Vietnam Tech Startups Seek Next Phase

There’s a short but not-so-simple question facing Vietnam’s technology startup fans: Now, what?

The communist country was not immune to the startup craze that swept the globe, but much of the early period was spent talking about tech and all the local potential. In what could be called the next phase of the craze, Vietnam now hopes to go beyond just talking. The focus now is on getting entrepreneurs to deliver on their pitches and meet concrete benchmarks, whether that’s to turn a profit, expand overseas, or find “exits” for their businesses, such as through acquisitions.

At a basic level, Vietnam has what’s needed to be a place prime for startups. Citizens have high literacy rates and math proficiency, which eases the path to creating an army of programmers for the economy. The country also has a balance that combines, on the one hand, a large consumer market on par with those of Thailand and the Philippines, and on the other hand, a lower level of development with high growth rates on par with those of Laos and Cambodia. And the low cost of things like wages and Internet plans allows people to establish companies at minimal expense.

But these are only ingredients, not, so far, action toward a modern culture of enterprise.

“Vietnam usually does copy-paste,” said Lam Tran, CEO of the startup WisePass, adding that locals should move past the model of copying a business idea from a foreign country and pasting it into the domestic market. “We don’t know how to internationalize.”

WisePass, an app that connects monthly subscribers to bar and restaurant deals, launched in Ho Chi Minh City with plans to cover seven countries in the near future.

Taking advantage of cross-border ties is one effective, increasingly popular strategy, startup aficionados say. For one thing, Vietnam has a huge postwar diaspora, known as Viet Kieu, who help connect the Southeast Asian country to investors, advisers, and developers abroad. For another, the tech scene inside the border is more cosmopolitan than ever.

To give one example, the Vietnam Innovative Startup Accelerator (VIISA) has invested in 11 companies for the second batch of what it calls “graduates.” All have domestic links, but have partners operating in locales as disparate as Ukraine, South Korea and France.

Sangyeop Kang, investment officer at VIISA partner Hanwha Investment, said he’s “delighted about the diversity” of this sophomore batch.

“The foreign teams were able to expand their business in Vietnam, while helping Vietnamese companies with global insights,” Kang said. “This is a step forward for the ecosystem.”

In a sign of official interest, the government has a carve-out for startups in its Law on Supporting Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, which will take effect Jan. 1. The law offers young companies support with co-working spaces, technical equipment, intellectual property training, and low interest rates, among other things.

To do more than copy and paste, new businesses are contemplating how to outfit themselves for Vietnam. The startup But Chi Mau, for instance, makes games that tap into the unquenchable thirst for education, while MarketOi deploys motorbike drivers to let customers customize their food deliveries.

“The question is how to differentiate ourselves,” MarketOi founder Germain Blanchet said, before proceeding to answer that question: “This is with flexibility.”

 

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Eurozone Recovery Helps Unemployment Fall to Near 9-Year Low

Official figures show that the robust economic recovery across the 19-country eurozone persisted during the third quarter, helping unemployment fall to a near 9-year low.

 

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, said Tuesday that the eurozone economy grew by 0.6 percent during the July to September period. Though that’s slightly down on the stellar 0.7 percent tick recorded in the second quarter, it’s modestly higher than expectations for a 0.5 percent rise.

 

Separately, Eurostat said unemployment fell to 8.9 percent in September from 9.0 percent the previous month. That’s the lowest rate since January 2009.

 

Elsewhere, Eurostat said annual inflation in the eurozone dipped to 1.4 percent in October from 1.5 percent as the core rate, which strips out volatile items, surprisingly fell to 0.9 percent from 1.1 percent.

 

 

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DNA Lab in Netherlands to Help Find Missing People Worldwide

An organization that has been helping find people missing from the 1990s Balkan conflict has now expanded to tackle the cases of millions of missing people around the world. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), based in the Netherlands, will use the latest DNA technology to identify bodies and provide closure to family members of the missing people. The laboratory findings also will be used to serve justice and support demands for reparations. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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African Development Bank Calls Off Proposed Loans to Nigeria

The African Development Bank has called off a loan to Nigeria that would have helped fund the country’s budget, instead redirecting the money to specific projects, a vice president at the lender said on Monday.

