December 29, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Australian visionary gives Myanmar tech room to grow

David Madden's 'creation space' helps harness an IT revolution

GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor, Nikkei Asian Review

David Madden, founder of Phandeeyar, Myanmar's leading tech hub, talks at a workshop about the impact of tech on daily lives. (Courtesy of Phandeeyar)

YANGON On a balmy December evening in downtown Yangon, a diverse crowd packs into the sprawling offices of Phandeeyar, an information and communications technology hub. The event marks a milestone in Myanmar's "connectivity revolution" -- the group's second birthday, and a new phase in its training and investment programs for startups.

The space is normally filled with an intense buzz of guest lectures and training sessions for aspiring entrepreneurs, but the atmosphere tonight echoes the exuberance of a vibrant nightclub. The loud music and excited chatter subside only when David Madden, Phandeeyar's Australian founder, takes the microphone. "Myanmar faces huge challenges ... but technology can help accelerate its growth and development," he says.

"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 people -- our interactive open data program, for example, and a new app that helps people engage with their parliamentary representatives."

David Madden, back row, left, with his Phandeeyar team and young tech entrepreneurs. (Courtesy of Phandeeyar)

In its short life, Phandeeyar, which means "creation place" in Burmese, has caught the wave of Myanmar's transition from decades of harsh military rule. The group has grown from a few tech enthusiasts setting up "hackathons" -- coding events where developers compete to hack solutions to specified problems -- into a self-proclaimed "innovation lab" with 32 full-time staff members and a mission to foster Myanmar's "tech and innovation ecosystem."

Many thousands of people, from both inside and outside the country's nascent tech community, have passed through Phandeeyar's doors since then to attend hundreds of events.

For Madden, 41, an integral part of Phandeeyar's goal is to train and invest in Myanmar's new generation of tech entrepreneurs and help develop applications to improve people's lives, from financial technology services like mobile money transfers to more "out of the box" innovations.

Madden is passionate about what he calls the empowering quality of technology. After post-graduate 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 a life-changing move to Myanmar in 2012 with his wife and infant son. The family, which now includes three children, arrived just as former President Thein Sein was moving to liberalize telecommunications.

Back then, SIM cards cost more than $250, and internet access was close to zero. "It quickly became apparent that the administration was going to use a mobile operations tender process to show how serious it was about opening up to the world," Madden recalled.

David Madden talks to tech entrepreneurs about Phandeeyar's "Accelerator" program. (Courtesy of Phandeeyar)

As internet and mobile communications took hold, Phandeeyar emerged from the success of a hackathon called "Code for Change Myanmar" that Madden ran in 2014. He said he was astonished at the turnout, enthusiasm and "raw talent" he saw among participants. To realize his ideas, he knew he needed a physical space: "Somewhere the tech community could come together with civil society groups, social enterprises and others to build the tools, platforms and content to accelerate change and development."

That dream became a reality after he met Stephen King, a partner in eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's $1 billion investment fund, Omidyar Network. "That was important, because Omidyar Network had backed the kind of space elsewhere that I wanted to create in Myanmar," he said, citing the "iHub" in Nairobi and a "Co-creation Hub" in Lagos.

Among other key supporters, George Soros's Open Society Foundations and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt's Schmidt Family Foundation weighed in. Now, with nearly $5 million in grants, Phandeeyar is branching out, recently launching Phandeeyar Accelerator, a program to provide promising startups with resources and training, and Founders Institute Yangon, a "pre-accelerator" course utilizing Silicon Valley's famous Founder Institute program to help aspiring entrepreneurs become startup founders.

Madden is also considering how Phandeeyar might make a broader impact in Asia. "This is the world's first 'smartphone nation.' They've gone 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."

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