Digerati50: Inspiring students through robotics competitions

  • Aims to be the engineering success story missing in Malaysia
  • Targeting US$2b Automated Guided Vehicle market in Asia

Digerati50: Inspiring students through robotics competitions

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles the 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2016-2017 (Vol 2), a special print publication released in February 2016. The digital version of that publication can be downloaded from the link at the top right corner of the page thanks to the sponsorship of Telekom Malaysia Bhd, Malaysia’s convergence champion.

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HE is an academic-cum-entrepreneur, but Dr Yeong Che Fai (pic) does not believe that the best method for learning is through doing.

Rather, over the last 15 years, he has come to realise that a much better way of learning, and teaching too, is by putting his engineering students through the crucible of competition.

“It’s the best way to push them to the next level,” says the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) senior lecturer whose speciality is Rehabilitation Robotics.

It wasn’t always like that. It used to be he would enter robotics competitions aiming to win, starting from his student days back in 1996. He still wants to win, mind you, but now enjoys watching his student teams push themselves harder than he could have, in terms of being creative, thinking unconventionally, and taking risks.

Yeong is now pushing himself as well, stepping out of his academic cocoon and going full-time into DF Automation Sdn Bhd, the robotics company he set up with two former students in 2012.

A research university, UTM, has a flexible arrangement that allows its academics to venture full time into entrepreneurship.

This has encouraged Yeong to become the success story that is missing in Malaysia. He set this goal in late 2010 upon returning from the United Kingdom with his Imperial College PhD in Rehabilitation Robotics.

“Ask engineering students there what they want to do, and it is not uncommon to hear them aspire to change the world through something they hope to build. But you won’t get such bold answers from Malaysian students,” he laments.

Yeong attributes this inability of dreaming big to the lack of globally-known engineering success stories in Malaysia for students to be inspired or motivated by.

He decided to stir things up after returning from completing his PhD.

 “Only fourth-year students work on projects as part of the requirements to graduate, but I started encouraging students to become entrepreneurs in their fourth year and to build products that can solve real-world problems,” he says.

Students doing this can then leverage on grants, equipment and brainpower in the university to build their solutions.

The following year in 2012, a group of three final-year students did take Yeong’s advice and built a rehabilitation robot for stroke victims. It won them 20 awards, and Yeong became the go-to lecturer in the engineering school.

Those students launched their own company after graduating and are now working on clinical trials to get their product ready for market. Yeong is a shareholder in that company, TechCare Innovation Sdn Bhd.

Yeong has also taken things one step further since 2014 by even encouraging freshmen to start thinking of solving real-world problems. “Let them make their mistakes when they have the support network of their university behind them,” is his rationale.

Now, however, he is on his own, as he joins his two cofounders to build DF Automation into one of the leading robotics companies in Southeast Asia, focusing on the US$2-billion AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) market in Asia.

But Yeong realises he must cross one major hurdle to achieve success: He needs to convince a venture capital fund to invest US$1 million (RM4.2 million) into DF Automation for it to rapidly develop its technology and invest in marketing capabilities.

You can be sure he will be making his pitch with a competition mindset.


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