Business Travel

Why Phnom Penh’s Startup Scene Is on the Rise

The startup ecosystem in Cambodia's capital is nascent but attracting attention for its tech education programmes, new co-working spaces and early-stage ventures

For entrepreneurs in Cambodia’s capital, a key mission is simply gaining visibility – to get everyone from local university students to foreign investors to engage. Phnom Penh’s startup ecosystem is nascent and so far international successes are few. But investor interest is on the rise, despite fierce competition from neighbouring countries.

‘The market itself is getting more mature, with more serious startup projects, co-working spaces and incubators now covering all the Phnom Penh districts,’ says Soreasmey Ke Bin, managing partner of Confluences, an incubator and point of contact for startup founders and investors looking for a route into Cambodia. ‘We are seeing more and more regional funds eyeing our market.’

At the same time, a growing number of Cambodian funds are appearing. The city’s co-working spaces and incubators – among them Raintree, Impact Hub and Emerald Hub – are providing places for investors and founders to meet. Meanwhile pitch competitions, including Startup Weekend and BarCamp, provide platforms for entrepreneurs to connect with investors.

The main challenge is nurturing software engineers to support the entrepreneurs’ tech dreams. Zoë Ng from Raintree says meeting this demand would require interventions at various levels, ‘from developing interest in tech and self-motivated learners in early-stage education, through to rapid skills training at the young adult or professional level.’

Tech education programmes are cropping up, including Saturday Kids, which teaches technological literacy to children – potential tech founders of the future. In the short term though, adds Ng, clarity on policy for startups, such as registration, investment and tax incentives ‘would enable faster growth of the startup community in the formal economy’.

This infrastructure upgrade, coupled with a few big investments, is needed for Phnom Penh’s tech scene to get bigger headlines. ‘There is always room for improvement but our ecosystem is complete now,’ says Bin. ‘The players are ready, and we are all excited to see what will be the outcome.’

The Person: Rithy Thul

Rithy Thul fell into entrepreneurship by chance. In 2006, he decided to take a break from his university studies and needed to get money together to live and travel. ‘I didn’t have any higher education certificate, so getting a job was hard,’ he says. ‘All I knew at the time was how to use the internet, how to email and I could speak some English.’ He took a temporary teaching role, raised some money and then headed off on a cycling adventure.

Rithy Thul, Innovative Asia, Phnom Penh
Ryan Chan

Upon his return, he says, he ‘accidentally’ got into real-estate consulting, then learned computer programming. He next launched Toursanak Adventures, a travel agency delivering adventure experiences. This would be just the beginning of a full and varied entrepreneurial career.

Now in his early 30s, Thul is lauded as one of Cambodia’s startup champions. He opened co-working spaces SmallWorld and EmeraldHUB, and invests in early-stage startups via SmallWorld Ventures. He also co-founded BoomCamp, a startup mentoring programme, and a software development firm called Codingate. Thul makes time most days to meet with apprentices and students who come to learn computer programming, aiming to inspire them and offer guidance.

‘As a self-taught developer and big dreamer, Thul has been a role model and mentor for many young people interested in pursuing a career in technology or as an entrepreneur,’ says Zoë Ng of startup space Raintree.

In an already packed schedule, Thul also squeezes in time with the team working on Koompi, the Linux-based laptop, which Thul is currently seeking to crowdfund. He hopes the machines will ultimately be made in Cambodia and will revolutionise the country’s digital landscape.

The Product: Khmerload

Hailed as Cambodia’s most successful startup to date, Khmerload delivers a stream of viral news content covering everything from sports to gossip.

Khmerload is a family affair. The idea for the site came about in 2011 when brothers In Vichet, In Visal and In Vichea started researching what websites their fellow Cambodians were visiting. The brothers, along with sister In Mayan, first launched an online retail portal, Little Fashion, which is still going strong. Next, they turned their attention to delivering a BuzzFeed-like website for Cambodia.

Innovative Asia, Phnom Penh
Ryan Chan

As the site grew in popularity, Vichet searched for investors. He reached out to Khailee Ng, who oversees the Southeast Asia fund for venture capital firm 500 Startups, and Khmerload became the company’s first venture in Cambodia.

Nieman Lab reported in 2017 that the site was hitting 20 million page views per month. Its coverage now includes local news, videos and articles written by readers.

Ones to watch

Loans for all

Fintech startup Morakot produces software for microfinance institutions, which provide financial services to Cambodia’s population without access to traditional banks.

Easy riders

Dreamed up in 2013 and now one of Cambodia’s most successful startups, BookMeBus is an online ticketing portal that allows users to book journeys and access timetables from many different bus companies.

Let it shine

A recent recipient of funds from the Smart Axiata Digital Innovation Fund, Okra Solar creates solar microgrids to bring power to remote communities. Plans are afoot to expand into the Philippines.

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