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Off To A Good Start

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 Invigorated by Beijing’s creative climate and technological advancement, Sean Chua’s idea for his fourth start-up was conceived there.

The Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme throws NTU students into the start-up pool in global entrepreneurial hubs. Derek Rodriguez finds out how being part of the start-up eco-system puts them on the track to future success

Do you dream of becoming the next big-time entrepreneur? You’ve come to the right place. The Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme (OEP), run by NTUitive, the innovation and enterprise arm of NTU, puts budding self-starters right in the thick of the start-up action.

Since the programme was introduced in 2015, about 60 undergrads have taken flight annually to London in the United Kingdom, New York and Silicon Valley in the United States, and Beijing and Shanghai in China. China-bound students on the programme can also take modules at partner universities for additional credits. With new destinations, including Berlin, Germany, and Haifa, Israel, to choose from in 2018, the number of programme participants will rise.

The NTU innovation centre in Haifa, set up in June this year, will create openings for Singapore students and made-in-NTU companies to explore the Israeli market and to collaborate with leading Israeli universities. From January, up to 20 students a year will be sent to work in high-tech start-ups in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Expanding horizons

Dr Lim Jui, CEO of NTUitive, believes integrating students into a vibrant start-up eco-system nurtures creativity and innovation. These qualities are valuable when designing new products or business models, and key to productivity improvements in large corporations.

He adds: “Students will learn to multi-task, handle regulatory requirements, deal with lean manpower, and live in an overseas location. This equips them with the skills and risk-taking attitude that enables them to grow into future entrepreneurs or employers with an international outlook and enterprising spirit.”

Real-world experience

Most fledgling companies are lean and being part of the company means having to pull your weight and work collaboratively as a team. On the other hand, it also means having a real influence on the success of the company and a stake in it.

“My internship start-up put me through a series of structured learning and let me take up assignments in many areas, including media, marketing, operations and investments,” says fourth-year electrical and electronic engineering student Sean Chua, who interned for a year at a Beijing-based online retailer of beauty products.

“I sometimes slept for only three hours a day,” adds Sean. “My hard work paid off when the CEO recognised my commitment and put me in charge of a data analytics project. I went through over 30,000 records documenting our competitors’ traits and prices. It was all worth it when my findings resulted in an improved pricing model.”

Be the next big thing

Another perk of the Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme is the help and mentorship offered by NTUitive when it comes to bringing ideas to fruition.

“Students submit a business proposal to us at the end of their stint. And if they are keen, we will work with them through an incubation process, to help them bring their ideas to the marketplace,” explains Dr Lim.

Sean, who founded Sqkii, the company which sparked treasure hunts in NTU and across Singapore, is working on his next start-up, MeU Ask, with the help of NTUitive.

“Living in Beijing increased my entrepreneurial appetite,” says the serial entrepreneur, whose idea for the user-generated question-and-answer platform blossomed in the Chinese capital.

I worked with the richest young technopreneur in Beijing

“I had plans to go to the Czech Republic for exchange, but when I found out about the Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme, I just couldn’t say no. I applied for a position to learn the entrepreneurship ropes at Jumei, a Beijing-based online cosmetics company that made headlines in 2014 with its successful debut on the New York Stock Exchange.

There were many candidates but, thankfully, I was selected after a gruelling interview process. And here I am, three months into my internship.

Truthfully, I was very apprehensive before I left. I didn’t know what to expect and felt that I was jumping into an abyss. However, after a visit to Silicon Valley organised by NTU’s Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre, I had a strong urge to see the Beijing start-up scene. So I took the plunge.

The main problem I am facing in Beijing is the language barrier. I did well in Mandarin back in school, but the terms and culture in Beijing are very different. I have had to relearn simple words like “spoon” (勺子).

Work is tough, but fulfilling. I’ve learnt the processes involved in running the company – from sales, marketing, technical developments, data analysis and investments to client management – because I’ve done them all.

Meeting the young CEO, Leo Chen, in person and chatting with him was an honour. Did you know he studied at NTU? He’s arguably the most successful young entrepreneur I know.

My experience in Beijing has changed my impression of the country. I always thought Singapore was more advanced than China, but I was wrong. There’s an inside joke among Singaporeans here that goes: “In Beijing, there’s an app for everything.”

I hope that over the next seven months, I’ll be able to learn even more and eventually be able to do NTU proud just as my CEO, Leo Chen, did.”

 

 Mr Sean Chua, a final-year electrical and electronic engineering student at NTU, in Jing Shan Park, Beijing, last year during his year-long internship at Jumei, a successful start-up in China. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SEAN CHUA

Access to e-commerce start-up in China

When Mr Sean Chua heard about a potential one-year internship at China's successful start-up Jumei, the Bachelor of Engineering student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) took a big leap of faith.

The then 24-year-old dropped his exchange programme to the Czech Republic to pioneer the school's first overseas entrepreneurship programme in Jumei last year.

The programme in Beijing meant Mr Chua worked at every department at the e-commerce platform for cosmetics for two months each, from marketing to data analytics to community development.

"I was very hungry to learn, and built good rapport with the departments," Mr Chua, now 25, told The Straits Times.

He would often ask for work outside of the department he was in, making sure he kept up with everyone and learnt as much as he could. This meant sometimes running on three to four hours of sleep, but the budding entrepreneur did not mind.

"It was good for me to move around. I really got to know how the CEO operated his whole company from all departments' viewpoints," Mr Chua said.

Eventually, he was trusted by chief executive officer Leo Chen - an NTU alumnus - to lead a data analytics project.

"I spent two months comparing our product prices with competitors' and went over 30,000 product pricing records in total. Then, I gave a presentation in Chinese at the end."

His findings led to better pricing strategies, potentially bumping up sales for Jumei

"It was really fulfilling," he said.

Being in China showed Mr Chua just how tiny Singapore's market is, making it a "humbling experience" for him.

He added that programmes like NTU's Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme (OEP) can empower Singaporeans to take their ideas to a more global market, acting to bridge the gap to entrepreneurial success.

Mr Chua had three start-ups under his belt before going for OEP.

At 17, he read through finance reports while his friends were engrossed with computer games.

His first and second start-ups did not do so well, Mr Chua admits, but they were important stepping stones to his third start-up, sqkii, the marketing company behind the $50,000 mouse hunt, which he co-founded in 2014.

He returned from OEP and shared many things with the sqkii team, from his observations about data analytics to advertising strategies in China.

Mr Chua is now completing his final semester in NTU. His fourth start-up project, MeUAsk, is a paid question-and-answer platform set to launch by the end of the year.

Published on 19 October 2017 
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