The African Development Bank had been in talks with Nigeria for around a year to release the second, $400 million tranche of a $1 billion loan to shore up its budget for 2017, as the government tried to reinvigorate its stagnant economy with heavy spending.

But Nigeria refused to meet the terms of international lenders, which also included the World Bank, to enact various reforms, including allowing its currency, the naira, to float freely on the foreign exchange market.

Rather than loan Nigeria money to fund its budget, the African Development Bank is likely to take at least some of that money and “put it directly into projects,” Amadou Hott, African Development Bank vice president for power, energy, climate change and green growth, told Reuters in an interview during a Nordic-African business conference in Oslo.

Because prices for oil, on which Nigeria’s government relies for about two-thirds of its revenues, have risen and the naira-dollar exchange rate has improved, the country is relying less than expected on external borrowing, Hott said.

No one from the Nigerian finance ministry was immediately available to comment.

Nigeria’s 2017 budget, 7.44 trillion naira, is just one in a series of record budgets that the government has faced obstacles funding, pushing it to seek loans from overseas.

In late 2016, the AfDB agreed to lend Nigeria a first tranche of $600 million out of $1 billion. But negotiations over economic reform later bogged down, blocking attempts to secure the second tranche of $400 million, sources told Reuters then.

Now, AfDB’s loans will be more targeted, Hott said.

“It’s hundreds of millions of dollars, just in one go, that we were supposed to provide in budget support, but we will move into real projects … ” he said.

Earlier this month, the head of Nigeria’s Debt Management Office said the country is still in talks with the World Bank for a $1.6 billion loan, which will help plug part of an expected $7.5 billion deficit for 2017.

The administration is also trying to restructure its debt to move away from high-interest, naira-denominated loans and towards dollar loans, which carry lower rates.

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U. of Michigan Expert Puts Bird-like Robot Through Its Paces

A rare bird has landed at the University of Michigan: a two-legged robot named “Cassie” that researchers hope could be the forerunner of a machine that one day will aid search-and-rescue efforts.

 

Cassie — whose name is derived from the cassowary, a flightless bird similar to an ostrich — stands upright on legs with backward-facing knees. The biped that weighs about 66 pounds (29.94 kilograms) may not have feathers or a head, but she is attached to a short torso that holds motors, computers and batteries and is able to walk unassisted on rough and uneven terrain.

 

Cassie, which stands a bit over 3.25 feet (1 meter) at full leg extension, was built by Albany, Oregon-based Agility Robotics and purchased by Michigan researchers using grant money from the National Science Foundation and Toyota Research Institute. Although other institutions have acquired similar models, Michigan’s team is excited to use its version to put Michigan Robotics’ cutting-edge programming to the test, said Jessy Grizzle, director of Michigan Robotics.

“This stuff makes our old math look like child’s play,” Grizzle said.

 

Although there is considerable excitement about Cassie and the potential she represents, certain real-world applications are still a bit out of reach.

 

Search-and-rescue “is a hard problem and serves as a template for ‘unsolved problems in robotics,’ which is one of the reasons you see it pop up so much when robotics companies talk about applications,” said Agility Robotics CEO Damion Shelton, who added that it is “difficult to even speculate” when a robot could be used for such a purpose.

 

Other applications will be launched sooner, according to Shelton, who said a robot capable of walking around the perimeter of an industrial site taking 3-D scans is no more than two years away from becoming reality.

 

For now, Grizzle and some of his students are putting Cassie through her paces on and around Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. During a recent a stroll on a pedestrian walkway, Cassie ambled on a grassy, sloped surface, then took a serious tumble and did a face-plant on the concrete.

 

“Well, I think that’s the end” of the test, Grizzle said, as Cassie lay in a heap on the ground, slightly nicked and scratched but no worse for wear.

 

The programs Grizzle and his students tested “are version 1.0,” he said.

 

“They are simple algorithms to make sure that we understand the robot. We will now focus on implementing our super-cool latest stuff,” Grizzle said.

