On January 23, Sense Innovation became the Grand Prize Winner of the 2019 Asia Social Innovation Award (ASIA), a pivotal win for COO Stanley Fu (Stern MSBA ’19), who has been with the company since 2016. Staged in Hong Kong, ASIA is a social startup competition partnering with JUMPSTARTER.
JUMPSTARTER is a startup platform curated by the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, a not-for-profit that aims to “build, empower and boost Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem by bringing entrepreneurs, corporates, investors and the public together.”
In its 10th year, the competition centered on the “Impact of Things” (IMoT). Inspired by the term “Internet of Things” (IoT), the competition highlighted the significance of the connection between social entrepreneurship and the startup ecosystem. “Eventually, the lines between startup and social startup will be blurred as corporates, [the] society and environment will [all] be winners,” said judge Francis Ngai, who is also the founder and CEO of Social Ventures Hong Kong.
Sense Innovation differentiated itself from competitors in 25 countries to be awarded the top winner through its unique product and service offering, which benefits disabled people and patients. While currently servicing the Taiwan market, it was the company’s exploration into international expansion that led it to seek out global opportunities like ASIA.
Sense Innovation provides eye-tracking assistive technology for disabled people to meet a wide range of their needs, positively contributing to their rehab process from training cognitive ability to autonomous communication. Through innovative eye-tracking applications and training courses, patients are able to gain a new channel of communication and methods of learning. The technology also helps instructors in building customizable courses for special education as well as occupational and speech therapy in areas such as ALS, Cerebral Palsy, Spinal Muscular Atrophy and strokes.
One of the key factors in their success has been the non-intrusive nature of their products and services, used primarily to supplement regular treatments as well as to fill a gap where long-term care patients are oftentimes left without significant development opportunities.
Generating revenue within its second year of establishment, Sense Innovation has experienced over 600 successful cases of patient adoption as well as government recognition from Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and the local Taipei government. In addition, the startup has received sponsorship from Taiwan Mobile and Fubon Bank’s Charitable Foundation, further validating their critical placement in very underdeveloped territory.
All in all, Sense Innovation aims to become a global platform for disabled people, caretakers, therapists, hospitals, special needs schools and organizations, each communicating and interacting with each other to maximize the potential of the disabled individual.
Fu joined the company as a passionate believer of Sense Innovation’s vision of the future. His background in social causes includes serving as the President of the Rotary Club in Brentwood, Los Angeles where he organized fishing trips for blind patients from the Braille Institute. More personally, his understanding of the value of helping the disabled gain a sense of independence and improvement in their quality of life stems from his closeness with his uncle who is a special needs patient.
A combination of philanthropic activities and academic business rigor has served as the basis of Fu’s passion at Sense Innovation. The Stern Oppy sits with Fu on his unique journey and the future of Sense Innovation.
Stern Oppy: Stanley, first of all, congratulations on winning the Grand Prize at ASIA. What an amazing accomplishment! Can you describe one way in which Sense Innovation assists disabled persons in pursuit of a better quality of life?
Stanley Fu: It’s actually quite difficult to pick just one of the ways in which our products help the disabled — Sense Innovation is designed to cover a range of disabled patients’ needs. Ultimately, our goal is to enable them to communicate freely, use the internet (like going on YouTube), get in touch with others through social media and learn new knowledge from e-books. In fact, one of our team members who is disabled, Ric, taught himself to use Photoshop through our software and is now a full-time graphic designer.
Stern Oppy: It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the “eye-tracking assistive technology.” Can you share a bit more about it?
Stanley Fu: Eye-tracking hardware has actually become more prevalent in commercial use. The recent release of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” game for instance, actually incorporates the hardware. It’s a thin strip of hardware that looks like a smaller version of Xbox’s Kinect.
Sense Innovation builds software for special needs by leveraging similar hardware. You can see a range of our products online for the following: computer control and communication, educational training, and medical training.
Stern Oppy: Call me a tech novice but it’s beyond incredible to see how such hardware can literally track where your eyes are looking… in order to scroll down, type letters or even press the call button. What drew you to the company and how has Sense Innovation evolved since you joined?
