Imagine Cup aims at harnessing digital-savvy mindset

  • Computational skills vital in workforce as 85% of jobs undergo innovation in next 3 years
  • Microsoft local and international partnerships as stepping stones for students

Imagine Cup aims at harnessing digital-savvy mindset


BEING a global technology leader, Microsoft assumes the important role of lending a helping hand to budding entrepreneurs aiming to launch their startups. It is primarily doing this through its Imagine Cup competition, a premier innovation competition for students globally. The goal is to empower student innovators and offer them a stepping stone in their technological ideations.

At the Imagine Cup 2018 Southeast Asia Regional Finals held in Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) last week, Microsoft’s APAC commercial software engineering lead David Miller shared that the initiative has touched over two million students from over 190 countries.

And, the most recently touched are three Malaysian students who were declared champions of Imagine Cup SEA Regionals 2018. Tan Yit Peng, Yap Xien Yin and Zulnazim Dzulkurnain from the aptly named Team PINE developed a non-invasive sensing device to enable pineapple exporters to check the internal quality of the fruit.

Since the current device leads to fruit wastage and the non-invasive alternative is expensive, the team developed a feasible solution at a fraction of the price of currently available devices.

In an email interview with Digital News Asia, the members of Team PINE, who are final year students hailing from University Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia, credited their lecturer and supervisor Dr Chia Kim Seng for their success. Tan shares, “Without his support, we would not have made it this far. Being actively involved in related research since 2010, Chia provided us with the idea and guided our research.”

Tan encouraged other students to join the next competition. “Work hard to achieve what you believe in and don’t give up.” Speaking from experience, she says she and her team almost gave up due to a fear of not being able to perform their best under the competitive time constraints but they were urged on by the other competing teams.

Although the other teams had impressive ideas and competition proved to be tough, Team PINE’s persistence paid off with the reward being a trip to the global competition in Seattle, Washington later this year, and the chance to be the global winners.

Democratisation of technology in all corners of the world

Aside from the competition element of the KL finals, two panel sessions were held as well. The first was on the purpose and background of Imagine Cup and was headed by Miller who was accompanied by founder and director of Thriving Talents Michael Teoh and The Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) senior coordinator Sarah Staton.

Subsequently, the second panel session saw Microsoft Malaysia’s director of legal, corporate and government affairs Jasmine Begum and MDEC’s vice president of talent and digital entrepreneurship Sumitra Nair as panellist, with the conversation gravitating around Microsoft’s government partnership and Malaysian digital initiatives.

Through the Imagine Cup competition, Microsoft recognises the future potential and value of startups with Miller attributing the significance of startups to the democratisation of technology in all corners of the world.

The company’s strategy includes looking at startups to see long term digital possibilities and to lend a helping hand. By empowering startups, Microsoft believes it is creating opportunities for future partnerships and innovation.

Imagine Cup as a learning platform

Miller explains that success has varied definitions but in the course of Imagine Cup, it is measured through the students’ ability to learn skills from participating in the competition. The rationale behind Microsoft introducing this competition stems from the digital innovation and change currently in the market.

He also shared, “Over 85% of jobs in the Asia Pacific market will experience innovation in the next three years. Meanwhile, the region makes up for 60% of global youth within the age range of 15 and 24 years. So we see this as an opportunity to cultivate the workforce of the future.”

Other than US$100,000 (RM388,000) prize money at the global competition in Seattle, the regional finalists stand a chance to participate in mentoring under Microsoft chief executive officer, Satya Nadella.

“We’re moving from learning about technology to creating technology. The Imagine Cup is embracing this shift by helping students build their computational thinking skills,” Miller says. He emphasises that the competition is about encouraging students to think about real life problems and to tackle them through technological solutions.

This piques curiosity about Microsoft’s partnerships with winners of the competition and their success rate of startup manifestation. Miller clarifies, “It is difficult to quantify how many teams from Imagine Cup have converted into viable companies because they form over time.”

As a past participant of Imagine Cup, Teoh shares on the pivotal role the competition has played in his own career development. Teoh, who also sits on the judging panel of the competition, says “Being a business major, my exposure from Imagine Cup has given me the experience to talk to my clients, relate in terms of technological know-how and deliver resources to solve their problems.”

He also commends the company for the fellowship and their continued support of past Imagine Cup alumni. Teoh runs a training and consulting company which has had several special projects in collaborative effort with Microsoft.

While all attention is usually focused on the winner in competition settings, Microsoft encourages non-participants as well as those eliminated from the competition to take advantage of their free online resources under the Imagine Programme. The programme includes access to developer tools and online learning to facilitate entrepreneurial hopefuls in their journey.

Partnerships for talent development

Staton shares that the driving force for GIST’s collaboration with Microsoft belied in the fact that technological entrepreneurs fuel economic development on a regional and global scale.

The flagship US government programme works in 136 countries worldwide engaging through pitch competitions, startup bootcamps and meetups to help communities and share best practices. “The impetus behind this is that we want to be able to invest in innovators. We need to be able to give them the connections and resources that can make their solutions a reality.”

On a Malaysian scale, Microsoft’s Jasmine worked with MDEC to host this year’s regional Imagine Cup with an eye to developing local talent.  “As part of the government aspirations in National Transformation 2050 (TN50), Microsoft democratises technology for vocational students to allow more business opportunities, possibly for hawkers too,” says Jasmine.

“A critical part of the digital ecosystem is talent which is a key agenda for us. Initiatives such as Imagine Cup is integral because Microsoft are employers of digital talent,” adds MDEC’s Sumitra.

Sumitra describes MDEC’s partnership with Microsoft is a two-way win-win relationship. By enabling MDEC to understand new digital technology, Microsoft also provides insight on the type people they want to recruit thus allowing for better talent development.

“Partnerships like this really matter. Microsoft has come on-board with us to help better curate and assess final year projects at university level,” says Sumitra, referring to MDEC’s university level initiative to nurture talent in their 14 premier technology higher education institutions.

Similar to Imagine Cup’s goal of cultivating computational thinking, Sumitra also touched on how the Malaysian government is now integrating this particular higher order thinking skill into the school syllabus. She explains how computational thinking complements critical thinking by introducing computer science concepts into the classroom.

“For example, it is being embedded into school syllabus in the primary levels especially within STEM subjects. In secondary school, Form Two students this year will be exposed to microprocessors through the Design and Technology subject.”

The big picture is for all Malaysian students to get familiar and skilled in the tools and thinking required to be winners in today’s dynamic digital landscape. Participation in digital initiatives such as the Imagine Cup are seen as testing grounds and benchmarks to assess how our young are able to harness technology along with developing 21st century skills of creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

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