ISIP Visiting Professor: To sustain your startup, fall in love with the problem and develop a deep passion for your solution

Part 2 of ISIP’s Visiting Professor Feature

by Adriel Nisperos

I think people often times fall in love with the solution that they’re coming up with. But if you fall in love with the problem and really develop a deep passion around solving that problem, that will sustain you [in building your social enterprise].
— Eugene Noh, 2019 Visiting Professor

To increase the capacity of higher education institutions in the Philippines in supporting university-based social enterprises, the Innovation for Social Impact Partnership (ISIP) project is deploying international professors to Philippine universities in 2019 as part of the Visiting Professors activity.

Eugene Noh, Program Director of the Bay Area National Science Foundation Innovation-Corps (NSFI-Corps) at the University of California Berkeley, is one of the international professors deployed in August 2019, together with Meike Siegner of the University of British Columbia. (READ: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through Globally Connected Networks)

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Eugene was deployed at the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines (USTP) in Cagayan de Oro (CDO) where he brought his expertise in technopreneurship teaching and incubator operations, and rich experience in tech startup investment in Silicon Valley. During his visit, he conducted a series of learning sessions which was participated by deans, department chairpersons, and faculty members of USTP and its 10 cohort universities. 

Having been deployed at the same university in 2016, Eugene returns to USTP to also further accelerate the achievement of the university’s technopreneurship agenda.

“The [Visiting Professors activity] is very important because our faculty will be able to really confirm that the future of our graduates is no longer mere employment but also on creating jobs for others. The visit of Prof. Noh will also enhance our curriculum and change the mindset of our faculty,” Dr. Ruth Cabahug, Chancellor of USTP, said.

Learning from Study and Practice

In a knowledge sharing session at USTP, Eugene explained how UC Berkeley implements its technopreneurship and social entrepreneurship course. UC Berkeley is widely known for its “technology-centric” method of entrepreneurship study and practice. Working for more than five years at UC Berkeley, Eugene was able to share their best practices in entrepreneurship education such as conducting a Hack4Local, an activity that allows students to solve real-life societal issues coming from their communities.

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In an interview, Eugene noted his observation about the thriving startups in CDO, “One of my observations was that there is a deep awareness of the social problems [among the startups] whether they be access to water, food security, or transportation, or job creation. The problems are ones that people experience on a daily basis.”

Eugene also conducted a workshop for faculty members which explained further the activities and lessons they teach in their technopreneurship courses at UC Berkeley. One of the topics he focused on is about developing a viable product that addresses community needs. Eugene underscored the importance of deeply understanding a particular real-life problem and knowing a customer before designing a solution.

“I think people often times fall in love with the solution that they’re coming up with. But if you fall in love with the problem and really develop a deep passion around solving that problem, that will sustain you [as a startup/social enterprise],” Eugene said in an interview.

A brief exercise on interviewing customers was also conducted towards the end of the workshop which provided the participants ideas and recommendations on how to conduct customer interviews and frame questions that will draw insightful customer feedback.

Marberth Jael, an Electronics Engineering Instructor at USTP and one of the participants at the workshop, shared that he learned a lot after attending the learning sessions with Eugene. “Listening to professor Eugene’s lectures clarified and validated the topics I already know about technopreneurship. The session on interviewing customers was helpful as it guided me on how to refine interview questions better,” Marberth shared.

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Aside from the technopreneurship workshop, Eugene also led another learning session focused on incubation program management which was participated by USTP’s TechHub staff and representatives from other Technology Business Incubators. In this workshop, Eugene discussed how the CITRIS Foundry and the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley incubates its startups.

After the discussion, the participants sought advice from Eugene particularly about selecting and onboarding mentors in their incubators. Eugene then explained the importance of building and strengthening relationships with partners. He also reminded the participants to select mentors who are ready to be “hands-on” in the incubation process.

Engr. Bronson Mabulay, TechHub Manager at USTP, also expressed his gratitude to Eugene and ISIP for partnering with USTP for the Visiting Professors activity. “We’re very grateful that we’re connected not only to professor Noh but to other international education institutions as well,” Engr. Bronson shared.

Looking at the Big Picture 

One of the major events of the Visiting Professors activity at USTP is the Investment Forum which brought together key stakeholders in the region’s startup ecosystem. This includes representatives from the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), faculty members of USTP, startup incubatees of the USTP TechHub, entrepreneurs/startups, and local cooperatives. The forum aims to shed light to the existing gaps in the startup investment ecosystem in Northern Mindanao region. It is also an avenue to build lasting relationships and linkages between investors and entrepreneurs in the region.

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The forum commenced with keynote talks from Mylah Cariño of NEDA Region X who highlighted the economic activities and opportunities available in the region; Eugene who provided an overview on how tech startup investments work at Silicon Valley; and Jonathan De Luzuriaga of Spring Valley Tech who explained the challenges Filipino startups face when it comes to obtaining investments.

“Some of my favorite occasions of this trip are actually listening to other people talk. The talks were very informative but quite different. NEDA’s talk was highlighting all the economic activities and opportunities that are going on in CDO in Northern Mindanao. Jonathan, on the other hand, has a slightly different take which was focused on why it is difficult for startups to succeed in the Philippines. I think it was good to hear both sides. Yes, there’s a lot going on. But how can you capitalize on those opportunities?,” Eugene notes.

A panel discussion followed the talks which was participated by the keynote speakers, Dr. Ambrosio Cultura, Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at USTP, and Eileen San Juan, Local Economic Investment Promotion Officer of the City Government of Cagayan de Oro.

Moving Onwards with the Mission

Despite the short deployment of the visiting experts, the Visiting Professors activity is designed to ensure that action points and outputs will go beyond the visit. In the case of USTP, Engr. Bronson shared that they have stayed connected with Eugene and UC Berkeley even after his first deployment three years ago.

It’s exciting to see the impact that my efforts could have. As much as I’m impressed with what they’re doing, the fact that I can come in and help accelerate their efforts, it seems like a dynamic place so I’m personally fulfilled to be involved in the [Visiting Professors activity].
— Eugene Noh, 2019 Visiting Professor

“I’ve been able to talk to him [after his first deployment in 2016]. In fact, last year we visited him [at UC Berkeley],” Engr. Bronson mentioned. He is also looking forward to continue working with Eugene in enhancing their innovation ecosystem, “We are as excited as him to continue this and hopefully, through collaboration with departments inside USTP, we could move to another level.”

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Eugene, on the other hand, was also impressed by the active economic activities and opportunities happening in the region as well as the rapid improvement in USTP’s implementation of the Technopreneurship 101 (T101). “When I was here in 2016, we can only imagine who potential investors might be. And now three years later, some of the local cooperatives have not just expressed deep interest [in investing], but gone as far as to sign a memorandum of agreement to run a startup training program alongside USTP and CDO b.i.t.e.s,” Eugene shared.

Eugene also shared his motivations in joining once again in the Visiting Professors activity, “It’s exciting to see the impact that my efforts could have. As much as I’m impressed with what they’re doing, the fact that I can come in and help accelerate their efforts, it seems like a dynamic place so I’m personally fulfilled to be involved in the [Visiting Professors activity].”

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The Visiting Professors is one of the activities of the Innovation for Social Impact Partnership (ISIP), a project co-implemented by UNDP in the Philippines and PhilDev Foundation, with generous support from Australian Embassy in the Philippines.