Stanley Fu: I first joined [the company] as an advisor on business strategy and since then, our products have evolved from being analysis-focused to being practical-focused, [meaning that] our business model has gone from being focused on solely products to a mix of product and services, with 30 percent of our revenue coming from recurring streams. In 2019, we’re looking to double our recurring revenue and expand internationally.
Stern Oppy: How have your prior work or academic experiences helped you in your position as COO? What were some of the key challenges you faced in this operational role?
Stanley Fu: Most social enterprises are founded by people with the passion to “do good,” to support a cause they’re passionate about. Ultimately however, it’s a business and many founders have experienced a steep learning curve on this end. With my work experience as a management consultant and with my business education, I see my role as looking at things through a business lens. Sometimes it’s difficult to see a path to profitability and ensuring the survival of the business while being creative and flexible in finding solutions [at the same time].
Stern Oppy: It seems like you have an accomplished academic background, earning a Bachelor’s at UC-San Diego and then pursuing an MBA from USC. What drew you to come to Stern for a Master’s in Business Analytics (MSBA)?
Stanley Fu: I’ve been engaged in business activities that touched upon data analytics throughout my early career, without fully grasping its significance. My first hands-on exposure to the power and application of data analytics in business was during my stint as the project manager of Unilever’s Global Trade Promotion Management implementation in Shanghai. The system being implemented was a comprehensive trade promotion management tool that touches all parts of Unilever’s value chain. I felt like I had witnessed the future of business. After researching various programs, I felt Stern’s MSBA [program provided an] executive education format, global reach and class profile that was best fit for where I was in my career.
Stern Oppy: Back onto the Grand Prize! Can you tell us a little bit more about the ASIA journey?
Stanley Fu: As we strategized for our international expansion, we came across this competition during our research. As late entrants, we had to scramble to come up with [something] presentable with the required information last minute. But even then, preparing for the presentation was a great experience, with the whole team hunkered down for days, having to rethink what our competitive advantages were, then conducting competitor analysis and most importantly, reinforcing and recommitting to our long-term vision. The preparation itself was a great team building and bonding exercise.
The competition itself was amazing in regards to networking and understanding the social entrepreneurial environment in Asia. It was inspiring to see people from different countries with the passion to solve problems they see around them. In a way, the win was a surprise since all of the finalists each [supported] a great cause and were working hard to achieve their goals. I personally believe that Sense Innovation won because of the level of maturity we’ve reached [as well as] the scalability of our offerings and the fact that we were able to clearly articulate the business-side of our social enterprise.
Stern Oppy: It’s amazing to see so many startups inspiring others (and each other) to fill critical gaps in society. What does Sense Innovation hope to achieve with the win? What are your 2019 ambitions for the company?
Stanley Fu: We’ve received a lot of positive publicity in both Hong Kong and Taiwan and have made great connections with funders like UBS and CVC Capital Partners, as well as collaborators such as the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network and Social Ventures Hong Kong.
In 2019, we look to aggressively expand into Hong Kong. Domestically, we will look to expand our business in one-on-one training services and tap into more corporate social responsibility departments for potential collaboration, just as we have done with Fubon Bank’s Charitable Trust and Taiwan Mobile. Moreover, we’re in touch with potential collaborators in the US.
Stern Oppy: I see that you’re set to graduate this year. Looking back at your Stern experience, what tips do you have for current students?
Stanley Fu: Passionate, driven, entrepreneurial and most importantly, [a desire to] make an impact in the real world. That’s how I would describe the people I’ve met through the [Stern] program. From program director Professor Anindya Ghose’s abundant experience in working with industry giants from the US and UK to India and China, to fellow classmates who run their own businesses or serve as prescriptive analytics experts at global CPGs, they all have brought textbook knowledge to life. Fellow Sternies should cherish these invaluable connections as ultimately, we’re not here to solely receive a degree.
The Stern community we’re now a part of will advise us during uncertainties, celebrate our every accomplishment and serve as our cheerleaders for even the toughest days ahead.
Stern Oppy: What a great way to round off our interview, thanks for the advice and best of luck to you and Sense Innovation on your ambitious year!