Vietnam investment opportunities: Q&A with Wiziin CEO Tien Nguyen

Judy Lin, DIGITIMES, Taipei 0

Many startups are confused about how to find angel investors, while investors are discouraged by the lack of transparency of information about startup investments. Nguyen Ngoc Tien (aka Tien Nguyen), founder and CEO of Wiziin Vietnam, saw this pain point and created a platform to connect investors with startups and quality SMEs, using artificial intelligence (AI) to help startups manage investor relationships and find potential investors, while giving investors real-time and accurate information of startups to help manage their portfolio.

In a recent online interview, Digitimes talked to Nguyen to understand what value this new platform may create for the new venture ecosystem.

Q: Could you briefly introduce your background? And what brought you to start your entrepreneurial journey?

A: My background is business strategy. And in 2010, I started my first project in e-learning. And we provide the Mass Open Online Courses (MOOC) services for universities. After that startup, I created a new one in Hong Kong, offering cards for loyalty programs for, say, members of Chamber of Commerce. At that point of time, that businesses was very promising, because people used physical cards, but we offered them digital cards with which they could redeem their loyalty rewards. We then exited from this business to a Japanese investor.

And then I created my third venture, an outsource platform for software. The Vietnamese engineers of that platform were excellent, and we offered good prices. The outsourcing industry bloom at that point of time allowed us to expand and invest more in other projects in Internet of Things (IoT) and social network.

And in 2016, I got a scholarship from the Irish government to study in Ireland in strategy. Therefore, my main academic background is business strategy and military strategy. After that master's program, I went to Beijing, and did a project as a strategic researcher. At the same time, I remained an entrepreneur, I opened companies in Ireland and in England, respectively, both focusing on artificial intelligence and big data.

At that point of time, by doing projects with my professors in University College Dublin and the Silicon Dock in Ireland, I realized the real roles and interactions of innovation-based startups and VCs. So I joined Act Venture Capital, which managed a fund of EUR500 million, backed by the European Central Bank. We invested in renewable energy projects, in biotech, and tech companies. I managed that for four years. And then I came back here in Vietnam, but I remain a limited partner (LP) of the firm.

I realized that there is a gap in investment in the Asia Pacific region. It is also very difficult to do due-diligence because information sometimes is not very transparent, and not accurate. However, as an investor, we need to release the money. Keeping the money in our pocket is a waste. So that's why we try to narrow the gap by creating Wiziin. Wiziin is an investment platform where we try to collect transparent and accurate information from startups and investors and make them available real-time. And we not only have the matching services to provide for both, we also provide the tools. It costs startups a lot of time to maintain investor relationships to raise funds. Wiziin helps them maintain investor relations on the platform. Startups can focus on their daily operation activities, but when they need to raise funds, they can use Wiziin to find appropriate investors. And for the investors, by using the investor dashboard, they can keep track of whichever startups in their portfolio.

I believe that we can create more options for both - not just for investors but also for entrepreneurs.

Q: How does AI come to play at Wiziin? How do you make AI work for your platform?

A: After years of experience working in big data and AI projects, as an investor, I understand that the first stage of AI should be data. When we try to find one good enough startup, we scan through thousands of startups, and do tons of work just to find the right ones. I realized that some of our analysts, sometimes they get lost in the job, and sometimes they are a little bit biased, when they try to do the initial screening for the startup.

So, first, we gather data big enough for analysis. We have got more than 60,000 Vietnamese SMEs data ready for the platform. I believe in the future there will be more because we will expand coverage to entire Asia Pacific region. Why SME? Because in the region the number of SMEs is huge. And with that data, we need to calculate and analyze everything, but it is impossible to do so much work. So, we developed an AI bot that can program themselves. So, the bot programs itself every day by gathering data. When SMEs upload their data to us, such as financial data, operational data and founders' data, we collect everything with high level of privacy standards in order to fuel the investment decision making process.

