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Student startups set to surge as 'digital natives' drive innovation

China Daily| Updated: May 23, 2023 L M S


Wang Zhenyang listens to comments from experts at the eighth China International College Students' "Internet+" Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition, held at Chongqing University last month. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A new generation of high-tech entrepreneurs is emerging from China's colleges. Zou Shuo reports.

As a "digital native" — someone born after the invention of the internet — Wang Zhenyang believes that the digital approach to life has bright prospects. That's why he has started a business focusing on the emotional support and companionship that can be provided by "virtual humans".

The 22-year-old student was a member of a team from Zhejiang University that took third place at the eighth China International College Students' "Internet +" Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition, held at Chongqing University last month.

A total of 3.4 million projects were submitted for consideration in this year's competition, while the number of students that applied to take part reached 14.5 million. They hailed from 4,554 universities and colleges in 111 countries and regions. The event saw the number of hopeful participants exceed 10 million for the first time. Since the event was inaugurated in 2015, nearly 39.83 million students have applied to take part.

Promoting good habits

Wang said that his team is focused on creating a "digital human" app that can encourage the formation of good habits and help alleviate the loneliness many young people feel nowadays.

Once users have completed their preprogrammed daily workout, their digital image on the app becomes energetic. Conversely, if they have stayed up late, the image will have dark circles under its eyes, he added.

The aim is to create a virtual world where users receive instant feedback by completing everyday tasks and routines. A survey of several thousand university students conducted by Wang's team showed that about 80 percent of respondents have great enthusiasm for the virtual world and the app.

Wang said he had not thought about starting a business until he watched an innovation competition at his university last year. After more than a year of work, his team has developed an app with 2D virtual humans, and is now working on a 3D version, he said.

To provide funding for the app, he has spent almost all the money he made by tutoring other students in college, and he hopes that it will be officially launched late next month or in July.

"I know it is difficult to be successful as a first-time entrepreneur, but I will have no regrets whether the app is a success or not," he said.

Since he started his startup journey, he has been extremely busy balancing study and entrepreneurship. He rarely takes a break, even during vacations.

"However, it has been a worthwhile experience. As someone who majors in computer science, I have learned marketing skills, how to talk to investors and manage a team, and I've also become more eloquent," he said.


Chen Tianrun (front left), founder and CEO of KOKONI 3D, a maker of 3D printers, introduces his company's product to clients. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Making an impression

Like Wang, many of the participants in the innovation and entrepreneurship competition were born in 2000 or after.

Chen Tianrun is the founder and CEO of KOKONI 3D, which makes 3D printers in Zhejiang.

"I noticed that young people today are looking for ways to tap into their passion for the fascinating and the mundane. Driven by this magical pull, I took it upon myself to dive headfirst into the world of 3D printing: It's a fusion of technology and creativity that never fails to inspire awe and wonder," the 23-year-old said.

In 2020, Chen started his endeavors in his dormitory at Zhejiang University with two roommates. They turned their dorm into a workshop and each studied different topics. After many sleepless nights and countless experiments, they succeeded in developing a prototype 3D printer on the empty bed they used as their workstation.

When a customer scans a photo into the printer, a 3D physical model can be printed out.

Chen founded the company in Huzhou, Zhejiang, in 2021. In March last year, it started mass production of what the team said is the first printer of its type to incorporate instant artificial intelligence 3D modeling.

The device is sold in more than 30 countries and regions, and so far it has generated tens of millions of yuan in income.

Wang Zhenyang explains a "digital human" app developed by his team on the stage of an internet, innovation and entrepreneurship competition held in Chongqing last month. [Photo provided to China Daily]

From less than 30 square meters of dormitory and a three-man team, the company now has more than 150 employees and occupies more than 2,000 sq m.

"As an engineering major, there's nothing more fulfilling than creating something practical and seeing people bring their wildest ideas to life with my product. It's the perfect fusion of usefulness and creativity," Chen said.

As a postgraduate student, he works in the company's office from 8 am to 5 pm, then catches up on his studies until midnight. He travels between Huzhou (his company) and Hangzhou (his university) almost every day.

Sheep and success

Song Zhuochen's entrepreneurship journey began with a poverty alleviation program initiated by his school, Xidian University in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province.

His team has developed a device that uses a chip and smart fences to monitor the daily routines and health of sheep, sending alerts to owners via a smartphone app when abnormalities are detected.

By recording the amount of milk each ewe can produce, the device can identify those with the highest yields.

Song became involved in the program in his first year at university in 2018, and he started traveling to two townships in Shaanxi's Pucheng county because the university was investing its resources to assist in the eradication of absolute poverty.

He has spent lots of time and energy on the program. Traveling to the townships from Xi'an takes more than four hours, and he visits several times a month.

To ensure that the program would be successful, Song suspended his studies in 2020 and devoted all his attention to the program.

He conducted a great deal of research in the university laboratory, and whenever he made progress, he brought the device to the sheepfold for testing.

His efforts paid off: 120 households in the townships have participated in the program and started raising sheep. As a result, each household's annual income has risen by 12,000 yuan ($1,710).

Currently a senior undergraduate in intelligent science and technology, Song will undertake postgraduate studies in computer science at Xidian, starting in September.

He hopes that the rights to his device will be bought by a major farm or dairy company, so it will benefit more people.

In the future, Song said he wants to continue making the device better and more profitable.

"Although becoming a coder or working for an information technology company in a big city can bring in a decent salary, I would very much like to continue my work in the villages and around the sheep," he said. "The vast rural areas can be the places where graduates can make the most of what they have learned at university."