Chasing unicorns

27 February 2018 | Entrepreneurship
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The 10-member organising committee behind UNICON 2018 was led by Jovin (4th from left) and Ji Ho (5th from left)

NUS Entrepreneurship Society, supported by NUS Enterprise, organised UNICON 2018 on 24 and 25 February, an annual conference that brings together student entrepreneurs, start-up founders, angel investors and venture capitalists. Guest-of-Honour Dr Janil Puthucheary, Minister-in-charge of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore, as well as Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education, gave the opening keynote address.

In his speech, Dr Puthucheary said that Singapore’s openness and connectedness has allowed the nation to flourish for more than 50 years. “Those things, those factors, which have led us to be a global connected city now make us vulnerable to those disruptions and those winds of change, unless we can continue to be as innovative, as daring and as entrepreneurial as we have been in the first three generations of our nation,” he shared. Speaking of the role of the government, Dr Puthucheary said, “We need to take a little bit of a step back and provide space and platforms for risk-taking, for innovation and for disruption at the cost of efficiency, which is fine because this is far more important as a long term outcome.” He urged the participants to be bold, daring, willing to take risks and chart a slightly different path depending on their passion and interests.

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In his opening keynote address, Dr Puthucheary urged the student participants to be bold and daring

NUS alumni Mr Bjorn Lee, Founder and CEO of MindFi; Mr Kenneth Lou, Co-founder and CEO of Seedly; and Mr Jake Goh, Co-founder and CEO of RateX shared their experiences as entrepreneurs at the event. NUS Business School (NUS Business) alumnus Mr Lee told potential entrepreneurs that the entrepreneurial journey would be tough. “You’ve got to really feel the passion of what you do. You have got to be willing to last those late nights and feel that connection with your business because it’s an extension of your soul, your body…There is no switching off,” he said.

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Mr Lou (right) and Mr Goh (2nd from left) spoke about their experience of juggling studies and managing a start-up

Mr Lou, who graduated from NUS Business, said that student entrepreneurs need to find ways to squeeze start-up work into their studies. Mr Lou wrote a business case on his company as part of his final year project. NUS Economics alumnus Mr Goh shared that he found it an immense challenge to know that he was responsible not only for his employees but their families as well, particularly when the employees were sole breadwinners.

We need to take a little bit of a step back and provide space and platforms for risk-taking, for innovation and for disruption at the cost of efficiency, which is fine because this is far more important as a long term outcome.

Jovin Liew, UNICON 2018 Lead Organiser and Year 2 NUS Business student, said that the name of the conference — UNICON — is an abbreviation for University Conference, as well as a pun on “unicorn”, the term for start-ups valued at more than US$1 billion. “Our slogan for the conference is ‘Chase Your Unicorn’, and we aim to inspire students to be future daring entrepreneurs and to chase that unicorn dream,” he shared.

All aspects of the conference were managed by a team of 10 NUS students from various faculties including Business, Computing as well as Arts and Social Sciences, with NUS Enterprise providing additional marketing support, said Lim Ji Ho, UNICON 2018 Lead Organiser and Year 2 NUS Computer Science student.

A highlight of the two-day conference was UNICON Arena, which was redeveloped for UNICON 2018 to attract more high quality ideas and start-ups. Eight rising start-ups founded by young entrepreneurs from Singapore and Germany engaged in an intense pitching battle, with Gush! emerging as champion. Founded by NUS alumni Mr Lester Leong and Mr Ryan Lim, Gush! offers an innovative paint — AirPure Interior Paint — that combats indoor air pollution by absorbing harmful compounds and neutralising airborne pollutants. Similar products in the market require the presence of UV light to kick-start the purification process; AirPure Interior Paint however, works even in darkness. To date, Gush! has applied their paint solution to a section of a hospital in Indonesia, as well as 115 homes and three offices in Singapore.

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Ji Ho (left) and Ahn Saemin from Rakuten (right) presenting the first prize to Mr Leong (2nd from right) and Mr Lim (2nd from left)

UNICON 2018 also saw the introduction of booths by technological companies to showcase their products and services, with exhibitors ranging from Honestbee and PitchSpot to Sponslist. A networking party, a first for the event, provided further opportunities for the participants to interact and network.

UNICON 2018 was attended by some 450 participants from 20 countries including Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, Switzerland and Taiwan. About two-thirds of the participants were students aged 18 to 25 years old.