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Starting their Journey

This year’s CUHK-SCMP Innovation and Entrepreneurship Challenge, organised by the Pi Centre of Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Post, featured five start-ups vying for the championship. Teams of students did their best to impress the five-member judging panel with 10-minute Powerpoint presentations which were followed by a five-minute question-and-answer session with the judges. The challenge took place at Pi Centre on August 10.

The entrepreneurial initiative taps into Hong Kong’s vibrant start-up trend by aiming to help university students transform innovative ideas into functioning start-ups. A month before the final competition, a day-long workshop helped participants turn their ideas into workable proposals. Guest speakers including Erica Yuen, CEO of Mi Ming Mart, Garrick Lau, head of strategic planning and community engagement, New World Development, and Leo Ng, CEO of Fujitsu Hong Kong, gave talks to fire up the competitors’ entrepreneurial spirit.

Guests shared their expertise on topics like digital marketing, fundraising strategy, technological innovation, go-to-market research tips, design thinking methods, and pitching. The students walked away with a better understanding of how to succeed in the competition.

This year’s challenge produced an invigorating range of business ideas which ranged from a technological education platform to a way of helping the underprivileged improve their lives. Products included a career-planning tool powered by artificial intelligence (AI), a programme which increased spiritual health and awareness through tarot consultation, and a small consulting tool for small shops, and an online travel service provider which included a personalised itinerary planner.

After a heated debate, the judges reached a consensus based on pre-arranged criteria of concept, viability, creativity, and social impact. The award went to Itinni, an online travel platform which identified consumer solutions at the pre-travel, travel, and post-travel stages.

The goal of the Itinni start-up was to find workable ways to remove the pain of travel planning, and to maximise the traveller’s enjoyment by providing on-the-spot alerts about potential problems. It identified the main problems as time-consuming trip planning, unfriendly planning tools, and the lack of on-the-spot support while travelling.

All the judges praised the students’ willingness to take on the challenge, and the effort they made to showcase their concepts. Jeffrey Broer, co-director of the Founder Institute, praised the students for having a sense of entrepreneurship. “People seeking positions with good prospects are now seeing start-ups as an opportunity to do something else besides going into the corporate world,” Broer said.

“After graduating from university, I went directly into entrepreneurship. That took a lot of guts. Seek advice, find mentors, and create an ecosystem around yourself to provide gainful feedback. Entrepreneurs can’t do everything on their own. Validate your hypothesis by talking to potential customers and clients in an interview style to discover if there is a market for a particular idea,” Broer said.

Dr Zachary Leung, CEO, InfoTalk Corporation, also praised the students’ presentations. “Overall, they were prepared and well-trained,” he said. “All the teams touched on the key factors and major issues likely to interest investors. All the presenters knew how to formulate a business model, a revenue model, and a marketing strategy,” said Leung.

Leung also highlighted the usefulness of insights provided by AI. “I have been working in AI for my whole life, and it’s not that easy to make it to work for you. When it works, it’s beautiful, but when it doesn’t, you don’t know why. One major problem is data, specifically how to obtain good and real data that helps you. Several teams applied AI to solve a problem, but they didn’t give details of how it would help them,” he said.

Jennifer Lee, CFO at G For Good, and senior manager, strategic planning and community engagement, New World Development, delivered a 30-minute speech at a workshop in July. Lee discussed the challenges the entrepreneurs faced, and noted the support that her company provides to startups. “Joining this kind of competition expands the viewpoint of students, especially as they see how the judges develop business plans,” Lee said.

“The judges agreed the students showed guts while brainstorming ideas, putting them into a business plan, and presenting it to us. I think the next step for them is to take a trial-and-error approach,” Lee said. “I was happy that a social element had been considered in many cases. This originated from observing a social problem, for instance, one relating to mental wellness, and even the challenges of running a family-owned shop.” Lee said she hoped that social impact would become a greater part of the start-up ecosystem.

“You need a lot of feedback during the journey, and this competition is part of that process. Prepare to do a lot of pitching, and don’t wait until graduation to start building a business plan. Start while you are still studying,” added Lee.

Professor Mantian Hu, assistant professor of marketing, CUHK Business School, took a judging role in the competition for the first time. “I learned a lot from the event. The proposals were not just about making money, they involved social benefits and making a contribution to society,” Hu said.

“Presentation skills are important from a marketing professor’s point of view,” Hu said. “How you position your proposal, and how you convince people to take part, is something that start-ups need to learn about. For instance, only a few teams analysed their competitors in the market. One team from HKU talked about market research, and the information they provided helped convince judges who were not familiar with that particular industry that the team had a unique solution to a problem,” Hu said.

“I hope Hong Kong students will think beyond Hong Kong when developing a business model,” said Hu. “If you focus solely on local needs, you are operating in a small market, and that means you need a lot of personalisation to attract users. But it’s a different story if you set your target as one percent of the total population of mainland China and Southeast Asia. Notice how Israeli start-ups target the US market, and aren’t limited to domestic users, therefore ensuring a vast market. Think of the global market, and don’t limit your reach.”

Ryan Wong, sales and marketing director at the Post, applauded the diversity of ideas within individual niches, but said that wider exploration was necessary. “Teams did research, but they only focused on one side of the argument. They forgot to challenge their own ideas and identify potential risks,” Wong said. “Moreover, most of them neglected to address operational issues by, for instance, seeking partnerships.”

“All in all, the challenge enabled students to improve their presentation skills and project planning skills before moving on to look for venture capital,” Wong said. “The real-life experience of presenting a project and getting the judges’ invaluable feedback will have proved invaluable. But I also believe that the actual prize counts for a lot. The winning team secured a one-year co-working space membership at the Pi Centre and the Tencent WeStart co-working space. Commercial co-working spaces usually involve expensive charges which are an obstacle for young entrepreneurs, so this will bring them real benefits,” Wong said.