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Agri-Techathon gives local startups exposure, much-needed funding

Young entrepreneurs share ideas at a 2011 technology conference at the University of Puthisastra. Photo supplied
Young entrepreneurs share ideas at a 2011 technology conference at the University of Puthisastra. Photo supplied

Agri-Techathon gives local startups exposure, much-needed funding

Imagine it: a solar-powered system farmers can install in their fields, outfitted with sensory components equipped to detect and deter most crop-eating birds by releasing high-frequency sound waves.

A plan for that product was presented by a team of four young Cambodian entrepreneurs at the fifth annual Dongsheng Cup International Entrepreneurship Competition in Beijing, a contest held late last month that welcomed over 200 delegates from five countries to pitch their ideas for successful startups.

While the bird-deterring concept won the Cambodian team a prize for innovativeness, it will remain nothing more than an idea without any seed funding, which can be difficult to get in Cambodia.

One of the competitors, Vourchnea Ny , a 22-year old chemical engineering student at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, said that their product could save farmers money and ensure more crops remain chemical-free, but that the team could not move forward without additional funding for research and design.

“We were thinking about the birds that destroy crops every year, which can feed many people who have no food,” she said. “So, we came up with an idea [to solve this problem] . . . but for now, it is just an idea.”

While the team would have won about $150,000 if they had secured the first-place prize, the creativity award they received instead came with a years’ worth of office space in an incubator in Beijing – an odd prize for an international contest, which the Cambodian quartet will be unlikely to utilise.

Sreyleak Kheang, a 21-year-old student at the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA), originally paired up with Sothearath Sok to compete in Cambodia’s own “Agri-Techathon”, which was held at RUA in November. Once at the event, the pair teamed up with two additional competitors, Ny and Kry Sopity, to collaborate on an urban farming concept that eventually won them first place.

The four students were originally selected to compete in the Cambodian Agri-Techathon by their respective universities, and each of the team members had been actively pursuing their own startups alongside their studies. Since returning from Beijing, they’ve largely abandoned their bird-repelling idea in favour of pursuing their original startups.

Kheang and fellow team member Sok, a fourth-year student at RUA, have committed themselves to bringing safe agricultural practices to urban spaces with their startup, Tang, which offers packages and services to assist city-dwelling families in easily growing their own gardens.

“Urban people are often very busy with their work and have no time to take care of themselves, so they eat vegetables from local markets which could contain chemicals that are very harmful,” Sok said, adding that Tang provides clients with plants as well as pre-packaged kits complete with seeds, compost and fertiliser.

“I’ve gotten feedback [from regional experts] that urban consumers . . . do not have a choice but to find a solution [for avoiding pesticide-ridden produce], and my startup addresses this problem,” she said.

Kry Sopity, the sole male member of the entrepreneurial team, explained that he and fellow teammate Ny had been working for the past year on launching their own startup, NeaTy, which focuses on providing Cambodians with on-the-go meals that are both tasty and nutritious.

The entrepreneurial pair spent six months trying to create the perfect package of a dried Cambodian porridge that could be prepared in just five minutes. They ended up prototyping 22 different batches in their university laboratory before coming up with just the right flavour, using their professors and fellow students as taste-testers.

“We’ve won second prize in two competitions for [the dried porridge] idea so far, and have won over $3,000,” Sopity said. “Now we are not joining any more competitions – we want to test the real market instead, so we will spend our winnings on registering our business.”

Andre Kwok, who works for Hong Kong-based equity investment organisation Belt and Road Angel Investment Foundation, helped organise the Cambodian Agri-Techathon and attended the competition in Beijing.

Kwok said that more seed funding was necessary in Cambodia to properly assist and facilitate the Kingdom’s young entrepreneurs.

“Seed funding in Cambodia is not very prevalent, but it is very important for young people to learn how to try . . . [and] to understand the market,” he said. “Young entrepreneurs in Cambodia are really hardworking and educated, but the ecosystem here is not yet favourable for startup investments.”

Though Sopity’s porridge startup has yet to attract investment, he said he wasn’t worried. He believes prolonged exposure in the Kingdom would eventually encourage investors to fund in the project.

“My parents, they don’t believe in me. They won’t help me fund this project, so seed funding is very important,” he said. “First, though, it is important to have a good team and a good idea.”

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