By Casey Hynes
Southeast Asia has become a hotbed of startup activity. From futuristic Singapore to the growing tech communities of Myanmar, the region is alive with hustle and innovation. Indeed, there’s a hardly an industry that hasn’t been touched by some form of tech disruption.
Last year, Southeast Asian startups saw record funding levels, with investments tripling between 2016 and 2017. Tech in Asia reported that thanks largely to increases in late-stage and Series B deals, funding reached $7.86 billion last year, compared to $2.52 billion in 2016.
There are many successful and laudable entrepreneurs in these countries. But in honor of International Women’s Day, I decided to revisit some of the women entrepreneurs I’ve featured here, each of whom is doing groundbreaking work in this part of the world.
Ayesha Khanna, ADDO AI , Singapore
Dr. Ayesha Khanna cofounded ADDO AI, an artificial intelligence company that advises and incubates other organizations, in 2017. The company prides itself on forging interdisciplinary partnerships between industry leaders and academics as it seeks AI-based solutions in areas such as city planning, disease outbreak management, policing, and other fields.
Khanna’s company is currently incubating three startups. One aims to use AI to create smart city systems, another is applying natural language processing (NLP) to creating chatbots that can parse Asian languages written in Roman scripts, and the third uses AI to conduct risk assessments for Pakistani farmers who want to apply for micro-insurance products.
Khanna and I discussed the latter last summer, and she gave her take on how AI and fintech could drive financial inclusion across the region’s poorest communities. “Ultimately, fintech is about greasing the wheels of social mobility in Asia, and it gives [the emerging middle class] access to the things they need to spend money on to move up the ladder and improve the lives of their children,” she said.
Honey and Shwe Yee Mya Win, Chate Sat, Myanmar
These Yangon sisters are one of the big success stories to emerge from Myanmar’s burgeoning tech scene. Honey and Shwe Yee Mya Win began building their company as competitors in some of Yangon’s earliest hackathons in 2014 and 2015. As participants in the Phandeeyar Accelerator, they built Chate Sat, an online freelance marketplace to connect writers, designers, and other contract workers with regional businesses.
The platform not only enables freelance professionals to find gigs, it also creates opportunities for companies outside Myanmar to get a foothold in the growing economy. Businesses “[sign] up ... to find suitable freelancers who could translate their projects into the local context to promote their businesses here,” Honey told Eleven Myanmar. After a successful run with the Phandeeyar Accelerator, Chate Sat attracted six-figure funding from investors in Myanmar and Singapore.
Rachel de Villa, Cropital, Philippines
Rachel de Villa cofounded the alternative investing platform Cropital in her native Philippines. De Villa saw firsthand the crushing impact of climate change and predatory lending on farmers in the country. She decided to build a more secure option for them and a means for socially-minded investors to earn money while doing good.
Cropital's founders visit a farm run by one of the company's borrowers. (Photo credit: Cropital)
For a minimum investment of $100, Cropital users can lend to Filipino farmers and help them break the cycle of deep indebtedness. De Villa, who was named to Forbes’ 2016 30 Under 30 Asia List, told me last yearthat some farmers pay up to 50% interest a month on their loans. If a catastrophic natural disaster occurs and they lose their crops, it becomes all but impossible for them to escape their debts.
Cropital vets borrowers based on the crops they grow and whether those are likely to flourish in the farmers’ regions. Borrowers can recommend peers for the platform, though not before they’ve successfully repaid a loan themselves, which serves as a form of quality control to reassure lenders. Long-term, de Villa aims to make the Philippines’ agricultural industry appealing to younger generations of potential farmers.
Bidushi Bhattacharya, Bhattacharya Space Enterprises, Singapore
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, formerly a scientist with NASA, left her work in the U.S. to help build Singapore’s spacetech industry. Bhattacharya founded Bhattacharya Space Enterprises (BSE) to advance her vision of a thriving hub for sub-system innovations and satellite development.
Although Singapore isn’t geographically suited to rocket launches, Bhattacharya sees the city-state as well-suited to developing ancillary systems for companies such as SpaceX. In an effort to inspire young generations of scientists and engineers to turn their talents toward space, Bhattacharya leads regular astropreneur meetups and BSE helps students build experiments and launch them on the International Space Station. She shared with me that she wants BSE to launch an incubator that will not only help spacetech startups secure funding and mentorship but get their technology “flight-ready” for use in space.