MIST director Jason Lusk explains how their Startup Accelerator programme can support Cambodian tourism startups

After the success of last year’s programme, the Mekong Innovative Startups in Tourism (MIST) has announced that applications are open for the 2018 edition of its Startup Accelerator programme.

The programme is intended to boost ideas from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia concerning how best to identify, exploit, address or promote tourism across the region, and director Jason Lusk spoke with Geeks in Cambodia to answer our questions.

The following interview has been edited for clarity, flow and length.

Your programmes are designed for innovation-driven startups in tourism and travel tech, what is in your opinion the potential for this sector in Cambodia?

Cambodian travel startups punch above their weight. Cambodia might have a smaller population and smaller startup ecosystem than Thailand and Vietnam, but tourism is a major contributor to Cambodia’s economy. Consequently, we’ve discovered that Cambodian founders intuitively spot tourism startup opportunities that founders in other countries might miss. We had some exciting participants from Cambodia in MIST 2017, and some of them – Camboticket and Bookmebus for example – were quite mature and sophisticated measured alongside other travel startups in the region. When MIST visited Phnom Penh for an info session on February 8 [2018], I met a few other startups that impressed me with the sophistication of their business models.

As your programmes are open to early-stage startups in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, what would you say are the specificities of the Cambodian Startup ecosystem comparing to the other countries?

Cambodian startups generally launch with the expectation of bootstrapping, compared with startups in Thailand and Vietnam where there is a greater expectation of investor participation. That has a couple of implications for Cambodian travel startups. On a positive note, they tend to have a clear path to profitability. After all, their founders can’t bankroll them forever. However, they can also be less ambitious in their vision than startups that launch with the expectation that investors will give them long runways to amass users and develop sophisticated tech.

One of the reasons the MIST Startup Accelerator ought to excite Cambodian teams is that we are a regional program. We can give travel startups access to investors like Victor Chua from Vynn Capital and large travel tech corporates like Amadeus. We aim to inspire Cambodian travel entrepreneurs to think bigger and bolder, to innovate more, and to explore more scalable business models.

This week, MIST partnered with the Siem Reap travel edition of the Startup Weekend. Can you please tell us more about the nature of this partnership?

The winner of Startup Weekend Siem Reap will automatic qualify as a MIST semi-finalist. MIST will pay all of the travel costs for the startup to attend our five-day MIST Startup Bootcamp May 17-22 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It is always a challenge for a regional accelerator like MIST to identify the top travel startups in each of the countries where we work. We got lucky this year. The 2018 Startup Weekends in both Siem Reap and Yangon, Myanmar had tourism themes. The events are magnets for travel and hospitality entrepreneurs, and by attending them MIST has been able to encounter a lot of startup ideas that we might now otherwise have found.

Could you share with us your first thoughts on how the Startup Weekend: Travel edition went?

Startup Weekend is all about ideas and process, and as the director of MIST it was very inspiring to meet nine Cambodian teams all going through the process of developing and validating travel startup ideas. One idea was even good enough that we awarded the team automatic entry into the MIST Startup Accelerator. The team wants to bring cyclos back to Siem Reap as an atmospheric transportation option that echoes the destination’s heritage. The team had some interesting ideas about how to incorporate tech into their model – both from a hardware and a software perspective – and I saw it as an innovative idea with great potential to scale that also has some positive environmental and social impacts.

Applications close on March 10, so interested startups should apply right away to be among the 15 to 20 startups selected to attend the fully-funded intensive boot camp, where they will compete for six months of mentorship, in-kind acceleration support valued at $20,000 and meeting with potential investors and partners.

MIST is part of the Mekong Business Initiative, which was jointly launched by the Asian Development Bank and the Australian Government in 2015 to catalyze private sector development in ASEAN markets.

For more information, or to apply, visit the MIST Startup Accelerator site.