Meet SUTDent Lee Jia Juen, from the pioneer batch and scholarship holder of the SUTD Technology Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP), an integrated programme culminating in a Bachelor and Master degree.
How did you first become interested in technology, entrepreneurship and design?
In secondary school, I took Design and Technology (D&T) as an O level subject. My class was not very large as D&T is not a very popular subject. Those of us who did D&T had a passion for building things and coming up with creative solutions.
My D&T teacher, Mr Lee Choon Kiat, was supportive and fuelled our interest by providing us with opportunities to participate in external design-based and entrepreneurship competitions. My secondary three and four days were mostly spent on competitions (up to eight) with my D&T classmates. We won some and lost most but through it all, it sparked a strong interest for technology, entrepreneurship and design within us.
Why did you choose SUTD? What made it stand out from other prospective schools?
To be honest, SUTD was not my first choice initially. It was a new university and I had other options to go to more established universities. I was quite hesitant about coming to SUTD.
However, SUTD offered me a chance at something different. A unique pedagogy, a design-based, hands-on curriculum, and most importantly, the chance to pursue my interest and passion. What attracted me the most was that its Engineering curriculum focuses on the application of concepts to solve real world problems. To me that is what Engineering should be about. This is why I chose SUTD.
What is your favourite part of SUTD’s curriculum?
I am currently part of the Engineering Product Development Pillar (EPD). To be honest, I really enjoy the curriculum. I love how we get to apply what we learnt to solving real world problems through our projects.
Tell us more about the cross-subject projects you did: the table top greenhouse, plastic bag dispenser etc.
During the introductory coding module called “The Digital World” in my first year, I built a plastic bag dispenser that charges customers when they take excessive plastic bags for the items they purchased. And recently, for my “Structures and Materials” and “Circuits and Electronic” modules, I built a table top greenhouse that provides a controlled environment to grow herbs for culinary use. I enjoy how these projects are open-ended and give us the creative freedom to develop new products which are also great in sparking ideas for entrepreneurship endeavours.
What do you hope to achieve in your future career? How do you think this degree will help you to achieve that?
To be honest, I am not quite sure about what I would like to do in the future. Although I enjoy taking Engineering modules in SUTD, I don’t think I want to be an engineer. I hope to be an entrepreneur. I think there is a lot of fulfilment in building your own business and seeing it grow. At the same time, you will face different challenges every day which is really exciting to me. However, I think coming up with a good start-up is not something that you can force fit. I believe that a good start-up will come over time with the right ideas, people and opportunities, and I feel that studying in SUTD provides me with good access to these.
It is not guaranteed that I will start my own successful business one day, but I will do my best and we will see how things go.
Why did you decide to take up the STEP scholarship?
To me, the STEP scholarship is a great opportunity to be exposed to the entrepreneurship scene. It provides me with a great balance between technical background and business exposure which I believe is a valuable combination.
Spending a fully-funded semester each in Silicon Valley (USA) and Hangzhou (China) is an amazing immersion as these are the two most fast-paced entrepreneurial hubs in the world. It will allow me to learn the best of east and west so that I can have a well-rounded and balanced view of global business practices and trends. It will also better equip me to potentially have my own start-up one day.
Tell us more about your time in the Value-added Innovation Enterprise (VIEW) programme at TU Berlin and how it eventually led to you to becoming an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA).
Over the summer, from July to September in 2018, I had the chance to attend the Value-added Innovation Enterprise (VIEW) programme at TU Berlin. Through the 8 weeks in Berlin, I had the chance to receive a crash course on entrepreneurship from serial entrepreneurs who were head deep in the Berlin start-up scene. I was guided in developing my own business ideas through the unique use of design thinking which was very refreshing to me, having previously taken a module on design thinking in SUTD. Through the course, I developed a business model which I pitched to a group of venture capitalists. I also had the chance to meet a new entrepreneur each day and gained valuable insights on starting our own business. Everyone’s experience in a start-up differs and while I learnt many tips and tricks of the trade, I think the first-hand experience will definitely be more valuable. This experience has given me the confidence to one day have my own start-up.
