By Soh Wan Ying
Universities with their knowledge, expertise, infrastructure and resources, can be the perfect breeding ground for aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators. Tertiary students, technically trained and facing lower opportunity cost, are primed to work on new ventures.
NUS strives to provide holistic support and resources to help these aspiring entrepreneurs to transform ideas into fruition. As its entrepreneurship arm, NUS Enterprise pioneers several programmes and initiatives; and works with various stakeholders on campus to support start-ups.
In our recent Kopi Chat Deep Dive session, brought to you in conjunction with the Talent @ SWITCH Entrepreneurship Exposure Series, a panel of NUS entrepreneurs were invited to share more about their start-up journeys, and how NUS helped in kickstarting their entrepreneurship journey.
The panelists for this Kopi Chat session come from various industries and background, here is how each of them started their entrepreneurship journey:
- Verleen, the Chief Food Fighter and Co-founder at Alchemy Foodtech, studied a degree in Food Science and Technology in NUS. Back in her schooling years, NUS was the only university that offered this course and after winning Start-Up@Singapore competition organised by NUS Enterprise, she was propelled to be part of the food science and technology industry and kickstarted her entrepreneurship journey.
- Vishnu was part of NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) and the Innovation Design Programme which inspired him to be an entrepreneur. He also participated in the Graduate Research Innovation (GRIP) Programme and was incubated at THE HANGAR By NUS Enterprise and BLOCK71. Vishnu is the founder of Invigilo AI, where the core vision is to have a zero workplace accident future through the use of advanced AI and IoT technologies to enhance safety in high-risk workplaces.
- Pin Zhang, the co-founder of WRAEK, a hardware gaming start-up seeking to revolutionize gaming experience, was the previous President of the NUS Entrepreneurship Society. He is also the founding Chairman of the NUS Alumni Ventures, an angel investment network seeking to bring greater funding and mentorship opportunities for start-ups.
- Jacky came to Singapore for his Master’s degree and joined the NUS Institute for Engineering Leadership. He is the Founder and CEO of UpperMed, a start-up from the NUS Biomedical Engineering department and NUS Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP).
What has NUS done well in supporting start-ups
A thriving start-up ecosystem is key
During the session, the founders brought up a common point about how NUS played a part in supporting start-ups by creating an ecosystem with resources such as workspace, mentorship, and funding. Verleen shared that during the initial stages of her start-up, lab and office spaces were secured by NUS Enterprise, which not only helped manage cash flow but also allowed her company to be located amongst other fellow like-minded researchers.
To that, Vishnu agreed that this was crucial for start-ups as it created a supportive environment for growth where founders shared their unbiased opinion and relied on one another for constructive feedback. In NUS, there are various communities and programmes such as NOC , NUS Entrepreneurship Society, and other entrepreneurship-related competitions. These are platforms that enable potential entrepreneurs to network and find like-minded individuals with a common interest in entrepreneurship and creating an ecosystem of support.
Networking opportunities expedite success
Jacky was part of the GRIP Programme which paired entrepreneurs with universities, allowing access to resources which is essential for start-ups. He highlighted that the mentorship that he received was valuable as it helped them to save on time and accelerated the growth of his start-up.
Through THE HANGAR Booster Programme, founders are able to network with investors to aid in their fundraising process. Pin Zhang shared that the programme has benefitted his company in the initial fundraising stage, which is important for all start-ups. He also received the NUS Enterprise Practicum award which also contributed a boost to his start-up journey. The initial stage for start-ups is often the most challenging yet the most essential. Having access to rich resources in this stage would accelerate the growth of start-ups and provision of resources by universities would ease some of the difficulties faced by student start-ups.
Nuggets of wisdom for aspiring student entrepreneurs
Our panelists had differing views when it comes to encouraging students to start-up while studying. However, a prevalent view amongst the founders is that students should use the opportunity of being in a university setting to learn more about themselves and to figure out if they are suitable to be an entrepreneur. Jacky and Pin Zhang opined that students should take up courses to learn more about both entrepreneurship and themselves before deciding if they should take a leap into the journey of being a start-up founder.
Time-management is an important skill one should possess if they are planning to juggle school and entrepreneurship. Verleen shared that she planned out her schedule by clearing more modules in her previous years to ensure that she would be able to manage school and her company during her honours years while Pin Zhang mentioned that he learnt to prioritise time much better and was instead more productive when his commitments increased. Overall, it depends on one’s working style and personality, it is up to the individual to discover how to schedule best to maximize productivity and cope between being a student and a founder. Vishnu brought up a meaningful view where being in school allows students to gain access to ample resources and being in school is not just about absorbing content but also to “learn how to learn”.
The leap into entrepreneurship may not be a smooth-sailing journey
Aspiring entrepreneurs may have big ideas but may not know where exactly to start. The panelists recommend joining courses, competitions or hackathons that allows aspiring founders to try out their ideas and kickstart the execution. It can also be helpful to find peers to validate the start-up idea. By joining these events, individuals can also expand their network, not only to investors but also to other like-minded individuals who might be potential co-founders.
“A good partner should not have the same skills as you. Instead, they should have the same vision, but complementary skill sets from you.” — Verleen Goh.
It can be arduous to actively seek for a co-founder who can contribute in terms of skill sets and work well with the rest of the team. However, by joining communities and the start-up ecosystem, the area of search is narrowed down to passionate aspiring entrepreneurs with similar interests, increasing the chances of meeting a good co-founder. Vishnu also added that it is not just about the skillsets of people but also their character and attitude. It is essential to build a strong team to lay a foundation for the start-up, and having the same vision ensures that there is minimal conflict of interests that could hinder the progress of the company.
The start-up journey is often not a smooth-sailing one, but it is a learning process where entrepreneurs gain valuable insights from. Vishnu and Verleen both realized that having a strong founding team is the core of start-ups and a capable team could accelerate the growth of the company. Jacky shared that picking up hard skills such as coding would have been useful, especially in this digital era where society is heavily reliant on technology. Perhaps aspiring entrepreneurs could forecast and consider picking up skill sets that may be relevant for future industries. Lastly, Pin Zhang stated that structuring a realistic timeline and accurately estimating the company’s ability to execute is critical for start-ups as it not only affects the growth of a company but the morale of the team as well.
To conclude, the start-up journey is one that is filled with uncertainties but if one has a true passion and interest in becoming an entrepreneur, there is no harm in kickstarting the execution of a great idea.
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