We collect four kinds of data: first, the background of the founding team. The second one is the technology that they use. Do they have patents, licenses? Anything like that. The third thing is market data, about the market and their market share. And the fourth is financial data: revenues, earnings, how much money the founders are putting into the company, etc. We also try our best to collect and analyze data from reliable third parties, like the government.

After some analysis, our AI bot will generate an evaluation. So, through time we believe that our valuation will be as close as the valuation that happens in real life. And we try to introduce a kind of machine learning method so that the bot can program itself every day to keep it accurate. That transparent information can assist the decision-making efficiency for investors, because sometimes the investors do not really know what they like. Sometimes they got some policy or criteria to screen investments, but when they make a decision, sometimes it's very intuitive. So, we need a tool to take care of the SMEs and startups and also the buyer side and learn about their behavior. Only behaviour reflects investment decisions.

Q: Can you explain more about learning the behavior? Also, do you let investors set up their own preferences?

A: The backbone of our platform is that we learn from behavior. So we collect the historical behavior of the investor. For example, I got a case study, which is a local investor. We analyzed hundreds of cases that she already invested, and we realized that 80% of her portfolio has had something to do with sustainable environment or helping women in society.

We learn from that, and then we can see she is a social-impact investor. She never told us about it, she probably had never realized that she wanted to invest in impact investment. But now we learn from that behavior. And then we suggest a list of companies heavy with social enterprises. We also have the features that investor can customize. But at the end of the day with the tons of data, it's better to let the AI bot do the job. Investors can set their customization, but that may not be necessary. But it's also the options they may choose.

Q: So right now, your focus is still on Vietnam. Do you have plans for future expansions?

A: Yes, we have focused on Vietnam. And our next strategy is to open this platgofrm for European investors. We also have plans for expansions in Southeast Asia by the end of 2021, so we can pull in more investors in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Now we have some Indonesian SMEs on our platform and some from India. In 2022, if it goes smoothly, we hope to introduce the financial market, where we can introduce more options for investors. For example, investors currently can only invest in equity, like they can buy equity from SMEs, but in 2022 we hope that we can offer convertible notes, which means they can give loans to the SMEs and can convert to equity if the KPI do not match. Or we can create a kind of lending services from investors for SMEs with a suitable interest rate. But for that we will focus on Asia Pacific, because the SMEs in Vietnam may be not as many as those in the whole region; it's true also in terms of the number of investors. Especially the investors in Vietnam mainly are the government and some big corporate venture capital funds; there aren't many real investors with huge amounts here yet. The startup ecosystem here is: within more than 110 active funds, Vietnamese investors contribute 25%, another 25% from Singapore, and 17% from the US. In the future the numbers of European, Korean and Chinese VC will rise.

On the other hand, we also see the importance of converting the individual traditional investor to venture investment, so that they can have more investment options with more risks and more rewards. This market helps us to scale, especially when we focus on Asia Pacific. So we must focus more on Asia Pacific in the next three to five years for enough volume of the market.

Q: I see. So the SMEs you're referring to is not only the startups, you mean they can also be on the investor side?

A: Yes, the SMEs mean those we connect from both sides and we work with as a platform - we work with stakeholders and investors. SMEs do not mean only startups. Startups are just a portion of it. We also aim at SMEs that can or want to integrate innovations into what they do, and SMEs that need funding. Even though they are traditional, they know that they want to have new ways of business, which we can help. So, the whole system is for small and medium enterprises, not only startups.

Q: I suppose there are many hidden champions - which may be family businesses, but are very competitive in their technologies - that could be discovered by your platform. Is that your purpose of including SMEs which are not startups into your platform?

A: Yes. Because for an economy like Vietnam, we don't have many tech firms yet, and we have more traditional enterprises. We need kind of synergies of both. It's not enough to have startups only; we have SMEs that know how to do business with a brand, have know-how, or need funds to grow their businesses. Many startups are good at technology, know about innovation, young, strong, but do not have enough experience in the market. So we want the whole ecosystem that can create synergies for themselves.