When I returned to SUTD, the refreshing use of the design thinking process for entrepreneurship in Berlin led me to sign up as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant for the Introduction to Design Course. As a teaching assistant, I helped to guide first year students through the design thinking process. I assisted the professors in providing feedback on the students’ projects, what methods they could use to design new iterations of their solutions as well as how they might prototype them. I feel that my experience in Berlin allowed me to have a refreshing perspective on design thinking and value add to the classes that I was a teaching assistant for.
What do you enjoy most about being an SUTD student?
If I have to name the top three highlights of my SUTD life so far, it would be the curriculum, the opportunities and the people.
Our curriculum has a good balance of academics and projects. I like how we are taught to understand the concepts we had learnt so that we can apply them and see them come to life in the (up to four) hands-on projects that we do each term. SUTD students typically work on about 20 projects in their time as an undergraduate compared to two or three at other universities.
As for the opportunities, I enjoy how SUTD allows me to pursue my interest and passion. I love to cook and SUTD has given me opportunities to integrate my passion for cooking and engineering in my projects. In my third term, I built a device that harvested waste heat energy from cooking and recently, I prototyped a table top greenhouse that provides a controlled environment to grow herbs for cooking.
Can you also share about your fifth row experiences?
I was also the president of the cooking club called GRUB Club in SUTD where I had the chance to lead the club to venture into organising molecular gastronomy workshops for Junior College students. We leverage on science to create different forms of the same ingredients. An example is Nutella powder. Using maltodextrin to stabilize the emulsification of oil, it turns Nutella into a powder form which can be served as “chocolate soil”
And as the deputy Vice President of Communications in the Student Government called ROOT, I had the opportunity to contribute to changes in university policy and initiate projects such as redesigning student engagement platforms, adjusting university publicity regulations and improving food on campus. My Communications team also organises GRASS which is designed to be SUTD’s very own version of “meet-the-people” session. Through GRASS sessions, we engage students by soliciting insights and feedback on key university matters, involving students in our projects and sharing updates on university and ROOT projects. Overall, SUTD empowers me to constantly innovate and explore new opportunities.
And the people at SUTD are really great. We are a small community so over time everyone really knows everyone and this makes the campus a really friendly place to be in. We call ourselves the SUTD family and we truly are one. This also extends to the staff and faculty who make an effort to get to know students personally. A testament of this is that if you ever lose something on campus, you can be quite sure that someone will find it and return it to you via the SUTD Family Facebook page. I cannot recount the number of times I have misplaced my handphone on campus and had it returned to me.
Tell us about some memorable experiences during your time of study so far. How have they shaped you as a person?
In SUTD, I was an emcee for several events such as SUTD’s annual open house, concerts, carnivals, celebrations and award ceremonies. Coming to SUTD, I wanted to develop the skill of hosting events and found great opportunities and support to do so. Friends would ask me to help out for events they were planning and staff that I had come to know personally would also recommend me as an emcee to others. I was an emcee for so many events. I messed up some due to lack of rehearsals, did really well for others, receiving overwhelming support and even got paid for some. I am really glad to have had the support to develop this skill in SUTD. I’m really thankful to the SUTD community for this.
What are some of the challenges you faced during your studies? Tell us more about them and how you overcame them.
The biggest challenge I faced was balancing all my commitments. In my fourth term, on top of my studies and projects, I was also the president of the GRUB club (communal cooking club), the Deputy Vice President of Communications in the student government and an undergraduate teaching assistant. I enjoy taking on a range of commitments like this because I feel that it allows me to make meaningful use of my time. It can get quite overwhelming at times so I do my best to take things one at a time and do the things that are most critical at that point in time. I like to compartmentalise my commitments while keeping them in the same ‘box’ so that I always still have an eye on the big picture.
SUTD has a great mix of student profiles. What are the benefits of having such student diversity in your classroom?
SUTD has a really diverse population and although we are all pretty unique in our own way, I feel that all of us are similar in that we are always looking to innovate and create unconventional ways to do things.