Making MIT entrepreneurship matter in Hong Kong

You have two weeks in a city that is 8,000 miles away from everything familiar to you. Alongside you are 34 of the best minds selected from both MIT and Hong Kong universities. There is one goal: build products that will transform an underserved district.

This objective was set by the staff of the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, who believed that by putting theory into practice, they could design a program that grounded action learning to local inquiry — they call it the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI). This program is featured in Kowloon East, a unique area of Hong Kong with sponsors who have a vested interest in its prospects for revitalization. Professor Charles Sodini, the Clarence J. LeBel Professor in Electrical Engineering and faculty director of the Innovation Node, says the location provides “a terrific experience for students to discover opportunities against a backdrop of socio-economic and environmental challenges.”

Product ideas and proposed startups are a valuable resource to both the sponsors and the community. In response to these challenges, students form interdisciplinary teams to examine wide-ranging themes across smart mobility, sustainability, and wellness. Participants experience the chaos and excitement of entrepreneurship: making critical early decisions, building relationships with stakeholders and prospective customers, and using insights to converge ideas into tangible solutions. By the end of the program, the MEMSI teams build proof-of-concept prototypes and pitch their business plans to over 100 attendees at a showcase held in Hong Kong.

Showcased projects have included:

  • a health-care kiosk to give patients access to diagnostic services;
  • a fall-detection wearable, worn as jewelry by seniors, that alerts caregivers;
  • an intelligent waste management system to promote positive food waste-sorting habits;
  • an internet of things-enabled platform that upgrades the walking tour experience and made accessible for the visually-impaired; and
  • a crowd-control system to improve passenger dispersion on train platforms.

From idea to market

While MEMSI is about the educational experience, teams have already started testing their ideas outside of the program. Sodini notes that several projects have advanced to the next level, often connecting with opportunities on campus to develop into startups. “MEMSI is a launch pad for students. They can explore multiple entrepreneurial paths and access rapid, low-volume manufacturing capabilities right in our backyard,” he states.

The program is designed for students who are looking to test their appetite for technology-based entrepreneurship. For example, Atem, a startup admitted into MIT’s delta v accelerator last summer, created their “smart” inhaler during MEMSI. The device helps users manage respiratory health through improved adherence and technique.

Another startup, Aavia, focuses on women’s health and was also conceived during the MEMSI program, with co-founders from both MIT and Hong Kong. They created a patented “smart sleeve” for blister packs of contraceptives that sends reminders to users to take the pill on schedule. Prior to joining delta v, the team spent one year at the Innovation Node prototyping and sourcing manufacturing partnerships across the mainland China border.

A global classroom

MEMSI is a product of collaborative input that was designed to educate students in the key areas of innovation practice, by incorporating the knowledge and novel experiences of both innovation node staff and featured entrepreneurs. This two-week immersive hardware program is supported by the MIT Innovation Initiative and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) China Program, and it integrates content from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Project Manus.

For MBA student Yunus Sevimli, learning to work in a diverse team “is an indispensable skill” but often “hard to practice within the classroom of a business school.” He says MEMSI gave him the opportunity to collaborate with a group that is truly diverse in multiple aspects. “Our team of seven was composed of engineering, design, business, and occupational therapy students from three universities in Hong Kong as well as two graduate programs at MIT. The different perspectives each team member brought to the table allowed us to challenge our assumptions and push ourselves.”

Kate Wong, a student participant from Hong Kong, agrees. Working with Sevimli, she attributes the team’s “positive dynamics” to this diversity. Wong’s background in medical rehabilitation enabled her to “make use of connections with nonprofit organizations and professionals … and connecting with the elderly,” as they drew stakeholder insights to inform the design of a fall detection wearable for senior citizens.

The global classroom experience included a two-day tour to Shenzhen, a major city known for its speed to market when it comes to hardware innovation. Students learned about the Chinese hardware manufacturing ecosystem first-hand, which was a highlight for students such as Antoine Yazbeck, an engineering graduate student studying advanced manufacturing and design.

“We hear a lot about Chinese factories, but having the chance to actually see that for yourself is different. Within these visits, what was great was also the diversity of factories we visited. From the traditional ‘high productivity for a healthy economy’ factory to the new modern-and-connected factory,” says Yazbeck. 

Building an entrepreneurial community

The MIT Innovation Node has worked with more than 120 MIT students in the past three years. With each cohort, students return to Hong Kong as teaching assistants to support the learning experience for their peers, while honing their own teaching and learning around entrepreneurship.

Being a teaching assistant for MEMSI provided Eric Wong, an engineering graduate student, “an amazing opportunity to take what I learned as a participant in the program last year and hopefully inspire the cohort to think bigger of what is possible for them as I felt myself.”

For the Innovation Node, building an entrepreneurial community is fundamental to inspire students to think bigger. This means connecting with like-minded entrepreneurs, industry experts and business mentors — many of whom are MIT alumni residing in Hong Kong.

The opportunity for alumni to mentor students is “like an intense pick-up basketball game with a group of young skilled players — both challenging and fun,” says Sean Kwok ’97, MArch ’01, a practicing architect and prop-tech entrepreneur. Kwok sees the experience of guiding these aspiring entrepreneurs as mutually beneficial, “Their fresh perspectives and unique insights often inspire me with new ideas for my own projects.” 

By helping students adopt a customer-centric approach to build solutions around those insights, the program aims to nurture entrepreneurial skills relevant for the future.

“Whether they’re building a startup, joining a corporation, or advancing their academic pursuits,” says Charleston Sin, executive director of the Innovation Node, “our goal is to nurture the entrepreneurial mindset that will help students succeed in their careers.”