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Innovate, Collaborate, Accelerate: Swiss EP Vietnam Partner Summit 2023

Swiss EP Vietnam fostered innovative discussions and initial collaborations through its third partner summit from Feb. 16 to 18, gathering nearly 40 key stakeholders of the Vietnamese startup ecosystem to the coastal city of Quy Nhon, Binh Dinh

An accelerator leader, who is still taking care of her one-month-old baby, is willing to spend two days attending the summit that is 600-odd kilometers away from her home.
The CEO of a public-private partnership incubator in Da Nang city drove six hours to get to the event’s location instead of traveling by plane, just to offer a ride to people who want to explore the local startup ecosystem on the sidelines of the summit.
The co-founder of Vietnam’s first mezzanine debt fund finally met her overseas mentor in person for the first time there, though they have been working together for more than a year via Swiss EP facilitation.
The Deputy Director General of the National Agency for Enterprise Development (under the Ministry of Planning and Investment) managed to squeeze the summit in when she was having two other business trips that week.
And the Director General of the National Agency for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization (under the Ministry of Science and Technology) has never missed a single Swiss EP summit in the past three years.

These are just some of the adventures that nearly 40 partners and guests representing startups, accelerators, incubators, policymakers, funders and corporations, shared at the Swiss EP Partner Summit 2023 (Summit) in Quy Nhon, the capital city of Binh Dinh province in Central Vietnam.

This partner summit has been held in Vietnam for three years, which is one of a kind and pioneering among the Swiss Entrepreneurship Programs spanning across seven countries in the world.

Deep ecosystem review
The coastal city is not only beautiful with arcing white sandy beaches facing stunning cliffs and forested ridges but also where Vietnam’s large technology companies like FPT Software and TMA Solutions are setting up their tech complexes, aiming to turn the area into a new artificial intelligence center of Southeast Asia - a title normally reserved for startup hubs like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. This is obviously an ideal place to strengthen connections and understanding of the most active players in the Vietnamese startup community.

In the previous two summits, Swiss EP partner organizations (POs) provided the majority of the content. This year, thanks to the border reopening, five entrepreneurs in residence (EIRs) were brought in, with four from outside of Vietnam, to meet and share their broad experiences and expertise with the participants.

Discussions came on all fronts, from the commercialization of research results, the concept of a mezzanine debt fund, to the operation of a cross-border angel network, the legal basis for the establishment of corporate innovation consortiums with startups, and best practices in capacity building for startups and the supporting organizations themselves.

It’s surprising that the summit participants did not rely much on the interpreter. Everyone can speak and exchange opinions in English, be it a government official or a startup founder. Several complex regulatory terms sometimes stood in the way, but people were ready enough to mingle with international experts, something that could hardly be seen several years ago.

Hub Langstaff, Country Manager at Swiss EP Vietnam

This event was also thrown into the mix of exciting developments within the ecosystem in the past year. Hub Langstaff, the Swiss EP Vietnam country manager, was astonished at the rapid flow of funding into Vietnam beginning in 2021, the rapid pivot from “entrepreneurship” to “innovation” in local policy dialogue, and the big bump in both jobs and funding for Swiss EP partner companies. Having been halted for two and a half years, Swiss EP’s global peer exchange meetup was also reopened last September to bring some local POs to the startup ecosystem in Zurich, Switzerland, signaling the full return to normal of the global and local startup activities after the pandemic.

“My opinion is that [the third-time summit] becomes more meaningful than the first time and second time, which still had a lot of tensions related to the pandemic,” said Langstaff. “This year’s summit was more focused on helping each other, connecting with each other. People were trying to come up with ideas to help their organizations, help their regions. I felt that this event becomes more important at the end of the day.”

According to a StartupBlink report, Vietnam's startup ecosystem ranked 54th out of 100 countries in 2022, up 5 places compared to the previous year. As of the end of 2022, the whole country had 79 incubators, 40 accelerators, and about 170 universities and colleges engaged in startup activities, as per data compiled by the Ministry of Science and Technology. In particular, Vietnam is home to 4 "unicorns" (startups valued at above $1 billion) and around 3,800 startups nationwide.

