All fired up with new business ideas
It’s never too early to start a business. While not every business venture will be a roaring success in the likes of unicorns such as Carousell, Patsnap, and Singrow, many student entrepreneurs that were once bitten by the entrepreneurship bug would agree that it is indeed a life-changing experience.
NUS takes pride in our vibrant on-campus entrepreneurship ecosystem, which provides an infectious startup culture, as well as a comprehensive range of support and funding opportunities for students to turn their innovative ideas into reality, and make a positive impact on the world through their startups.
NUS News takes a peek at what our young entrepreneurs are up to.
Betterdata: Improving data privacy using synthetic data
Data sharing drives innovation, but as privacy laws have become more stringent, data sharing has become increasingly challenging for companies looking to collaborate on projects or share information with one another. This is where Betterdata can help.
Set up by Uzair Javaid, a PhD graduate from NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his co-founder Kevin Yee, Betterdata has developed the world’s first confidential synthetic data platform to help customers quickly and securely generate representative, synthetic structured data so that technical teams can work with data in a compliant way without waiting for months to gain clearance to use actual user data or generate their own.
The company now has five ongoing projects with leading academic institutes in Singapore and the United States, as well as customers comprising Tier 1 firms, Fortune 200 companies, public agencies, and AI startups. Betterdata has raised over S$3 million to date from investors such as Investible, Entrepreneur First, Franklin Templeton, Xcel Next, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Bon Auxilum, Tenity, and Plug and Play.
Uzair made his way from Pakistan to Singapore in 2017 to pursue PhD studies in Computer Engineering at NUS, and deep dived into the world of privacy engineering. While examining current techniques and state-of-the-art technologies for cybersecurity, and exploring where the future of privacy engineering was heading, he came up with a business idea of employing deep synthesis technology to address the issue of data privacy.
Making use of NUS’ on-campus entrepreneurship ecosystem, Uzair applied for the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Programme (GRIP), which introduced him to the world of startups. He witnessed how startups operate their businesses and was inspired to come up with ideas for his own deep-tech startup. Through NUS, Uzair also came to know of Entrepreneur First, a UK-based startup enabler, where he met his co-founder Kevin, and formed a team. Together, they combined data privacy with generative AI and built a business idea around this intersection.
Uzair and his team strived to ensure their startup was relevant from both a product as well as sales perspective. That was why they turned to NUS’ community of mentors and advisors for a sense-check of their product.
On this note, Uzair elaborated, “I’m more interested in understanding why these mentors and advisors think something wouldn’t work out, rather than only hearing about what’s great about our product. They’ve seen hundreds of startups, and have an excellent sense of the traits that successful versus unsuccessful startups possess. So, we updated them regularly with what we were doing, to get feedback from them to ensure we’re heading in the right direction.”
After joining Entrepreneur First and forming a team, Betterdata applied to The Furnace, an incubator under NUS Computing, where they received mentorship and support such as networking opportunities and marketing platforms. For example, they leveraged The Furnace’s publicity and networking channels to seed their product across different market profiles, helping them to spread awareness about Betterdata to potential customers and investors.
“We took part in various events organised by The Furnace to meet and network with potential angel investors, venture capital firms, and customers. It is a long game – it is a repeated exercise of pitching Betterdata’s product offerings at events, workshops, and seminars, to build a solid relationship with these groups of people that will translate to investment and sales in months or years down the road,” Uzair commented.
Betterdata graduated from The Furnace in 2022 and has since chalked up various accolades, such as clinching second place in the Tokyo Financial Award 2022’s Financial Innovation Category; People’s Choice Award in Seagate’s Lyve Innovator of the Year 2022; the Bronze Award in the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank’s Global Innovation Jam 2021; being named in the Slator 2023 Language AI 50 Under 50 list; and being selected as one of the Top 20 Start-up Battlefield Companies in 2022 by TechCrunch, US.
Recently in April 2023, Betterdata had successfully raised over S$2 million from their over-subscribed first institutional seed round. Their goal for the year is to use this capital to enhance their product and business development capabilities. They intend to go beyond converting and growing their current pipeline in Singapore, and venture into other Asian countries such as Korea and Japan.
vibefam: Bespoke solution for fitness entrepreneurs
After attending fitness classes in small boutique studios and gyms in Singapore, Darren Lim, a final-year Computer Science student at NUS, and his elder sister, Serene, discovered that many gym trainers and studios struggle with finding a suitable technology to digitalise their operations, as most existing solutions are designed for general or large-scale businesses. Itching to help their fellow fitness buffs, the siblings roped in Darren’s friends in NUS - Dianne Loh and Lee Jia Yi, final- and third-year Computer Science students respectively - to launch vibefam in August 2020 to devise solutions catered for fitness entrepreneurs running small to medium-scale businesses.
Being first-time entrepreneurs, the team had to get their feet wet and hands dirty. Darren, Diane and Jia Yi credit NUS’ rigorous academic training for their solid technical foundation, which proved to be crucial especially in the early stages of developing their startup.
As a “software as a service” (SaaS) platform, vibefam seamlessly integrates booking solutions and class scheduling features with a suite of exciting social networking elements. By developing the digital platform for vibefam in-house, the team was able to ensure quality control and minimise cost.
