"Technopreneurs", who combine tech savvy with business know-how, are important to Malaysia's transformation into a knowledge-based economy.
Mohd Hezri Amir Abdul Latiff was 23 when he started his first company in 2009, Hezmedia Interactive. Having graduated from Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) that same year, the avid gamer decided to commercialise his final year project, an educational game aimed at teaching mathematics to schoolkids.
He was fortunate in the beginning – he secured funding from the Multimedia Development Corp (MDec) and found some success in selling the game. But his journey was not always smooth. Stiff competition, slowing sales and cash flow problems were issues he grappled with.
Then his success in developing educational games and apps for clients caught the attention of IT security consulting and services provider Nexagate. In 2017, Nexagate absorbed Hezmedia and injected much-needed capital into the company as well as expertise.
Hezri is confident that the company, now called Nexasoft, can expand its services and solutions. "We're now not just looking at games but other solutions related to the Internet of Things, virtual reality and Industry 4.0 solutions. We can do that thanks to the contacts and network of this partnership," he says.
Enter The Technopreneur
Much has been talked about the role of technopreneurs – entrepreneurs who combine their passion for all things tech with business know-how in transforming Malaysia into a knowledge-based economy.
Government and government-related agencies have, on their part, created an environment that encourages start-ups. Organisations such as MDec, Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (Magic), and Cradle Sdn Bhd offer funding opportunities, business advisory services and physical infrastructure.
Creative Minds founder Muhammad Shafiq Shahrul Amar, whose company is a leading Stem (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) educational provider, sees the partnership with MDec in the company's early years as one of the turning points.
Creative Minds, which was started in 2012, was one of the pioneers in using Lego in the teaching of Stem subjects.
"A few years after we were set up, MDec introduced the Digital Maker Initiative in line with the government's education policy to encourage Stem, and made Creative Minds a partner," he says.
Using Lego as the medium of instruction, Creative Minds mapped its curriculum against the country's education blueprint, collaborating with the Education Ministry, MDec, as well as other government agencies and international schools to offer a variety of Stem-based programmes and camps throughout the country.
These cover a variety of themes from robotics to mechanics engineering and construction.
Over the years, Creative Minds has grown from strength to strength. Besides schoolchildren, the company offers courses for teachers and educators as part of its goal to build teaching capabilities.
Partnerships with organisations like Teraju (an agency in the Prime Minister's department aimed at boosting the participation of Bumiputeras in the economy), Khazanah Nasional Bhd, Telekom Malaysia Bhd and non-governmental organisations on a variety of projects saw rural school children exposed to Stem, 3D printing and other disruptive technologies.
Creative Minds also worked alongside the Selangor state government to implement its Stem Selangor initiative, which promoted hands-on, participatory approaches to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Hothouse For Ideas
Apart from government and government-related agencies, Hezri and Shafiq credit their alma mater for inculcating the spirit of entrepreneurship.
Shafiq, who has a Bachelor of Technology from UTP, says that universities in general are an ideal place for students to learn and hone entrepreneurial skills, whether through organising events, fundraising or running projects.
In his case, subjects like business and accounting have helped him in running his company. "The assignments that we took on were also more relevant to industry, so as an entrepreneur I was able to apply what I learnt," he says.
Hezri credits his final year project supervisor for helping him commercialise his project, MathQuest, which became the basis of his start-up.
While creativity and innovation have long been one of the outputs of universities, increasingly institutions of higher learning are seeking to marry this with entrepreneurship, helping students like Hezri get their inventions to market.
At UTP, for example, students are offered mentoring and coaching to help them determine the value proposition of their invention and designing their business model.
Zamri Abdullah, who heads UTP's Technopreneurship Office, says the university assists students financially through seed funds to start micro businesses on campus (MicroBiz Fund) and funding to upgrade their prototype for early market validation (TechnoSeed Fund).
Another key function of the Technopreneurship Office is to provide the infrastructure for product and business development.
"The Technopreneurship Garage, for example, features co-working space and workshop with rapid prototyping machinery (like 3D printers, fabrication tools, to name a few), computer labs, fabrication workshops, booths and business outlets," he says.
Events such as the Science and Engineering Design Exhibition, Entrepreneurship Expo, networking events with UTP Alumni who are entrepreneurs, as well as start-up master classes and workshops are some of the initiatives undertaken.
"The rationale is to change from the job-seeker to the job-creator mindset among students," he says. The goal, he adds, is for 10% of UTP students to pursue entrepreneurship and set up their own companies by 2025.
Navigating Turbulence And Charting Growth
Although starting one's business and growing an enterprise is attractive, it's worth remembering that such endeavours are not always smooth sailing, especially at the start. But as these entrepreneurs point out, the journey is paved with invaluable lessons.
"Introducing new things can be a challenge. In the beginning, not everyone was receptive to our ideas. Parents did not see the value of teaching children robotics, but it is through robotics that you develop problem-solving skills," says Shafiq.
He adds that kids also pick up communication and presentation skills, and learn to work in teams.
Persistence and self-belief were necessary in those early years. Today, Shafiq is upbeat about Creative Minds' prospects given the potential of technology education, and is currently exploring projects abroad.
Hezri is similarly optimistic about his enterprise, adding that Nexasoft recently completed a project for Petronas R&D to create a plant monitoring app. "We are on a firmer footing today," he admits.
The struggles of the early years taught him crucial lessons. "Cash flow, sales and revenue are critical to a business – it's more than just about developing games," he says.
Networking is also important. This, he says, is a lesson from his mentor, Nexagate founder and managing director Khairil Effendy. "He stressed the importance of meeting people everyday, building rapport and networking," says Hezri.
Despite the challenges, both technopreneurs have no regrets about the paths they have chosen. "There is no right or wrong thing in entrepreneurship. You have to experiment and experience it yourself," says Hezri.
His top tip for budding entrepreneurs is to start early. "If you have an idea, go for it. Give yourself seven to 10 years and build on your capabilities, whether it's network or skills. If you're fresh out of university and experiencing failure as an entrepreneur, take heart that you're not even 30, so you have time on your side."
A Nursery For New Inventions
Since its establishment in 2016, UTP's Technopreneurship Office (a unit under the Centre for Student Development) has incubated 36 start-ups and helped to successfully commercialise 30 projects. A further six technopreneurs are currently being developed.
Some of the success stories include Solvie Pro, a platform that seeks to empower the rural industry with the supply of temporary workers. The app allows industries on its platform to hire temporary workers to replace absentee workers.
Solviepro currently has 4,750 registered users with 450 active transactions daily. The company is planning to launch a full mobile application for Android and iOS at the end of 2018.
Another successful incubation is Forge Factory, which provides 3D printing services to students within UTP and around Bandar Seri Iskandar in Perak – focusing on students in the fields of engineering, architecture and design and modelling.
Forge Factory emerged first runner-up in the Asean Young Entrepreneurs Challenge (AYEC2018), and was named the Top 10 Best Student Entrepreneurs for KPT-Teraju Superb Higher Education League 2017.