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ASU produces a bumper crop of Southeast Asian entrepreneurs

August 16, 2022

The Mekong River forms a fertile plain across much of Southeast Asia. Agriculture plays a vital role along the lower Mekong — in which Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are located — and farming is the primary occupation of the region’s rural inhabitants.

Technology that can enable sustainable agricultural practices and increase productivity are underutilized in each of these countries. So the Mekong-U.S. Partnership (MUSP) Young Scientist Program recently engaged the region’s young scientists and researchers in the areas of horticulture, engineering and business to develop solutions to agricultural technology and business challenges.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership Young Scientist Program participants pose in an agricultural field in Vietnam.Innovative young professionals from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam participated in a hands-on entrepreneurial development experience as part of the Mekong-U.S. Partnership Young Scientist Program. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Arizona State University, the program brought together entrepreneurship experts from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU and entrepreneurs, changemakers and investors in Southeast Asia to teach the participants skills they can use to advance agricultural technology and sustainability in the region. Photo courtesy Meghan Gibson
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Chosen through a competitive application process, the 27 Young Scientist Program fellows participated in a hybrid virtual and in-person event in June and July.

“ASU and its partners in the U.S. Department of State and local industry have a long history of enhancing the skills of bright young professionals to improve people’s lives in the lower Mekong region,” says Jeffrey Goss, associate vice provost for Southeast Asia, executive director for the Office of Global Outreach and Extended Education and an assistant dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. “These innovators were eager to learn and collaborate, and are now set to make positive impacts in their communities. I look forward to seeing what they will achieve in agricultural advancement and other critical fields vital to their home countries.”

The participants first attended a series of virtual sessions with entrepreneurs and faculty members from the Fulton Schools. Over the course of a month, they learned innovation and entrepreneurship concepts and how to apply them to the agricultural technology, or agritech, sector.

Following the virtual sessions, participants attended a one-week immersive and collaborative experience in partnership with Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and Education, Vietnam, in mid-July. They engaged with guest lecturers including investors, agritech entrepreneurs and environmentalists to develop and fine-tune investor pitches for the chance to win $15,000 in seed grant funding for their idea.

Cultivating sustainable economic success

The MUSP Young Scientist Program, formerly known as the Lower Mekong Initiative Young Scientist Program, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Arizona State University to promote equitable, sustainable and inclusive economic growth in the lower Mekong region.

“The Young Scientist Program is just one part of the commitment of the United States to help Mekong countries address the unique challenges that the delta faces,” said Robert Greenan, acting consul general of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam, during welcome remarks for the last week of the program. “We hope that through this program, early career scientists like yourselves in this region will continue to have an opportunity to do their good work, to collaborate on research, and to come together to find the solutions to transnational problems.”

In total, the Young Scientist Program has welcomed 84 fellows from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to develop ideas in three areas: water, energy and environmental sustainabilty in 2018; public health and bioinformatics in 2019; and agricultural technology and innovation in 2022, after a pause during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Young Scientist Program has demonstrated the effectiveness of transnational collaboration by early and mid-level professionals in some of the most critical fields,” says Meghan Gibson, a program manager in Global Outreach and Extended Education at the Fulton Schools. “This program has not only brought together like-minded individuals driven to bring continued development and innovations to their countries, but has also introduced them to connectors in the form of expert scientists, investors and entrepreneurs to enhance their network and provide accelerator opportunities for their ventures.”

Participants harvest a bounty of knowledge

Throughout the 2022 program, participants learned important skills centered around entrepreneurial concepts such as understanding their audience, creating a business model and pursuing investment opportunities as well as persuasion and storytelling techniques to generate a call to action.

Many of the participants — including Phem Menghak, a governmental institution researcher from Cambodia — were learning these concepts for the first time.

“This is my first business or entrepreneur training,” says Menghak, who developed a pitch for a chicken breeding strategy and the use of smart sensors at chicken farms in rural Cambodia to improve the animals’ health and growth, and increase the farmers’ profits. “So the program was a foundational step to let me understand where I should start and what I should do next to achieve my goal of helping small farmers to improve their livelihood through the design-thinking model, business (coursework) and connecting ideas from participants, panelists and other presenters.”

The introductory courses were taught online by Ken Mulligan, a faculty associate in the Fulton Schools who teaches technology entrepreneurship and strategic enterprise innovation to ASU students online and on-campus, as well as internationally in Pakistan, Laos and Sweden. Mulligan is active in the ASU student entrepreneurial community, in his consultancy Ken of Zen and is a veteran of several technology startups, including cloud-based cybersecurity startup CyNet, for which he is a former CEO.

Mulligan’s lessons were inspired by the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program’s systematic approach to commercial development as well as the Lean Startup methodology for rapid venture development. He built upon the participants’ knowledge of the scientific method and experimental design to introduce new concepts of validating an idea’s commercial potential, market desirability, technical feasibility and financial viability.

“These virtual agritech workshop sessions were designed to assist the attendees to move the fruits of their research from the physical lab or the lab of their mind into the marketplace,” says Mulligan, who notes that the session templates can easily be redeployed for future workshops throughout Southeast Asia. “They learned how to apply design-thinking to assist them in finding an underserved need in the agricultural value chain and use the Lean Startup methodology to search for and design a business model that can scale and repeat.”

Phoo Phoo, a Young Scientist Program fellow from Myanmar, found the lessons to prepare for an investment pitch to be especially helpful.

“Preparation for the pitch deck is most valuable for me because I believe that we have to prepare not only for the pitch but also for our startup journey,” says Phoo, who is developing a tissue culture lab to solve the problem of seed-borne ginger diseases and provide farmers in Myanmar access to disease-free, high-quality ginger seeds. “It made me think several times about the problem that I am going to solve through my product.”

During the weeklong, in-person event, participants learned more about the importance of agricultural technology for their region through a variety of speaker and field trip experiences. The speakers represented educational technology companies, investor agencies and change-makers in the area, including Amazon Web Services, Ascend Vietnam Ventures and international development organization SNV.

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