NTU Creativity & Entrepreneurship Program
Cultivating the Next Morris Chang
University campuses are going all-out to cultivate students’ entreprenurial spirit and forge ecosystems to support entrepreneurship, so that students come for the creativity and leave to start their own businesses.
Cultivating the Next Morris ChangBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 561 )
It is possibly the biggest nuisance all 30,000 National Taiwan University students face: bicycle theft, and hapless police response.
As darkness envelops the world outside the classroom, some people see opportunity. Tseng Wei, a fresh-faced student who enunciates her words with clear precision, says, “How can we prevent bicycle theft? By making the pedals disappear.” By pressing a quick release button, Hsiao Ying-ta and Lee Chin-chieh remove a pair of shiny pedals. A bike bereft of pedals is enough to make even a wily thief give up and move along to another target.
The smart pedals Lee Chin-chieh holds in his hand are easily removed and can even be fitted with software to run with an app for tracking the bicycle’s whereabouts.
Establishing an entrepreneurial support ecosystem
Could this be a good business? Over a hundred pairs of eyes watch this “performance,” in which 16 teams must present a complete “problem-oriented creative proposal” in six minutes or less. A panel of three judges composed of faculty members selects 12 teams, and by the end of the semester only eight remain. Today is the first round, and each team plays the role of a “corporation.”
One team presents a dream robot, responding to the coming age of robotics with a 3D-printed robot. Observing the growing popularity of tourism, another team combines travel maps and global positioning to record routes for collecting photographs and memories. Still another team proposes a collective kitchen, so that people accustomed to eating out can experience the joys of cooking away from home.
“The students are full of creativity, but this stage is just for conceiving ideas; real-world testing comes later,” relates Professor Ji-Ren Lee, director of NTU’s Creativity & Entrepreneurship Program (C&E).
Launched seven years ago, the Creativity & Entrepreneurship Program has the distinction of having become the program with the lowest acceptance rate among the more than 40 programs offered on campus. This year there were over 210 applicants, from whom 50 were accepted, lowering the acceptance rate from 50 percent in the program’s initial year to 25 percent at present.
Since taking office as president of NTU, Dr. Pan-Chyr Yang made the Creativity & Entrepreneurship Program the cornerstone of his five-year plan for the institution. “There are fewer and fewer new startup companies in Taiwan. Without new businesses there are no new employment opportunities,” observes Dr. Liang-Gee Chen, NTU’s vice-president for academic affairs. As an engineer by trade, he is accustomed to seeing a problem and thinking of things to change.
He began by positioning C&E as a platform for training students to go out and create job positions – as opposed to taking jobs – outside of NTU. “Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, you should have an entrepreneurial spirit, to lead in a new direction and guide everyone towards innovation,” explains Chen, who deliberately emphasizes “entrepreneurship” as the objective.
Observing students’ need for entrepreneurship, Professor Chen, a frequent visitor to the Silicon Valley, further set up the NTU Entrepreneur Association. There, entrepreneurs listen to student presentations, and furnish resources when necessary. The need quickly arose for the space for students to set up businesses, which resulted in NTU Garage in the effort to establish an ecosystem for supporting entrepreneurial initiatives.
From creativity to starting a business, teaching these subjects is not easy. “Innovation education is failure education,” quips Ji-Ren Lee. Taiwan’s education system makes people afraid of failure, just a point off here or there is considered a disaster, which makes people afraid of trying something different from everyone else, Lee further explains. Innovation means constantly learning how to pick yourself up after failing in competition. And this ethos must extend beyond the classroom to actual practice, Lee believes.
Creativity & Entrepreneurship Program is a 21-credit program, each class emphasizing “learning while doing.” The C&E’s core curriculum and special topic discussions and practice are like a marathon of stamina and brain power, running every Monday from 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM, teaching students the appropriate know-how from creativity to starting a business at each stage.
Unlike most academic curricula, C&E students must discover issues over the process of doing. Tseng Wei had three bikes in a row stolen after coming to the university, and Lee Chin-chieh had two ripped off. The thefts had them feeling helpless at their wits’ end, as few stolen bikes are ever recovered.
Repeatedly burned, Tseng Wei approached school security and learned that conventional linear locks are completely ineffective against theft. They then spoke further with the Zhongzheng Precinct police and discovered that the theft rate for bikes at NTU is an alarming 40 percent, and 52 percent for newer bicycles. It is within these problems that they identified opportunities.
“We wanted to do something together during our last year at school.” Both Tseng Wei, a senior undergraduate in political science, and Hsiao Ying-ta, a second-year student in the master’s program of information management, understand that those with hardware capabilities do not necessarily know software or have a mind for business. The two hit it off immediately, and together found mechanical engineering student Lee Chin-chieh. “I’m set on starting a business in the future,” states Tseng Wei, who with that clear objective in mind is not afraid of failure.
Competition within the C&E Program itself is fierce. Tseng Wei and her partners must come up with a prototype solution (a smart bicycle pedal set) before the end of the semester and defeat at least one-half of their competitors. If they can make it into the final eight teams they get to be advised next semester by an experienced business person, drawn from corporate executives in the NTU EMBA program.
Only the teams that survive a year of coursework and prepare to start a business get the chance to go on to the next stage, the NTU Garage, a common space and platform for entrepreneurial teams.
The Garage is a 265 square-meter space hidden away on NTU’s Shuiyuan campus that currently houses 17 teams free of charge. A slogan on the wall remaining from last October’s opening festivities reads “Give a boost to the Taiwanese economy. Smash the myth of 22K/mo. starting pay.”
Entrepreneurial team member Ms. Tai relates, “The Garage is a place to exchange information and connections.” Despite having different entrepreneurial objectives, everyone is buoyed by the same enthusiasm, which facilitates mutual exchange and inspiration.
Committed to innovation, from the Creativity & Entrepreneurship Program to the NTU Garage, will the next (Taiwan Semiconductor CEO) Morris Chang be born here? Or the next new industry that leads Taiwan? This is not out of the realm of possibilities, as NTU has established an ecosystem full of life and opportunity.
In addition to strategic partnerships with accountants and lawyers to assist professors or student teams in setting up companies, a seed fund has also been set up. With approval from the executive advisor, startups are eligible for incentives to keep them inspired and moving ahead. And teams considered especially rich with potential can receive investment from the Angel Club for their first “pot of gold.”
“Students start out coming for the creativity. We hope they end up starting a business,” relates Dr. Liang-Gee Chen. Instead of heading off with their diploma for a position at TSMC, Chen encourages students to take part in creating new industries to take Taiwan into the future.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman