applicants -- initially six -- will receive $25,000 in funding and a six-month intensive program at Phandeeyar to help them build and launch their products.

With his quick smile and can-do approach, Madden exudes energy and focus. But he still seems surprised at Phandeeyar's phenomenal success. "We found real talent in the tech community here, and a real hunger among civil society groups, social enterprises and SMEs (small and midsize enterprises) to embrace technology."

"Some really interesting fintech startups applied to Phandeeyar Accelerator, including one that is working to make it more cost-effective for microfinance organizations to offer nano-loans," he said. "This is a well-known problem, and Myanmar is a great place to develop the right solutions."

As excited as he is about "leapfrogging," Madden remains concerned about Myanmar's digital divide. "Technology enables many goods and services to be delivered more efficiently, but it's critical that everyone has access to this technology, that it's affordable, and that everyone has the skills to be able to take advantage of it."

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