Q: What is Vietnam's startup landscape right now? And how can both sides create synergy to optimize the value of collaboration?

A: The Vietnamese startup ecosystem is quite young and has a lot of potential. Back in 2008, American firms like IDG venture invested in Vietnamese ICT companies, but they invested in software companies mostly. But now Samsung and Philips have set up factories here, and later this year Apple will also be investing here. I must say that this is the time of doing technology business. The government has encouraged this a lot; they put it into the Five-Year Economic Plan. And what Vietnam has now is the capability to make software, and capability of using some designs for hardware and mass production. But in the next 10 to 15 years, I would say that Vietnam will have the ability to design the hardware, semiconductor, and similar stuff. So, invest now; we know these businesses will bear fruit in the next five or 10 years. And the startup ecosystem will be crowded very soon, because after Vietnam and EU signed the Free Trade Agreement, European VCs are now aware of this market and will want to jump on the bandwagon here, like Japan. The Japanese also have VCs around here. They have some tractions in this market. So, as I will say this is the right time for investors to get into the market. And as an investor, we can consider Vietnam as a player with the ability of creating high value products, not just a market with a huge population. A population of more than 90 million is remarkable, so there is great potential that will materialize in the next five or 10 years.

Q: Can you talk more about Vietnam's design capability?

A: We're talking about the next 10 to 15 years. In the case of eSilicon (which designs and manufactures digital CMOS and finFET ASICs chips), they are based in Silicon Valley, but 80% of their engineers are Vietnamese. And they have managed to sell the company at US$216 million to Inphi. They hire Vietnamese engineers for design work and then they send those engineers to Silicon Valley to work for the mother company. I believe that in the next 10 to 15 years, when these engineers want to return and contribute to Vietnam, that is the right time for a wave of hardware creation and production.

And there's a company that we work with - Akselos.

About 90% of their engineers are Vietnamese. It is an Internet of Things (IoT) company that creates the world's fastest and most advanced engineering simulation technology. So normally, if you have a failed wind turbine in the sea, it will take more than three weeks to send the engineer up, take it down, and then fix it.

Akselos has a solution, which takes just three hours: they can detect everything that happened via sensor data, and send the engineers up to fix it. So Akselos has US$10 million from Shell as a grant. And that's a very interesting case about a Vietnamese engineers that can work for a global firm. So I believe in the human resources and entrepreneurial spirit, especially in the ability and the ambition of the founders. We can find good talent here. We don't have advanced technology yet, but we will in a very near future.

Q: How can Taiwan and Vietnam work together to create synergy?

A: In my opinion, let's have a look at the strengths and weaknesses. We must say that Taiwanese technology is remarkable in the world, everybody knows that. But there are limitations of the island. I seem similarities between Ireland, where I lived several years, and Taiwan. In Ireland, they just have five million people. But Ireland has great industry, so we invested in the technology companies located in the Silicon Dock in Dublin, continental Europe and America.

And investment will be the key for Taiwan, to reach new markets, to create more value and create more jobs. So I believe that investment in a growing country is what Taiwanese companies should have a look at. I believe that Taiwanese firms can invest in technology in Vietnam, Indonesia, in the ASEAN region. So people can see the value that Taiwanese company can add to those economies. The Taiwanese companies then can own some pieces of the bigger pie. Not limited to the Taiwanese pie but enjoy the pie of the whole region. What is Taiwan's advantage? I believe that is the advanced technology, especially hardware, and stable financial resources.

This can be suitable for the ecosystem in Southeast Asia. The key is investment in technology around this region. And also, in the next five or 10 years, I believe that we can be a place to mobilize investments to other countries. Because the FTA that we have signed with other countries, there are hot money chasing after technology, so we can also mobilize the investments from Vietnam to some companies in Taiwan and create more jobs. For Taiwan, investing overseas is the key.

Wiizin CEO Tien Nguyen

Wiziin CEO Tien Nguyen
Photo: Company