Epic Cambodia, the one-year incubator program launched by co-working space Impact Hub Phnom Penh, has entered its startup acceleration phase, with five finalist teams receiving business mentoring and $20,000 worth of support as they prepare a final pitch to potential investors and grant-givers at the end of the yearlong program.
Last October, EPIC began with 11 teams following an initial applications process. After demo day presentations from all the teams in January, the five finalist teams were chosen by a team of judges to go on to the final 36-week-long stage, receiving training and mentorship to develop their final products with funding from USAID.
Among the finalists was Eco-Fresh box, a project to produce a bamboo and burlap container allowing farmers to store fruits and vegetables to last longer without any electricity. Moung Vandy, one of the project’s five team members, said mentoring provided by EPIC during the incubation stage helped them to rapidly improve their business and product development process.
“We have learned so far about finance, about being entrepreneurs, creating startups and human-centred design approach,” he said. “We’ve worked with a lot of different mentors, and that is the best part of the program.”
Many young entrepreneurs in Cambodia have yet to fully understand the needs and high demands of entrepreneurship, making programs like EPIC a valuable and needed resource to develop the startup scene in the country, Vandy said.
“I think most entrepreneurs or businesses in Cambodia raise money to start a project and then they fail because they don’t have detailed enough plans or they don’t look at the experiences of past businesses, so then they miss some crucial part of development and they fail,” he said.
EPIC mentors, however, have pointed out the pitfalls in the path of success, and helped the team chart out a course.Now in the acceleration phase, Vandy said his team is currently seeking out a suitable producer to provide materials for the Eco-Fresh box and is working to create partnerships with NGOs and various agricultural organisations to increase the reach of the product.
“I think the idea for our prototype has stayed the same, but we changed our focus for our target customers, our business model, how we approach the market and how we do our financial projections and business development,” he explained. “Before we were just targeting farmers, but now we see a lot more opportunities with NGOs that work in agriculture, vegetable associations and large groups of farmers.”
E-house, another of the five EPIC finalists, launched by Suong Sovathana and Phoeun Bopheakdey, is a project to create a smartphone platform that facilitates access to safe housing for young women by listing vetted housing options.
Sovathana explained that the team had worked on the project before applying to the EPIC program, but made little headway due to the time constraints of having full-time jobs. She said the financial support provided by the program has allowed them to dedicate themselves fully to the project.
“I think the nine-month support and this acceleration phase is really important for us because we don’t have to worry about the money and the other expenses we need to spend for our business,” she said. “We just focus on building the app and trying to spread the news about our business.”
The team expects to unveil the first version of their application in March.
“We’ve learned how to make new networks and communicate with more people,” Sovathana said. “We are learning skills during the EPIC program like financial projections and marketing. We also have support from mentors to improve our leadership skills and communication skills.”
The learning process has also been formative for the E-house project, according to Bopheakdey, who explained that the focus of their business has evolved with the help of mentors.
“Before, we just focused our business on the revenue from the commission we charged from the house owners, but then, through the training and workshops of the last three months, we learned that using only commissions would not be enough to help us survive for a long time, so we needed to have more revenue sources such as advertisements,” she said.
Kate Heuisler, chief of party at USAID’s Development Innovations (DI) program, which is providing funding and support for EPIC, said that the project was specifically adapted to Cambodia’s nascent startup scene.
“EPIC is specifically built to address the gaps Impact Hub and USAID’s Development Innovations program have heard about from Cambodian entrepreneurs, especially in very early stages of developing their startup concepts,” she said. “Here, investors are often interested in more mature startups, and early stage ventures have trouble attracting investment.”
Heuisler noted that there is no fool-proof formula for creating a strong startup eco-system in Cambodia, but that the results of EPIC will help better understand what is needed to launch more startup ventures. She added that understanding the culture and context of Cambodia is crucial to run a successful incubator program like EPIC.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we will see some big changes, but I don’t think there is a magic wand you can wave,” she said. “In my experience, a creative, adaptive, problem-solving mindset is always a powerful foundation, and DI and EPIC are trying to help foster this mindset with all our partners.”