Rafael Masters came to Vietnam for a short stint—to teach English on the beach after completing university. Little did he know that he would start his own business in the country and contribute to its socio-economic progress by helping the disabled through his venture, Vulcan Augmetics, which would go on to emerge as only the second enterprise in Vietnam to receive investment and innovation from Techstars. In an interview with The Saigon Times, Masters talks about his plans for success his hopes for the future and admits that even 13 years after living in HCMC, he will still never learn to haggle with Vietnamese vendors. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: You travelled to Vietnam and then decided to stay here. What led to your decision?
Rafael Masters: Originally, I planned to take a gap year after university, as I did not take a year off before university to travel. When I finished, I wanted to see the world. I found a job application that looked for candidates to teach on the beach in Vietnam. That is what I did. Thirteen years later, I am still here.
Do you have any trouble with cultural differences?
Yes, a couple of things. When I came to Vietnam initially, I had long hair, four different piercings, a tongue piercing and three ear piercings. I looked quite unusual for a teacher.
The other big thing was negotiating. The Vietnamese negotiate over everything. Every time you buy something, you have to negotiate the price. In England, we do not do that. So, that was a pretty big cultural difference. I still do it the English way. When I hear a price I do not like, I will say “okay, no, thank you” and walk away.
Are you still an English teacher?
I am the co-founder and CEO of a robotic start-up in Vietnam, Vulcan Augmetics. We make robotic arms for people with disabilities and are one of the first companies in Vietnam and South East Asia to do this.
What drove you to this business?
I grew up in the UK, living near the largest disabled college in the country. A lot of my teenage friends were wheelchair-bound. They needed them to survive and have a social life.
They were lucky they had a community, support and technology. Technology is not that difficult; the wheelchair has two wheels, two motors, a battery and a joystick and costs US$40,000. As I grew up around people with disabilities, I saw the big difference even a little technology can make. It does not have to be expensive.
Vietnam does not have many facilities for the disabled. However, it has huge potential, technology, factories, and a population that is very young and open-minded. It is an excellent place to start a technology company. That is why I’m here.
Can you tell us about your product?
It gives people back the ability to live independently. It is a robotic hand. It can open clothes and help you hold things. It is also designed with extra tools. If there is something you cannot do with your robotic hand, you can take it off, use those different tools, and do other things. It is also designed so that you can 3D print with different covers and styles. So, people can make it a part of their bodies. They can customize it to do anything they want.
The last thing we are doing, a little bit in the future, is using machine learning, so your robotic hand will learn what your body is doing. People often get surprised that you can do all of this in a country like Vietnam.
Can people using robotic arms do daily work like ordinary people?
Yes, they can. If you visit our Facebook page or website, you can see Xu, who has a blogging and cooking channel; Thuy, who is a graphic designer; and Dung, who is a chunky boy and a personal trainer. So, all of our products allow people to carry out everyday chores.
How do you plan to grow your company and distribute your products?
I wanted to establish a start-up run by my own company, but I did not know much about the area, so I decided to do an MBA in Vietnam to learn more about the business. Two months after, I met Akshay from Venture Builder.
We were talking about 3D printing, and how it would be cool to start a printing company where you can do various things like making coffee with 3D printers. And then we started talking about: “Why not hire disabled people and help them build their own body?.”
We looked at this problem more and more, and we discovered a need for robotic arms and legs. You can take this technology and put it in all kinds of places on the body. That is why we started Vulcan.
We started with no money, just my co-founder and I paid for everything from our own pockets. We had basic 3D printing types which looked really ugly, but worked. We had a user tester, Duc, who is still with the company today. He was also our first tester. He has 10 different models of the hand. He has one to let him play the guitar, one to help him play football; there is a huge range of different things we have done this time.
How did you manage your business during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Being stuck at home for three months made it really hard to build things. We ended up doing a lot of remote work. We had one or two people in the office—two of our team members lived in the office for three months. We have a couple of engineers. Every day, they would go down and work in the workshop. We had to learn how to use Zoom, a lot of different apps and experiment with them.
Vulcan Augmetics is the second enterprise in Vietnam to receive investment and innovation from Techstars. Every year, only under 1% of companies worldwide receive this opportunity. What are your thoughts on this?
One of the previous investors suggested we apply to Techstars. We filled in the application and sent it in. We had a few rounds of interviews. We had to show them that our technology works and that what we are doing can have a big scale. Techstars looks for companies that can be billion-dollar companies and go global. We had to spend some time talking to them and explaining that it started with wearable robotics and had a bigger vision. Millions of people need these kinds of products. That is one thing that led them to us.
The other thing is the founding team. I am very lucky to have found my co-founder, Ella – Ha Trinh. She is incredibly organized and very talented. She did a lot of work in this start-up team, helping other female founders as well. A solid team is another reason we were selected. We are the second Vietnamese company. The first one was EQUO, run by Marina. Getting into Techstars ensures you will always meet amazing people. Techstars is still looking for more Vietnamese start-ups, so I am excited to see who fits the bill next year.
Techstars is in Toronto, Canada. They introduce you to a lot of mentors, investors and technical advisers.
As a busy person, how do you balance work and life?
For the last three months, I have been working at the office until 7 p.m. and then come home for meetings from 8 p.m. until midnight. We still have to talk to a lot of people around the world. There are a lot of late-night meetings. If you run a start-up, you do not have that much time.
What are your expectations for 2022?
For me, it is going to be success. I am feeling optimistic this year. We are in a very good position right now. In March, we are going to participate in one of the biggest tech events in the world.
We have some investors lined up. We have a really exciting plan to reach many more people in Vietnam. It is the year of the tiger, “con cọp”, my year. I feel really positive about that. The world is in better hands after Covid. So, if things go wrong, I think it will be faster for people to adapt.