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World Economic Forum: Silicon Valley Must Stem IS Violent Content

The World Economic Forum’s human rights council report issued on Monday, warns that tech companies might risk tougher regulations by governments to limit freedom of speech if they do not stem the publishing of violent content by Islamic State and the spread of misinformation.

The report urged tech companies to employ thorough monitoring on their services, and “assume a more active self-governance rule,” recommending that tech firms must apply more rigorous rules.

This report comes before the three tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google, testify before a U.S. congressional committee in November about using their platforms for spreading political misinformation during the 2016 presidential elections.

The use of tech platforms and tools has helped the Islamic State spread its agenda and attract recruits. Digital propaganda motivated more than 30,000 people to journey thousands of miles to join IS, according to a report published by Wired, a magazine published in print and online editions, that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics.

“ISIS’s supporters embraced new social media platforms and encrypted communications tools to compensate for law enforcement and platform owner actions against ISIS since June 2014,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its report “The Virtual  Caliphate.”

Silicon Valley tech companies convened last August with representatives from the tech industry, government and non-governmental organizations in the first Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. The forum was formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube.

The meeting focused on how participating parties can cooperate to block the spread of terrorism and violent extremism using tech platforms and services.

In the past year, social media companies edited and updated their user guidelines to address such sensitive topics as extremism and terrorism, death, war and sexual abuse.

In August 2016, Twitter announced that it suspended 360,000 accounts for violating the company’s prohibition on violent threats and the promotion of terrorism. Twitter added that although there is no “one magic algorithm for identifying terrorist content on the internet, they will continue to utilize other forms of technology and expanded its partnerships with organizations working to counter violent extremism (CVE) online.”

Last August, Google’s YouTube announced joining efforts with more than 15 additional expert NGOs and institutions to help the company better identify content that is being used to radicalize and recruit extremists.

“We’ll soon be applying tougher treatment to videos that aren’t illegal but have been flagged by users as potential violations of our policies on hate speech and violent extremism,” YouTube said.

In a speech for the Global Coalition on March 22 in Washington D.C., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We must break ISIS’s ability to spread its message and recruit new followers online. A digital caliphate must not flourish in the place of a physical one.”

“We must fight ISIS online as aggressively as we would on the ground,” Tillerson said.

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Lobbying, Political Worlds of Paul Manafort Merge in Indictment

For nearly 40 years, Paul Manafort has been one of Washington’s top lobbyists, paid millions of dollars to represent controversial  figures from around the globe who needed to burnish their standing in the U.S. capital, including the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos,  Zaire’s military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and most recently Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych.

At the same time, he has been a Republican political operative, advising and serving an array of the party’s presidents since the 1970s. Just last year, he briefly was campaign chairman for the upstart candidacy of real estate mogul Donald Trump on his eventually successful run to the White House.

Now the lobbying and political worlds of the 68-year-old Manafort have achieved a merger of sorts.

A federal grand jury in Washington indicted him in a money-laundering scheme linked to his lobbying for Moscow-supported Yanukovych before the Kyiv leader was ousted in 2014 and fled to Russia in exile. The charges came as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election aimed at undermining U.S. democracy and help Trump win.

By the end of Monday, Manafort was under house arrest, awaiting resolution of charges that could, if convicted, land him in prison for years.

The indictment against Manafort did not describe his tenure as Trump’s campaign chief and was related solely to lucrative lobbying transactions that predated the Trump campaign.

Trump was quick to note, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

After Manafort pleaded not guilty to the charges, his lawyer, Kevin Downing, told reporters, “I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct. There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. Mr. Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and … was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukraine come closer to the United States and the EU.”

Downing said, “Those activities ended in 2014 over two years before Mr. Manafort served in the Trump campaign.”

But Manafort was at the top of the Trump campaign for three months in 2016 and Mueller’s investigators are in the midst of a months-long investigation of trying to determine who had contacts with Russia in the long run-up to Trump’s upset win in the November election over former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One person they could look to for answers is Paul Manafort.