Looking for an avenue to support their startup, vibefam competed against several other teams for a spot in the year-long Venture Initiation Program@SoC in 2020. They pitched their startup to a panel of three NUS professors, and were part of the 9 startups that were awarded funding of S$10,000 and other support services to further grow their startup.
The vibefam team also took advantage of the various activities and events organised by NUS Enterprise, NUS Computing Technopreneurship Society, and NUS Entrepreneurship Society to cultivate their entrepreneurial drive, expand their networks, scale their business and access funding opportunities.
Thanks to the effective guidance of their mentors in the Venture Initiation Program@SoC, coupled with their own R&D efforts, vibefam successfully differentiated their product offerings from competitors in the West, and crystalised their strategy to focus mainly on the local and regional markets.
The team has since pivoted their business rapidly to provide a more comprehensive business solution with additional features such as ClassPass integration and email marketing, to help fitness entrepreneurs better manage various aspects of their businesses.
vibefam also provides all clients with a dedicated account manager, a user-friendly website and mobile app for easy scheduling and booking of sessions, a fully integrated payment gateway with local payment methods, marketing tools, as well as business analytics and reports. Additional services such as membership and instructor management, and organising of community events, are also provided to help clients promote and scale their businesses.
To date, vibefam represents more than 40 boutique gyms across Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Indonesia, with a total user base of over 30,000.
Darren conveyed his appreciation on behalf of his team, “As students, our professional networks are smaller, and it is more difficult for us to scale our business, hire talent, and obtain funding. NUS Enterprise’s support has helped us gain a footing, and as a result, we were able to prototype our business ideas quicker, and achieve product-market fit more rapidly.”
Eager to share their excitement as entrepreneurs, the team invited their schoolmates to build the vibefam community. Thus far, they have worked with over 30 NUS students via summer internships, semester internships, and freelance roles in both their business and tech domains.
Offering tips to aspiring entrepreneurs, Darren said, “You need to find a team that has complementary skillsets, one that you enjoy spending time with both in and out of work. Build your product iteratively, and always follow a guided, data-driven approach in making decisions as every decision could make or break your startup.”
vibefam is currently based at BLOCK71. The team strives to grow their brand awareness and bring their bespoke solutions to more aspiring fitness entrepreneurs, helping them scale their businesses from zero to one. They aim to capture five per cent of Singapore’s boutique fitness SaaS industry market share by the end of 2023.
Factorem: Matching innovators with manufacturers
A problem at work can sometimes open up a huge business opportunity – and the two co-founders of Factorem, Alexandra (Alex) Zhang, an alumna of NUS Real Estate, and Hardik Dobariya, an alumnus of NUS Electrical Engineering, can attest to that.
During their internships in Toronto, Canada, under the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme, although their companies are in different industries – Alex worked in an automotive startup building transmissions for electric vehicles and Hardik worked in a quantum computing startup – they faced a common problem – sourcing for reliable manufacturers and producing prototypes were time-consuming and costly. This seeded the idea of finding a faster and cheaper way to manufacture prototypes.
When they later spoke to hundreds of hardware contacts and startups, they found that everyone was struggling with timely delivery and quality of parts while managing multiple vendors in the supply chain. On the other hand, while speaking with many SME manufacturers located in industrial parks throughout Singapore, Alex and Hardik realised that most of them had 20 to 30 per cent idle and underutilised capacity. When the machine is down and idle, it incurs costs for the factory. Upon discovering the gap between supply and demand, Alex and Hardik decided to set up Factorem – which means ‘maker’ in Latin – to bridge the disconnect between customers that require quick prototypes and manufacturers (who are mostly offline today) that could provide the service.
Established in September 2020, Factorem’s proprietary software platform helps innovative companies in need of custom manufacturing requirements increase productivity and streamline their operations. Powered by AI, the platform offers real-time quoting on 3D models, automatic design-defect detection, customisable workflows for customers, and tools for managing orders and quality control. It aims to simplify the manufacturing process by centralising all these functions in one platform, helping businesses get parts on-demand and operate more efficiently while reducing wastage of idle capacities and materials. Essentially, Factorem is a like an astute match-maker for manufacturing services, enabling smart matching between demand and supply.
Factorem is currently incubated in The Furnace under NUS Computing, and the fast-growing company now houses its core operations at LaunchPad@one-north since November 2022. For Alex and Hardik, launching and running a startup is very challenging with many different battles to fight daily, but it is also a rewarding journey. As NOC alumni, they could turn to the strong networks of NOC and NUS Enterprise for support and mentorship. They forged friendships with other startup founders in these communities who provided useful directions and contacts.
The duo noted, “The support we received from NUS Enterprise, NUS Computing’s The Furnace, Enterprise Singapore, and other government initiatives, in the form of valuable networks and connections, mentorship, as well as grants, has really helped to tide us over our crucial first two years in launching our startup.”
To date, Factorem has partnered with over 60 verified manufacturers, delivering over 10,000 parts and saving more than 50 per cent overall lead time for their customers.
And how do the two co-founders keep themselves going? Alex shared, “Literally, note down why you embarked on your startup journey from time to time. The ‘why’ is important and may change over time as you hit each milestone. It is useful to have a physical reminder to keep yourself on track as you work on your goals, especially when things get challenging.”
We wish all of them the very best in their startup journeys!