Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Phandeeyar gets $2 million grant for tech start-ups

Downtown community tech centre Phandeeyar has received US$2 million in grant funding from Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm co-founded by eBay originator Pierre Omidyar.

This marks the second time Omidyar Network has invested in Phandeeyar, as the firm supplied the Myanmar innovation lab with seed backing of about $400,000 in 2014 together with other funders including the Schmidt Family Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

“Phandeeyar believes that there is this incredible opportunity for Myanmar to leapfrog to the digital economy,” the organisation’s founder and CEO David Madden told The Myanmar Times yesterday.

“This investment is about making a really, really concerted effort to ensure that digital leapfrog actually happens.”

The fresh investment will allow Phandeeyar, in turn, to become an investor through the establishment of a new accelerator program.

“With this Omidyar investment, we’re going to be able to invest money into the most promising tech start-ups in the country,” Mr Madden said, adding participants will be granted access to mentors, partners and follow-on investors.

The accelerator is one of five major developments the Omidyar injection will help facilitate as Phandeeyar aims to address community pain points such as coaching and capital.

Among them are an entrepreneurship program to help budding businesspeople hone their plans and a separate “version of the accelerator”, this time targeted at social and civic entrepreneurs, which will bestow grants, said Mr Madden.

The new money will also help the non-profit build up its “maker” space for hardware tinkering and to support Open Development Mekong’s Myanmar-specific open data platform.

The tech and community hub’s launch in 2014 came as Myanmar’s telecoms transformation began to unfold.

SIM card prices dropped precipitously, as did the cost of smartphones, as foreign mobile operators entered a newly liberalised telecommunications market. Both new entrants – Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo – racked up millions of subscribers in a matter of months.

Omidyar Network partner Stephen King said yesterday the firm saw this moment in Myanmar as unique, a time when they wanted to get behind Phandeeyar “with a really big bet”, citing its proven track record as a reason to invest.

Consumer demand for mobile access has paralleled the market’s eagerness to create using connectivity, according to Mr Madden.

For two years Phandeeyar – which translates in Myanmar to “creation place” – has been a place for techies, civil society groups, journalists, entrepreneurs and others to mix.

Last year it hosted more than 100 events, including an election-themed hackathon whose first-prize mobile application was installed more than 200,000 times in under five weeks.

Omidyar Network’s various investments include Myanmar-focused ventures such as Proximity Designs and Yangon Journalism School, as well as hubs in other countries.

Mr King said Phandeeyar had the potential to impact Myanmar’s local economy, as he had seen occur elsewhere.

“It becomes a real stimulus for the ecosystem,” he said.

“I think we’re just on the crest of a wave here,” he added.

“What Phandeeyar [and others] have shown ... is that technology can be a real accelerator.”

The country has gone from landline connections to smartphones in a few short years. Other legacy technology is fading in favour of more futuristic options.

Mr Madden said that in the future he hoped Phandeeyar would still act as a springboard accelerating Myanmar’s digital leapfrog.

“In five years time I hope that Phandeeyar has been able to support a new generation of tech start-ups and social and civic entrepreneurs,” he said.

“I also hope that there are a lot of other people doing really important things in the ecosystem as well.”

“Phandeeyar’s mission is to harness the potential of technology to accelerate change and development in Myanmar. That’s really about using technology to improve lives,” said Mr Madden. “Hopefully we can get there faster.”