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US Russia Probe Takes Dramatic Turn with Indictments, Plea Deal

The special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia took a dramatic turn Monday with criminal indictments of two former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Special Counsel Robert Mueller also revealed that a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with the Russia probe. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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Indictment Against Manafort, Gates Details Elaborate Scheme

The indictment against Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, and a longtime business associate alleged the two carried out an elaborate scheme that involved the use of a little-known outfit to mask years of lobbying on behalf of Ukraine’s former president, his pro-Russia political party, and the Ukrainian government. 

Manafort and his former business partner, Rick Gates, are charged in a 12-count indictment including conspiracy, money laundering, and making false statements. The two could faces decades in prison if convicted, and both have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The allegations do not include collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign.

The indictment was approved by a federal grand jury on Friday and unsealed after Manafort and his right-hand man and former Trump campaign adviser, Gates, turned themselves in to the FBI. It represents the first charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Manafort’s consulting work for Ukraine started in 2006 when the Republican political strategist was retained by Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions to “advance its interests” in Ukraine. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, the party’s candidate, was elected president. Four years later, he fled to Russia following popular protests.   

Eight-year lobbying campaign

The indictment alleges that during the eight-year period, Manafort and Gates “engaged in a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign” in the U.S. on behalf of Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, and the Ukrainian government. The two hid their activities from U.S. authorities and used offshore accounts to launder millions of dollars in Ukrainian payments.  

As part of their effort to mask their lobbying from U.S. authorities, the pair used a little-known outfit called the European Center for Modern Ukraine. The Brussels-based outfit called itself “an advocate for enhancing EU-Ukrainian relations” but in reality served as “a mouthpiece” for Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, according to the indictment. Manafort and Gates used the nonprofit to carry out lobbying and public relations campaigns, according to court records.

Manafort and Gates then hired two Washington, D.C., firms to lobby members of Congress about Ukrainian sanctions, the “validity” of Ukraine elections, and the “propriety” of Yanukovych’s imprisonment of his political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. 

“Manafort and Gates did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law,” the indictment alleges.

The two lobbying firms are Podesta Group Inc. and Mercury LLC, the Associated Press reported last year.  The Podesta Group is headed by Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, who was campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton. Politico reported on Monday that Tony Podesta was stepping down from the firm.

To conceal the lobbying effort, Manafort and Gates allegedly arranged for the two lobbying firms to be ostensibly working for the European Center for Modern Ukraine, which in fact was “under the ultimate direction” of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian government and the Party of the Regions, according to the indictment.

Manafort and Gates are also accused of using their offshore accounts to secretly pay $4 million for a report about Tymoshenko’s trial commissioned by the Ukrainian government.

Ties to Trump

Manafort and Gates joined the Trump campaign in March 2006. Gates was later promoted as deputy campaign manager and Manafort served as campaign chairman. He was fired in August after reports of his lobbying for pro-Russia interests in Ukraine.

The Department of Justice began looking into Manafort’s and Gates’ lobbying for Ukraine last year. The indictment says the two partners told investigators in 2016 that they merely “provided an introduction” between the Brussels center and the Washington lobbying firms, and that their efforts “did not include meetings and outreach within the United States.”

In fact, according to the indictment, Manafort and Gates were deeply involved in the scheme. They had weekly phone calls and email communications with officials of the two companies, directed them on “specific lobbying steps,” received regular reports from them, and updated Yanukovych about the lobbying activities. For their efforts between 2012 and 2014, the firms were paid $2 million. 

Charges

The charges against Manafort and Gates include conspiracy to defraud the United States, money laundering, failure to report foreign bank holdings to the U.S. Treasury Department, lobbying for a foreign government without registering with the Justice Department, and making false statements about their lobbying efforts.

Manafort and Gates are accused of serving as unregistered foreign agents of Ukrainian interests in violation of Department of Justice registration requirements.

Between them, Manafort and Gates controlled 17 domestic entities, 12 Cyprus-based entities and 3 other foreign entities, according to the indictment. In all, $75 million passed through the offshore accounts. Manafort is alleged to have laundered more than $18 million. Gates is accused of laundering more than $3 million from offshore accounts.

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