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Expanding Clean Energy in Southeast Asia Through GIST Boot Camp

July 26, 2017

Across Southeast Asia are sprawling, lush, green fields. The fields, made of glossy leaves and pale purple flowers, wind through towns and villages across the countryside. But the lush appearance is deceptive, masking an invasive plant species that is wreaking havoc on waterways in the region.

Water hyacinth is native to the Amazon in South America. It grows rapidly, known to double in population size in as little as two weeks. Since its introduction to Southeast Asia, water hyacinth has rapidly expanded across lakes, up rivers and even down small streams.

Now an energy company is hoping to harness the weed, and turn it into a sustainable and affordable form of clean energy for the rural regions of Southeast Asia.

Photo Credit: HiGi Energy | Jackie Yap

 

A few years ago, Jackie Yap, founder of HiGi Energy, traveled to the Philippines, noting the extensive infestation of the water hyacinth along waterways used by rural towns and villages. Yap, who was pursuing a doctorate in renewable engineering at the time, was searching for a project to dig into.

It was while Yap was coughing from the cooking smoke of a home where he was staying in the Filipino countryside, that he realized he could use the water hyacinth to create a cleaner biofuel.

“The origin of HiGi is completely by accident,” said Viet Huong Nguyen, a team member of HiGi Energy Vietnam. “[Yap] wanted to create a bigger impact and he searched around until he visited the Philippines and saw the water hyacinth disaster.”

HiGi Energy takes hyacinth weeds and converts them into a biofuel for heating and cooking. According to the company, the biofuel is smokeless when it burns, which diminishes the amount of pollutants released during cooking. The company also said the biofuel helps eradicate the weeds while stopping people from cutting down native foliage for fuel. Most importantly, HiGi made sure the biofuel was affordable to rural communities.

Jackie Yap, HiGi founder, with the biofuel made from water hyacinth. Photo Credit: HiGi Energy | Jackie Yap

 

“Tackling this problem is an important milestone for HiGi to establish the brand as a clean tech company and build up the customer base,” said Nguyen.

HiGi Energy carried out a successful implementation of its product in the Philippines. But Yap and his team wanted to go even further, providing a clean biofuel to other countries covered in water hyacinth.

That is when HiGi Energy turned to GIST and its Startup Boot Camp in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The Startup Boot Camps provide entrepreneurs with hands-on training, mentorship and information that ranges from customer development to creating successful pitches. The goal of the camp is to help entrepreneurs start and grow their ventures.

Nguyen and her teammate from HiGi Energy Vietnam attended the 2016 boot camp, in hopes of successfully launching the company’s biofuel in Vietnam.

“The motivation was to conduct market validation and see if [Ho Chi Minh City] could be our next market,” said Nguyen. “At the same time, it is also beneficial to get local connections to get the business off the ground.”

Nguyen and her teammate competing in the GIST Boot Camp. Photo Credit: Tim Barker

 

Nguyen and her team spent several days working with local mentors and industry experts on how to understand and explore their new market.

“I was excited and got to learn from the mentors,” Nguyen recalled. “The boot camp also enriched and strengthened the fundamentals of any seasoned entrepreneur in market validation and customer surveys.”

It is a skill HiGi Energy is now using to expand even further. Nguyen said the company has made its way to Switzerland and still uses the market validation skills from the boot camp to explore new markets.

According to Nguyen, market understanding “is a mix of art and science, and the boot camp really helped us learn in this perspective.”

HiGi Energy Vietnam won first place at the Boot Camp, an honor Nguyen is very proud of earning.

“It feels really great,” Nguyen said. “It definitely gives us a stronger validation that’s the problem worth solving.”

Nguyen said the GIST Boot Camp gave HiGi Energy the tools and training they need to fight and win against two sustainability issues with one creative solution.

“The best thing about being an entrepreneur is to be able to surround ourselves with people who dare to challenge the status quo,” said Nguyen. “I think the GIST Boot Camp is more than just a boot camp, it also pools many important people together and that would be very much beneficial to the startups.”

On August 26 – 29 in Amman, Jordan, GIST is holding another Startup Boot Camp for entrepreneurs in the country. To learn more and apply, click here.