Digital ventures in Myanmar

It’s difficult to imagine a country of 62 million people today with a population at large that’s been starved of the internet.

It’s just as hard to think of any state – especially one within Asia, a continent where technology is king – where mobile phone uptake is only just beginning.

That is the case in Myanmar, which is “discovering” the internet en masse and is only now turning on its very first affordable mobile phones, says Phil Morle, chief executive of Pollenizer, the Sydney-based incubator which has become active in this nascent market.

“Because of the political situation there, it has been impossible to effect the changes before now,” Morle says.

“Until a few weeks ago it cost US$1500 to get a SIM card, maybe 1 per cent of the population had internet and less than 5 per cent had access to a mobile phone. Now people can buy a SIM card for US$2 and the internet market is opening up for 3G.”

Last year the government deregulated Myanmar’s telecom industry.

With the awarding of licences to two international telcos, Norway’s Telenor and Ooredoo Myanmar, the country turned a digital corner. Both companies are now rolling out 3G networks.

Morle and Pollenizer partner Mick Liubinskas have been instrumental in putting together IdeaBox, a three-way joint venture between themselves, Ooredoo (formerly the Qatar-based QTel Group) and the Singapore/Saigon-based tech venture foundry Silicon Straits.

The idea is simple: Pollenizer trains internet start-up businesses while Ooredoo funds them.

It sounds incredible to be taking Myanmar from internet ground zero to infinity in late 2014, but Morle believes Myanmar will be spared all the mistakes and misfirings which were so apparent during the West’s tech boom in the late 1990s.

The uptake and use of the internet, while obviously disruptive to old-style Burmese businesses, is likely to be a fairly seamless progression for companies making the leap.

Yangon-based IdeaBox kicked off in January 2014 and attracted a high number of applicants.

The top 10 were asked to pitch and just three businesses were chosen for an incubation phase that winds up at the end of the year.

The first business selected is a website offering special deals from local merchants. The second is an educational games provider for mobile phones and the third is a Google-style search engine for Myanmar that specialises in the local language and content.

Morle says the incubator is designed to catalyse locals so that “entrepreneurship starts to happen”.

The new tech businesses need a leg-up in this nascent market but Ooredoo also benefits with the increased distribution of phones and internet use driving its expanding user base.

Ooredoo is no stranger to the incubation process and has already successfully developed business initiatives across many developing markets, including tStart and iStart in Algeria, Indosat’s Ideabox in Indonesia and the Start-up Factory in Tunisia.

Morle says the preparation and education Pollenizer uses to bring these businesses to fruition does translate from market to market.

Pollenizer is highly rated in both its native Australia and throughout Asia for bringing start-ups into digital purview and also for helping larger corporates harness their own new disruptive technologies.

Morle and Liubinskas have worked with hundreds of start-ups across Australia and Asia.

Their recent successes include discount deals websites Spreets (sold to Yahoo!); the Oomph digital tablet publishing platform; Posse, a search engine app that helps people find their favourite places on social media; the True Property real estate website in the Philippines and Wooboard, an employee recognition platform.

“We have a fairly well tried and tested program for what should happen to accelerate these companies. We’re just rolling that out as a very solid education and rhythm to the teams working with the start-ups every week,” explains Morle.

“And just as importantly, we have mentors and investor relationships which should give them all an advantage.”

He finds one of the most interesting developments is watching the foreign interests move into Yangon and other parts of Myanmar before his very eyes.

The expectations for the chosen few businesses on the IdeaBox program are high.

Oooredo won’t be investing in any slow movers.“They have what I think is a pretty radical approach to investment,” Morle says.

“They only want a piece of the action if they can get the company to be worth US$1 million. If they don’t get there, they won’t be taking any equity at all.”


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