By Danielle Duan
Inaugurated last year to foster an entrepreneurship spirit and galvanize the innovation activities of AIT’s students and faculty, the AIT Entrepreneurship Center (AITEC) marked its first year with a master class international lecture on 28 September 2020.
Professor Li Zexiang of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Chairman of DJI, the renowned drone maker, headlined AITEC’s third Distinguished Entrepreneur Talk Series event by addressing a virtual audience on the topic of “From Labs to Startups: Reinventing Engineering Education.” The event was carried online from Hong Kong to an audience of 136 who tuned in via Zoom and another 58 students and guests who got together in the Center’s Smart Modified Classroom to link up and learn from Prof. Li Zexiang, a world-class entrepreneur. Prof. Li is also a noted scholar of robotics, erudite in technical innovations and a pioneer and veteran for mentoring and incubating university student startups.
In his welcome remarks, AIT President Eden Woon, said: “Prof. Li is the most fitting person to inspire and give advice to our students who are curious and ambitious to transform their ideas into real products.”
Prof. Li began his talk by taking the audience through his personal educational journey. He received his BSc degree in Electrical Engineering and Economics (with honors) from Carnegie Mellon University, and earned his MA in Mathematics and PhD degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley. He followed that by working as a research scientist at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of MIT for one year, and later as an assistant professor in the Robotics and Manufacturing Laboratory of New York University.
In retrospect, in comparison with his classmates of Carnegie Mellon, Prof. Li said he wasn’t good at and didn’t appreciate hands-on engineering projects during his college days. But there was no doubt that he was a great test-taker. Later he would come to realize that hands-on skills are actually essential and as necessary as any theoretical engineering sense.
Professor Li left the United States for Hong Kong in 1992, when he started to build his own research group in HKUST and aimed to push through the commercialization of some of his research.
In 1999, he stepped up to execute his plan to connect his research group with the industry, bolstered by the establishment of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Innovation Circle and the fast-developing metropolis of Shenzhen, China. His team has attracted the most talented and creative students from the region and the world.
Among a number of projects that were commercialized at his lab in HKUST, a notable example was DJI, one of the most successful student startups in the world that culminated under his mentorship and leadership in knowledge transformation. Apart from his tremendous contribution to the region’s industry, Professor Li has also had a sizeable impact on education and academia.
Following his presentation, Professor Li took time to answer questions from the onsite audience and in the online chat box. His number one advice to young entrepreneurs was to find the right problem and to keep growing by continuous adaptation and improvement. Iteration is not only the key for the survival for a company in its early days, but also an advantage for occupying a leading position in the marketplace, in competition with giant companies who are not able to change as fast.
He talked about the inception of DJI, and its founder Frank Wang, who was his student at the HKUST. Professor Li was very impressed by Wang’s passion to discover problems and eagerness to solve them. He highlighted a couple of formative developments for DJI, including how its first successful product called “Phantom” was created. Unsurprisingly, it was a reward for being resilient and persistent dealing with one of the most significant hurdles facing the fledgling company, he said.
When asked to share his advice for female entrepreneurs, Professor Li commented that it is extremely important to have ideas from women when designing a consumer-based product. He has noticed that women aren’t necessarily a minority in project-based programs in universities or in the larger entrepreneur world, but he would be more than happy to see more females in engineering schools, startup teams, and the general job market.
Prof Li encouraged AIT students to seize the opportunity that the AITEC presents as a platform to connect the “critical mass” of youngsters in Thailand and the region who are passionate about innovation. As evidence, he attributes his team’s achievement to support the vast demand for R&D in neighboring Shenzhen.
Ending the online Q&A session, Professor Li told the audience that commercializing research projects into a successful business takes many steps. To foster a startup company is very complex, and that is exactly what he is trying to do on a day-to-day basis. He also welcomes AIT students to participate in DJI’s developer campaign, Hackathons, and to visit the renowned XBOT Park in Shenzhen to learn from the experts and communicate with startup teams from all over the world.
Almost one year ago, the Distinguished Entrepreneur Talk Series was inaugurated by Mr. Wang Shi, an icon of Chinese business and advocate for academia-enterprise linkages. His firm, Vanke, also began in Shenzhen. An MOU between AIT and DeepRock signed last year has set forth the “AIT-Shenzhen Enterprises Program (ASEP)”, which is designed to introduce AIT to enterprises in Shenzhen, such as Tencent, Huawei, BGI, Vanke, among others.
Taking the opportunity, Prof. Dieter Trau, Director of AITEC, expressed his thanks to the alumni, students and staff of the AITEC for a successful year of operation, and announced that an incubation program is to be launched. Concluding the event, Dr. Naveed Anwar, AIT’s VP for Knowledge Transfer, thanked Professor Li for giving a wonderful speech and for offering to assist the EC in the future, including inviting AIT to his research base XBOT Park in Shenzhen. He welcomed Professor Li’s team to visit AIT and hoped to carry out solid collaboration soon.