“Safe-space connections”
Among all the suggestions to Swiss EP, a note that reads “safe-space connections” stood out. The phrase was written by a participant describing what Swiss EP did well for POs since its inception in 2015. If it had not been for Swiss EP Vietnam, key ecosystem stakeholders would hardly have sat together in one place, joyfully played games and openly shared about all the challenges they encountered in the past years. In other words, Swiss EP Vietnam works to create such spaces and partnerships allowing participants to interact freely, building capacities for each other and the ecosystem.

In a bid to further leverage this bonding, during the summit, representatives and experts from the ministries of technology and investment directly discussed with venture capital firms (VC), SME funds, and angel investors about foreign investment roadblocks; university incubators were connected with business accelerators to smoothen the startup journey; and startups and corporations were introduced to a dynamic and burgeoning ecosystem that they can rely on to foster positive changes in their own industries.

To put this into perspective, in the year 2022, thanks to these connections, Swiss EP Vietnam POs have supported 214 companies, which have generated more than 3,000 jobs (43% female) and attracted over 47 million CHF in funding, of which 12% went toward female-led businesses.

“All partners are brought together by Swiss EP, and it was so beautiful that there were no competitions, even though we could see that technically on paper, there could be competition,” said entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) Maaike Doyer, founder and managing partner at Epic Angels, one of the largest female-only angel networks in Asia. “Everyone is working towards the same goal: how can we bring startups to the next level and how can we grow Vietnam as a country.”

EIR Maaike Doyer Founder & Managing Partner at Epic Angels

Joining the 2023 summit for the first time, Shuyin Tang realized that the work of other Swiss EP POs and her mezzanine debt fund targeting female-led companies has more in common than she expected. Incubators and accelerators not only have startup-dedicated programs but also other relevant activities for SMEs, who are astill struggling to raise funding as they are often not a great fit to the VC model.

“We also do work with a lot of SME scale-ups, who are hungry for more knowledge and advice from EIRs. I think it will be a really interesting program that we can build up in the coming years,” said Shuyin Tang, CEO & co-founder at Beacon Fund and partner at Patamar Capital. “It’s really wonderful to see all the friends and meet new people and I definitely think it sparks initial ideas and early collaborations that we will pursue in the future.”

The group discussions and expert consultation sessions with the five EIRs at the summit fuelled other new joint ideas to tackle current ecosystem challenges. Those include raising startups’ awareness of early cap table management, launching boot camps to upskill young talents for startups, building international-standard incubators in collaboration with global corporations, designing a sandbox to allow foreign investors to put money in and out of Vietnam easier with reduced paperwork and at an accelerated speed, strengthening policy advocacy capacity of intermediary organizations, rolling out qualified angel investors certification courses, and an annual summit for university leaders to boost entrepreneurship and innovation understanding within higher education institutions.

Filling the gaps
It is a rare chance to have five EIRs in the same place, and with four overseas EIRs traveling to Vietnam for this summit. The chemistry was evident among POs and EIRs, who stated that they started to fall in love with the ecosystem once they met these people in person just for a few days. There was an appeal to hold more events like this and carry on the connections which were mostly made online in the past year due to the pandemic-induced disruptions.

As a result, some of the main gaps that the summit participants defined were the need for arranging more EIRs for POs, flexible scheduling for the EIRs to stay in the country longer, as well as looking for more Vietnamese-speaking EIRs.

EIR Patrick Collins, Founder at Prospect Labs

In the long term, the Swiss EP partners, guests and experts reached a consensus that the ecosystem needs to be self-sustaining. That means each player needs to focus on building its own capacity, or enhancing its competency without depending on organizations like Swiss EP. “We are a temporary participant in that ecosystem,” Langstaff said.

Given the strong ecosystem connectivity, accelerators and incubators are still struggling to find promising startups, with some admitting that they witnessed a declining number of startups selected into their training programs last year. Having an EIR working closer with the startup’s team members, not only with the founder, could help nurture a new pool of talents who might get inspired and well-prepared to begin new businesses later on. The ecosystem should also draw on the experience of successful and growth startups to disseminate the expertise to the next-gen founders, or encourage peer coaching to improve insider know-how.

“I would like to see our partner organizations working with us and working with each other to identify where more and more startups can come from,” stated Langstaff. “Vietnam is a big place so it is getting more challenging to identify a single source, such as an accelerator or a university. Now they are coming from everywhere.”

EIR Richard Marney, Senior Advisor at responsAbility Investment AG

(Left) EIR Arjun Tekalur, Director of Engineering at Xerox

EIR Duc Hoang, Special Counsel at Duane Morris Vietnam