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A hard lesson from a Vietnamese startup

Monday, August 03, 2020, 10:23 GMT+7
A hard lesson from a Vietnamese startup
Le Minh Tuan (center) talks with two colleagues at the Graphene Life JSC headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Cong Nhat / Tuoi Tre

Le Minh Tuan, 37, co-founded Graphene Life JSC. several years ago, only to see his startup end in ruins. He decided to share his story with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in hopes that others might avoid the same mistakes he made.

At one point Tuan was offered a job with an American corporation after he completed his undergraduate program at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Science and earned his master’s degree at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology,.

But the financial security of a well-paid job with a multinational corporation was not enough to keep Tuan from taking a shot at achieving his dreams.

“It was in 2010 when Russian scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their achievements in creating graphene from graphite,” Tuan said.

“I'm a person who is always curious to learn new things and I also wanted a chance to challenge myself. Those scientists inspired me to abandon my job and launch my own company that could commercialize the creation of graphene material from recycled animal fat at an affordable cost."

Tuan’s family, however, completely disagreed with the decision. They told him it was risky to leave a stable, high-income job to create a startup.

For the first two years, Tuan was convinced his family was wrong and that he had made the right decision. After all, he and co-founder Le Van Giat had prepared money, staff, and time to get them through their launch stage.

Unfortunately, one failure after another in year three led Tuan to begin questioning himself.

"None of the experiments gave us the results we needed despite the fact that we tried a variety of input materials. Eventually, we ran of money,” Tuan recalled.

"The next five years was extremely difficult. We had no more money and were in search of funding to continue our research project."

Tuan found himself asking family and friends for loans in order to keep the company afloat, but as time went on he realized he might never be able to pay them back.  

"It's said that the family is always your last haven in the worst circumstances, but that wasn’t true for me,” Tuan shared.

"I lost seven years of love and confidence from my family, I lost my girlfriend too because I chose my startup over her. I even had to isolate myself from friends and relatives because of the unpaid loans."

As a researcher, Tuan’s passion and academic knowledge fueled his desire to launch a company. Unfortunately, passion and knowledge were not enough to keep it afloat.

"Because I was single when I launched the business, things seemed simple. But when my co-founder got married and had children it made things more complicated,” Tuan said.

In 2017, Tuan’s company began to turn the corner toward success when they finally developed a method of producing graphene that was different from existing ones.

"Using the affordable recycled animal fat as original material with a simple synthetic method, we could produce graphene material at a much lower cost compared to other products of the same kind on the market,” Tuan said.

Restored confidence

Their successful achievement won them recognition for ‘the most creative idea’ at the Vietnam Startup Wheel 2018, a local competition for startups held by Business Startup Support Center annually.

Graphene Life JSC is now financed by three big investment funds, helping the founders secure enough capital to perfect their products, map out a development strategy, and strengthen their human resources. 

The five key members of the Graphene Life’s team include a professor, two masters, and two salespeople.

"Although we’ve received awards, successful results from our research and finding investors are really important. It also gives me the chance to restore confidence among my family and friends," Tuan said.

"I have paid back the loans I previously took and it's fortunate for me that the lenders were able to understand and sympathize with me. Still, I think it will be hard to return to my normal life."

Currently, the Graphene project has developed three product lines and the startup has already signed contracts with South Korean Chonbuk National University and a research institute in the southern province of Binh Duong.

It is also in negotiation with many potential customers from South Korea, Japan, Australia, the United States, and Europe.

"I’ve never regretted choosing to launch a startup in spite of having sacrificed many valuable things, but if I were able to do it all again, apart from my passion and persistence, I would make sure I’m better prepared,” he said.

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Kim Thoa - Cong Nhat / Tuoi Tre News

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