Student bosses: Getting an early start in business

SINGAPORE: These days, starting a business while still in school is not such an unattainable goal.

Most tertiary institutes in Singapore have their own Innovation and Enterprise Offices (IEOs) to support students who want to get started early.

These IEOs provide training and immersion programmes such as hackathons to foster entrepreneurial intent.

The Enterprise Development Centre (EDC) is one such IEO. Set up at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), it matches mentors to students and promotes the business spirit through school bazaars and “retail boxes”, which are booths where students can sell their products.   

One of the students is Nur Wirdah Azman, 21. She started eatmebouquet after observing surging demand for flowers during occasions such as Valentine’s Day and graduation. 

Nur Wirdah Asman (right) seen here with her mother Wanisah Wahid, is hoping to secure funding from the ITE Student Enterprise Fund, which she says will help in financing publicity materials and operation costs. (Photo: Deborah Wong)

“Flowers don’t last long. They incur cost too, so I thought of switching it to chocolate,” she said. 

As a second-year student in ITE College West’s Service Management (Higher Nitec) course, Ms Wirdah has picked up skills in marketing and sales. She is also president of her school’s Entrepreneurship Club, another platform that has broadened her exposure to the business world. 

“My mentor taught me a lot in this course. She encouraged me to go on different kinds of competitions to build my confidence and also helped improve my marketing strategies and product,” she said.

Since starting her business six months ago, Ms Wirdah has sold about S$300 worth of chocolate bouquets. Her prices range from S$8 for a simple design to S$42 for a more elaborate bouquet. 

Ms Wirdah has applied for the ITE Student Enterprise Fund, from where she hopes to receive around S$600. She said the money would help cover publicity costs, business cards and working materials. 

ITE said the fund provides up to S$3,000 for students who wish to test-bed their business prototypes. It also sets aside office spaces for students and graduates at a monthly rental fee of S$160 to S$200. 

One alumnus has reaped the benefits of these initiatives. Lee Cheng Hei started Glassland Pte Ltd in 2015 while still studying at ITE College East and received S$10,000 after qualifying for the Chua Thian Poh Entrepreneurship Fund. The fund supports a joint entrepreneurship programme by ITE and Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Technopreneurship Centre. 

SUTD provides office spaces such as this one at monthly rates for students, faculty members and alumni. (Photo: Deborah Wong)

At Glassland, Mr Lee transforms used bottles into personalised gift plates – an idea that transpired from discussions of environmental sustainability in the college’s Entrepreneurship Club. The fund went into research and development, as well as the procurement of raw materials. 

The Business Studies student at Nanyang Polytechnic said the connections he made in ITE have proved useful. 

“I still receive dedicated mentoring support, access to office resources, links to its vibrant entrepreneurial network and invites to the school’s activities and events through the Entrepreneurship Club where I hold the post of Head Alumni Adviser,” he said. 

After two years of experimenting with prototypes, Mr Lee finally kick-started sales this July. Since then he has raked in up to S$600 monthly. 

It is resources such as these that provide startups with a much-needed boost. After all, a strong network of contacts raises the company’s visibility. 

For Tan Yi Shu, a fresh graduate from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the contacts at the school’s Office of Technology & Enterprise Management (OTEM) transformed his final-year project into one with potential market appeal. 

“OTEM connected us with people like manufacturers and companies who create prototypes and who can help take our ideas further,” he said. 

Dr Wong Woon Kwong, who helms SUTD’s Office of Technology & Enterprise Management, works closely with students to match them with suitable mentors. (Photo: Deborah Wong)

Mr Tan co-founded WHYRE, a tech startup, while completing his degree in Engineering Product Development (Electrical Engineering). His team designed OMNi, a smart motorcycle helmet that allows the rider to see blind spots without having to swivel around. 

“As a rider, I understand the perils on the road, so we came up with this product to improve motorcyclists’ situational awareness,” he said. 

It may be a novel idea, but it was still a theoretical one, until his mentors upped the ante.

“The business mentors are good, because they give us a perspective that’s very different to ours as engineers,” said Mr Tan. “We are looking at prototyping a product, coming up with the hardware, dreaming of the tech stuff. But the business mentor grounded us, asking if the product has a market.

“Is it sellable?” 

The helmet is still being refined and the team is in touch with manufacturers. OTEM was formalised in August 2016 after the university noticed more students coming forward with business proposals. Previously, the school offered informal support through mentorship. 

Director of OTEM, Dr Wong Woon Kwong, told Channel NewsAsia that the first batch of graduates in 2015 produced three business teams. This has catapulted to 16 teams this year, seven of which have recently graduated to external incubators or have opted to work independently. 

“We started off with experiential programmes to help incoming students understand what entrepreneurship is all about. We also bring in entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and incubators to SUTD to connect them with our students,” Dr Wong said. 

He explained that funding would be given to those who are more committed to their startups: “They will have to pitch to us. For those with good ideas and a good team, we give them a small amount to encourage them on their journey.”

The OMNi smart helmet allows the rider to check out blind spots without swivelling around. (Photo: Deborah Wong)

Of course no funding comes easy.

Mr Tan’s team had to raise about S$3,000 amongst themselves before the university topped up S$7,000 for their initial capital. His team will also receive an additional S$50,000 from the SUTD GAP Funding after a round of successful pitches. 

Although he has graduated, Mr Tan said close rapport with mentors and the school continues to open doors. 

Recently, Dr Wong linked him up with an expert in data analytics.

“He connected us with another CEO who was able to provide insight as to how we can quantify the data generated from the use of the helmet. This would help us improve user experiences,” said Mr Tan. 

But Dr Wong said such assistance can only do so much. 

“After they have graduated, we still match them with mentors, open doors for them, bring them to exhibits,” he said. “But we want them to be independent because when they graduate, we want them to stand on their own two feet.”

“We will match them to potential investors but they will have to convince the investors themselves.” 

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