Straddling two worlds: Starting a business at university

While corporate employment used to be goal of most university graduates in previous decades, self-employment has become an attractive option to the younger generation, especially with the increasing unemployment rate during the pandemic.

More fresh graduates are increasingly attracted to the independence this affords them, the freedom to explore their creative ideas as well as the job satisfaction of working hard on something they love.

“The world as we know it today is not the same as it was 10 years ago, so who is to say it will be the same 10 years from now. Therefore, in order to be more resilient for the future, I see many young individuals stepping out of their comfort zone and embracing their entrepreneurial spirit. Increasingly, more are doing so even at the university level, gaining crucial experience in setting up a business, managing employees, overseeing finances as well as dealing with administrative work even before they graduate,” said Jessie Chong, Director of BizPod, Taylor’s University.

Here are three examples of startup founders who are bucking the trend and venturing out on their own – whilst still at university.

Promoting sustainable, healthy eating
Straddling two worlds: Starting a business at university
One of Cultiv8_s unique products in a spinach lava cake with salted egg

Cultiv8 – a startup borne of out a partnership between students and Taylor’s University – aims to increase awareness of food sustainability and promote healthy eating as an accessible choice for all Malaysians.

The startup found its genesis through BizPod, an entrepreneur startup incubator for Taylor’s University that helps students through their entrepreneurship journey from ideation stage to successfully establishing a full-fledged startup.

Chong shares that Cultiv8 is meant to be a platform to commercialise products created by students of the Taylor’s Culinology programme, an innovative first-of-its-kind degree in Asia which focuses on culinary arts, food science and technology and R&D.

Koh Wei Yan, a final year student of the programme who was chosen to lead the startup described her value add from the university’s startup incubator as critical to Cultiv8’s success.

“Jessie is a helpful and caring mentor. She provided me valuable insights and guidance which helped me think like an entrepreneur. I was quickly drawn to the idea of introducing products that are healthy, sustainable, and locally sourced, and I fully believe in its potential in the long-term,” Koh said.

Nevertheless, Koh maintains that she is fully aware of the competitiveness of the local food business and the additional work that must go into product development. As such, she has decided pursue with the startup full time, starting this August.

Admittedly, juggling a business and a final year study load is proving to be challenging for Koh. “It takes a lot of discipline to manage both sides, and knowing what are your priorities in the moment is really important,” she said.

Stylish, fashionable and sustainable
Straddling two worlds: Starting a business at university
Unravel Apparel focuses on up-cycling deadstock fabric and reviving them into unique vintage pieces

Unravel Apparel is a brand and platform founded in June 2020 which focuses on up-cycling deadstock fabric and reviving them into unique vintage pieces.

The founders, Taylor’s business student Alicia Wee Zi En and her business partner Lee SherTienne were inspired to kickstart this venture from their shared passion for fashion and thrifting for stylish clothes. 

“Fashion is a form of self-confidence, expression and identity, hence we hope to recreate the imaginations of our audience and create a community with a shared love for unique clothing,” said Wee.

The brand places critical emphasis on sustainability of materials and sourced items. Alicia remarked that at its core, they hoped to spark a change in behaviour among consumers by advocating for the reduction of fast fashion waste and introducing sustainable fashion into their lives.

However, as students, they needed help with the business end of things. This is where Taylor’s Bizpod proved to be invaluable.

“BizPod consultations really help with clarifying the direction of the business. It helps us focus on what matters to us and to continue building on that. The persistent advice and encouragement gave us much more  confidence to grow,” said Wee.

She adds that while her commitment to studies and university activities such as organising startup hackathons have taken up much of her time, planning for the week and month helps her cope with her business.

Right now, the brand operates via Instagram but there are plans to launch a website in the near future. In the mean time, the founders are focusing on raising capital and improving brand visibility through social media.

Solving simple, everyday issues with artificial intelligence (AI)

Arrivo is an AI driven smart parking solution with a seamless License Plate Recognition and mobile app that automates the parking payment process.

As drivers themselves, founders Julius Ho Jun Tat and James Lau Jun De found the existing parking process in most malls and offices cumbersome and worked together to develop a solution which provides users with a hassle-free experience whilst also cutting down operation costs for car park operators.

Both are big believers in sustainability and recognise the value add of AI to meet this goal.

According to Ho, Arrivo’s technology has an error rate of less than 1% and is 50% cheaper than the closest competitor in the market.

“We think that the technology that we have built can disrupt the industry in many ways. Our approach, which is to incorporate AI instead of a hardware driven solution, lowers the entry barrier and makes it more cost saving and efficient. It serves as a more sustainable method for addressing parking concerns compared to existing incumbents in the industry,” Ho said.

Ho and Lau are both Taylor’s alumni and revealed that Bizpod helped connect them to early-stage investors. The startup is now estimated to be valued at RM5mil.

“Bizpod provided us the holistic entrepreneurial ecosystem that we needed to bring Arrivo to the next level,” Ho remarked, adding that this ecosystem also allowed them to network with other innovators from which they could learn from and further finetune their development strategy.

Remarking on the ecosystem that Arrivo, Unravel Apparel and Cultiv8 has benefitted from, Chong said that Taylor’s students are fortunate to have such opportunities and resources to leverage for their startups.

“Our Taylor’sphere ecosystem allows our students to network across faculties to create projects and prototypes via the Taylor’s Me.reka Makerspace, then come to Bizpod for mentorship and funding for their businesses, and also seek advice from our Enterprise arm on commercialisation and patents – it’s a full circle,” she said.

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