For people unfamiliar with the Vietnamese startup ecosystem, this article introduces Topica Founder Institute (TFI), the Hanoi-based accelerator whose graduates, since 2011, have raised over 15 million dollars in funding. As I’ll show, over the course of the last six years TFI leadership has been extremely impactful in Vietnam and they are now starting to transform the ecosystem in Thailand as well. It is because of organizations like TFI, its creator Phạm Minh Tuấn, CEO and Founder of Topica Education Group, and Co-Directors Bobby Liu, Quang Mai Duy and Tran Manh Cong (and all the mentors and advisors that have contributed along the way) that the Vietnamese Startup Ecosystem has matured to the point it is at today.
What is Topica Founder Institute?
Topica Founder Institute (TFI) is part of the global Founder Institute network with the tagline “keep your day job, start your dream company.” TFI was launched at the end of October 2011, with 8 coaches from Silicon Valley USA, and 16 successful founders from Vietnam. From the beginning, TFI wanted to establish Vietnamese startup entrepreneurs with strong growth potential and the ability to attract international investment.
In mid-July 2012, the New York Times ran an article describing the Founder Institute as a global training program, started in 2009, based in Mountain View, Calif., that had already opened chapters in 27 cities across 14 countries. The article mentioned Vietnam’s Founder Institute’s Tuan Pham who provided this quote, “The fact that the Founder Institute agreed to work with us is huge — otherwise, we would have to rely on what we read from books.” He said the Vietnam chapters had already produced five companies.
The first TFI batch produced Appota, which continues to be one of Vietnam's most prominent young startup successes.
TFI Formative Years and Expanding to Thailand
In 2013, the Hanoi ecosystem couldn’t be thought of without including TFI which was being described as an organization devoted to building the ecosystem. At that time, TFI had either directly organised or support more than 40 startup related events since 2011. The next year, TFI was identified as one of Vietnam’s “most prominent incubation programs” and, they had graduated TFI’s third (this batch included Antoree and Beeketing). In addition, TFI was actively promoting itself as a startup ecosystem-developing organization focused “on incubating people by working on their skills in business-building, management, marketing etc.”
By 2015, TFI had created a reliable network and had graduated its 4th Batch. At that time, TFI had graduated 34 startup founders and eight of its graduates raised over $10 million in funding and are valued at around $60 million. By this time, in a short span of three years, TFI had been instrumental in building the foundation of a healthy and sustainable startup ecosystem in Vietnam.
In May 2016, TFI had expanded its reach and created its first batch in Bangkok, Thailand, stating that they launched based on the same fundamentals learned in Vietnam. By August, TFI had graduated its fifth Vietnamese batch and by December it had graduated the first Bangkok batch. According to Thai representative Surawat Promyotin, Executive Director of the Bangkok Venture Club, “with Topica, we now have the entire team of co-directors and also ground crew...The TFI team has proven that it can be a significant player within the startup ecosystem, where it graduated more than 30 startups in only four batches (in Hanoi) and in the process, helped raise more than US$10 million for some of its graduates.”
TFI Mafia and Beyond
TFI was launched in Vietnam in 2011 at a time when the tech startup community was in its infancy but, after five successful batches in Vietnam and one in Bangkok, Thailand. TFI is now openly talking about a “TFI Mafia” that has 60 founders, more than 20 startups, has raised $15 million in venture funding and has a total valuation of $80 million. This TFI Mafia is an active alumni that is enabling new entrepreneurs. “These founders have created a circle of trust. We have events planned for these founders to meet and network, and at the same time, they come back regularly to help with new batches,” said Bobby Liu, co-director at TFI.
For me, TFI is an example of how the Vietnamese Startup Ecosystem has reached a point of maturity. Not only has TFI produced a wealth of startups founders, it has also expanded its reach into another country. If there is any need for evidence that Vietnam is a country that has emerged as a real-player in the ASEAN startup ecosystem, people need to look no further than the TFI chapter in Bangkok. I think the success of TFI demonstrates that it is time for articles about how Vietnam will be arriving, or how Vietnam is on the cusp of an ecosystem, need to stop. TFI provides evidence that the Vietnamese Startup Ecosystem has arrived and it is now time for it to continue moving forward, expanding and making its presence felt throughout the entire ASEAN region.