The Innovation Partnership Program IPP received a special guest from Finland last week to take part on its co-creation tour across Vietnam. Mr. Minh Lam from Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, met with a number of interesting start-ups and business development centers in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. He also had a chance to discuss concrete collaboration steps with local Team Finland representatives and Tekes’s Vietnamese counterpart agencies NATIF and NATEC, both public agencies providing support and funding for innovation. Minh, originally from Vietnam himself, is currently in charge of collaboration between Vietnam and Finland and part of the project team in BEAM – Business with Impact, a novel €50 million joint programme between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and Tekes supporting Finnish innovation projects in developing countries. As a future key connector between Finnish and Vietnamese companies, Minh shares his experiences from the tour.
Minh, tell us a little bit about your background, experience and links to Vietnam.
– I was indeed born in Vietnam and started my elementary school here, so I still remember quite a lot about Vietnam. After moving to Finland, I have been lucky enough to continue speaking Vietnamese with my parents. During my high school years, I used to visit Vietnam more often. That was when Vietnam just opened its doors.
– I joined Tekes ten years ago. Although my main job is to evaluate various projects and grant public funding to Finnish companies, it has always involved international collaboration with different countries. I still run a market access program which takes 15 Finnish companies to the US each year as well as a number of companies to China.
– Due to my Vietnamese roots, I have always followed the country’s development closely. I am particularly glad to see recent economic development in Vietnam. There are already Finnish companies that are shifting their focus to Southeast Asia, and namely to Vietnam. In order to respond to these needs, the Finnish government has launched a program called BEAM which taps into these opportunities in developing countries. Together with IPP we can connect Finnish and Vietnamese organizations so that both sides would benefit. In addition to these, we would also like to share our experience in creating a well-functioning national innovation system. We would be happy to see a sustainable business environment in Vietnam, where new start-ups are being created.
After spending a week in Vietnam and meeting a number of teams and key individuals, what are your impressions and findings from the trip? How has the Vietnamese market changed in the past years from your viewpoint?
– I have not have a direct contact with Vietnamese companies so far, although I have been following the market closely. Within one week, I have met with almost 40 start-ups and business development centers. I find it very interesting to see the same passion of young entrepreneurs regardless whether they are in Finland, or Silicon Valley or in Vietnam.
Since its launch in December last year, IPP has been inviting Expressions of Interest from Vietnamese new innovative companies and organisations that are developing services for new companies locally. The most promising teams – around 70 altogether – were invited to the co-creation round in four cities. Minh, you heard pitches from over 30 teams in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang and participated in longer discussions with a number of them. How would you assess the quality of the teams and their project ideas and measure them against the companies you meet every day in Helsinki?
– The teams I met were very innovative and I could clearly see how committed they were in their business and company. Among them, a young owner of the company even sold her house in order to finance and pursue her dream as an entrepreneur. I would say that in many regards, the companies can match with any companies in Helsinki.
– I could also recognize the need for further enhancement of their skills and knowledge in management and entrepreneurship. In addition, international business networks are desperately needed. Finding seed funding also seems to be a problem in Vietnam. I believe IPP could help to finance some of the projects in the beginning and, for long-term impact, it could introduce management training to the entrepreneurs.
So you think there is great potential in the Vietnamese market. Should Finnish companies be more interested in Vietnam?
– The answer absolutely yes. Vietnam is keen to open its doors to foreign companies. There are more and more people being educated abroad and returning to Vietnam. Many of them have studied in reputable universities. The labor costs in Vietnam still remain quite low compared to those of China. I know a few Finnish companies who are considering relocating some of their activities from China to Vietnam.
– There are of course some challenges which I hope will change over time.
– It looks like the timing is perfect and also there a couple of key things in place. From the Finnish companies’ point of view, Tekes and our program BEAM will help them to look into opportunities. Here in Vietnam we have the IPP program together with our colleagues in Team Finland organizations.
On your trip you have been discussing different possibilities for collaboration between Finnish and Vietnamese public innovation agencies, Tekes, NATIF and NATEC . Could you elaborate further the reasons and targets for such cooperation. Why would it be beneficial for both Finland and Vietnam?
– Vietnam is trying to develop its own innovation system to support businesses and research institutes. We would be happy to share our experience in building a world-class innovation system which Finland and Tekes are known for. Finland will end its direct development aid to Vietnam in a few years. Now is the perfect time for capacity building and starting business collaboration.
– In the near future I would like to see joint projects where our counterpart agencies NATIF and NATEC support Vietnamese organizations, while Tekes provides funding for the Finnish partners.
When are planning to return to Vietnam?
– A Finnish business delegation and a few key personnel will come to Vietnam in May and they will look for the next step of collaboration between Finland and Vietnam. I will try to return when there is an opportunity and need. One thing’s for sure that the companies I met in Vietnam have impressed me tremendously. Young Vietnamese entrepreneurs share the same passion which I have seen in other countries. I hope that their business spirit here will be further encouraged and nurtured.
Hope to see you here later this year. Minh, thanks very much for participating on this tour and giving your valuable time and advice to all our teams and stakeholders.