Cambodian duo’s Eco-Plastic takes second in Bhutan startup challenge

Teammates Sokhana Ly (centre-left) and Bunhourng Tan (centre-right), standing between their mentors, celebrate their second-place win at the Mekong Business Challenge in Bhutan on Saturday. Photo supplied
Teammates Sokhana Ly (centre-left) and Bunhourng Tan (centre-right), standing between their mentors, celebrate their second-place win at the Mekong Business Challenge in Bhutan on Saturday. Photo supplied

A pair of female Cambodian entrepreneurs placed second in a regional business competition on Saturday, beating out university teams from six countries with their startup idea – called Eco-Plastic – that could utilise Cambodia’s plastic waste to pave cheaper, more durable roads.

The Mekong Business Challenge (MBC), an annual competition that launched in Phnom Penh 12 years ago, welcomed 11 entrepreneurial teams from six nations at their contest held in Bhutan last week. The grand prize for the first-place team was a spot in the International Business Model Challenge competition in the US in May.

 

Stephen Paterson, co-founder and organiser of the MBC, said the contest’s judges – which included representatives from international companies including McKinsey & Company, Google and ManuLife – were impressed by the initiative taken by the Cambodian team in pursuing expansion options for their startup.

“Eco-Plastic came in second in the Cambodian competition [last month], but since [then] they have made so much progress,” Paterson said. “We want to emphasise methodology in our judging, and our criteria takes a look at the failures these teams have had to overcome to make their business models more realistic.”

 

Since taking home the silver medal, the Eco-Plastic team – female duo Bunhourng Tan and Sokanha Ly – have received funding from a US investor, travelled to China to tour plastic recycling facilities and met with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to discuss implementing their idea.

“We had a great honour to meet the [Transport] Minister, His Excellency Sun Chanthol, who was very supportive of our idea,” said Sokhana. “We got permission to use the ministry’s laboratory to build and test our samples there, before we went to the MBC.”

 

“Plastic waste is a curse to the environment, to health and to the economy . . . and people face a high risk driving on roads in Cambodia, which are often poorly constructed and damaged by high traffic,” Sokhana said. “By establishing Eco-Plastic, we can use plastic waste to improve our roads, transforming landfill waste into a roadfill product.”

Teammate Tan said that the pair had learned a lot since first coming up with their idea at the end of 2016, having entered several different local startup competitions and coming away with different lessons each time.

“During the last year, we’ve been to many startup competitions . . . and throughout the programs, our team gained more hands-on experience,” she said. “It’s been quite a journey, of going up and down, of failing and of learning from mistakes, of listening and then adjusting to incorporate the feedback.”

Though a Bhutanese team took first place for their startup called Shogjur – which has already turned a profit from sales of recycled paper jewellery and souvenirs – the runner-up Cambodian team won a pair of laptops and has been encouraged to bring the Eco-Plastic business model to the US competition in May via another application process.

“The Eco-Plastic team will be applying for the open spot” in the US competition, Paterson said, adding he had “a very strong feeling they’ll get it”.

Cambodia’s win in a regional competition was a sign of the growing entrepreneurial scene in the Kingdom, according to Paterson, and was likely due in-part to the many local programs and competitions that cater to university students. The next step for the Kingdom’s startups would be to think bigger.

“There are businesses attracting small- to medium-size returns, but there’s still a lack of investable ideas,” he said. “There is still a lack of projects that can be scaled up to a larger level.”