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News  9, Jan 2013

NOC Alumni remembers Professor Jacob Phang

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e27 pays our tribute to the late Professor Jacob Phang, who was instrumental in putting the NUS Overseas College Programme together.

The long tech startup history in Silicon Valley has formed several alumni networks and its own elite inner circles. It is common to hear about the Stanford alumni network or even elite groups consisting of the engineers from the early days of Google or Facebook.

Back in Singapore, while we have a strong university alumni network from the various local universities, there is still no network of startup community which has something in common (other than the passion for entrepreneurship) that connects everyone. Probably the closest one would be the NUS NOC programme. Disclosure: I am part of the programme where I spent one year in Shanghai back in 2011.

What is NOC?

NOC stands for the National University of Singapore Overseas College Programme. The programme is one of the main projects under the NUS Enterprise (the entrepreneurial and venture arm for NUS), formed back in 2001. The NOC programme aims to promote entrepreneurship among students. Any NUS undergraduate who is interested in entrepreneurship can sign up for the programme.

Once you get through the selection process, you can choose to be placed at one of the top startup hotspots around the world. Students then work closely with a startup for a year and also get the chance to study at prestigious overseas universities such as Stanford, UPenn, Fudan and Tsinghua.

Naturally, Silicon Valley was the first overseas college for the programme. Since the inception of the programme, it is now available in Philadelphia, Shanghai, Beijing, Stockholm, India, Israel, and of course, Singapore.

Startups from the NOC programme

The programme has successfully catalysed the formation of a number of startups in Singapore. Some of the successful startup stories from the programme include tenCube which was acquired by McAfee, Brandtology which was acquired by Media Monitors, as well as Peekspy, which was acquired by StubHub (and then eBay).

Other Singapore startups that have also stemmed from the 11 year old programme are AllDealsAsia, Zopim, 2359Media, TechSailor, Burpple, Carousell, Action.io, Stickery, Catapult Ventures, PlayMoolah, Stream Media, PatSnap, Billpin, Sent.ly, Around!, Give.sg and Milaap. Other than tech startups, several Singapore local cafes such as Broadway Cafe, Strictly Pancakes and The Lawn are also founded by alumni’s of the programme.

Our directors at e27 and its original co-founders are all from the same programme as well. Alongside SGEntreprenuers, we can all trace our roots back to the programme.

How NOC began with the help of Professor Jacob Phang

Professor Jacob Phang, who was the CEO of NUS Enterprise from 2002 to 2006 and instrumental in the starting of NOC, has just passed away and we would like to pay our tribute to him. While Prof Jacob is only known to those from the earlier NOC batches, without him leading the programme, NOC would not have been where it is today: spanning across multiple continents with a strong network of over 1000 alumni.

Here’s what Tay Kae Fong, founder of brand consultancy Tangible had to say about the late Prof Phang:

“When then-President Shih Choon Foong announced the formation of NUS Enterprise in 2001, Prof Phang was tasked to lead it. By the end of that year, 14 of us were chosen to head over to Silicon Valley. There were many uncertainties back then, but Prof Phang, Yuling and team made it easy for us to focus on working, learning and networking, while they took care of the gnarly, behind-the-scenes issues.

For the programme, he had to design it from scratch … the thinking started with a school in SV and then in BV. But what next? He often discussed this with us, and from setting up more schools, it went to funding & incubators. He also believed in the power of the network of ‘enlightened’ alumni, and encouraged us to stay connected as a community.

From the get-go, Prof Phang was very supportive of our efforts – he was instrumental in the creation of NUSEA, our mixers, and later on, NOC Alumni. I also remember him always asking “what’s next?” … to us, it was a start-up experience-cum-Stanford thing, but to him, it was always about Big Hairy Audacious Goals that will lead to the next Creative Technologies (ok, this was 2002 when Creative Technologies was still holy grail for Singapore start-ups). Even when we were back, he would push us to think beyond NUS and challenged us to find a way to get started in the entrepreneurial scene whenever he met up with us.

Those of us who knew him better would also know he was generous with his time and contacts, and was always happy to meet and offer his thoughts on problems we face in our forays into new ventures, or connect us to people he knew who could help. I could go on, but I just wanted to let recent alumni know a bit more about Prof Phang: his passing is a loss to our community, but I suppose he’d be glad to know he’s succeeded in his work to create a generation of entrepreneurial-minded people who’s constantly finding ways to make ‘dents in the universe’.

I think Prof Phang showed us by example what it means to not accept roadblocks and think beyond. He never took status quo as satisfactory and constantly challenged it to see how it can be better. Maybe it’s something everyone is used to now, but back in 2002, when the entrepreneurial mindset was new, it was liberating to know we can change anything we don’t like.”

Thank you Prof Phang, from all of us.

Jacky Yap

Jacky Yap

Having spent one year abroad in Shanghai under the NUS Overseas College Programme, Jacky has an avid interest in entrepreneurship and web based startups. Jacky used to run N-House, Singapore's first entrepreneurial themed residence in NUS, and was also part of the organizing team for Startup Weekend Singapore 2012. You can reach him at jacky [at] e27 [dot] co

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