“N3XTCON”: How My Passion for Startups Was Incubated at USC

Shao-Hua (Nick) Wu, far left, with fellow researchers in Michelle Povinelli’s (fourth from left) research group.

By Shao-Hua Wu

Like many engineers, what drew me to the field was the opportunity to make a difference in the world. From the moment I began my life at USC in 2012 as a MS student, I was excited to get started down this path. With my friends and family 7000 miles away in Taiwan, I put all of my effort into tirelessly studying and conducting research. By 2013, I had started to do research with Prof. Michelle Povinelli.

Prof. Povinelli has always been a remarkable mentor and teacher to me. She is inspiring as a scientist, innovating as a pioneer, and guiding and supportive as a mentor. Now, as a PhD student in her nanophotonics lab, I get to work with her every day on exciting projects. In fact, I’ve been working on four different projects, each of which resulted in a first author publication. Prof. Povinelli gives me a huge amount of flexibility in how I conduct my research, gives me time to collaborate with other PhD students, and even trusts me enough to let me lead undergraduate researchers. Not only have I gained deep knowledge in electrical engineering, but I’ve learnd a lot about teamwork and leadership.

The EE department encourages and often sponsors us to present our own research at conferences. Attending conferences allows us to meet interesting people from different fields and expand our horizons.

“King of Pirates” – Shao-Hua’s first startup venture. The first board game in Taiwan to teach kids how to code.

These lessons on leadership proved especially helpful when it comes to my second passion – entrepreneurship.  Our department provides great opportunities for students to learn about entrepreneurship through workshops, activities, and projects. To me, the entrepreneurial spirit consists of three steps: identify a problem/need, develop a solution, and test the solution with customers. With so much support and inspiration from my department and advisor, I started my first off-school startup project in 2015 with friends in Taiwan. Based on our own experiences, we wanted to work on improving coding education for children.  We successfully pledged 150k USD and delivered the first educational board game in Taiwan, Papacode – King of Pirates, designed for children to teach them how to code.

I soon realized that academic research and entrepreneurship require a lot of the same skills – they are both about identifying problems and providing new solutions. I started to explore different events and meet great people and leaders at USC and in Los Angeles. Among those leaders is William Wang, the founder & CEO of VIZIO and Board of Councilors member for the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.  He’s also a fellow USC EE family member, having graduated from this very department in 1986. His inspirational stories about how he failed, struggled, and kept trying were invaluable lessons to a young entrepreneur like me.

Even with all the support I’ve received, I still felt nervous when I took steps to explore the startup world in a very different field: Community Building.

In 2017 I co-founded n3xt con, a non-profit (501(c)(3) under review).  After my own experience in getting involved with entrepreneurship, I wanted to create an organization that would make that first step easier for others too. Our mission is to help people along the path to forging their own future and making a difference in the world. We’re trying to build a supportive community for young professionals and students to meet, gain confidence, share ideas, and connect with industry leaders.

Shao-Hua (far right) with William Wang (third from right) founder of VIZIO and USC Electrical Engineering alum.

One of our biggest events is happening this Sunday April 2nd at the Pasadena Convention Center. We’ve secured more than 40 speakers including the VP of Interactive Media at NBCUniversal, the VP of Research and Insight at BuzzFeed, and a Distinguished Strategist at Cisco. We also have startup founders and venture capitalists coming to share their advice and insight. It will be a great opportunity for people from different fields (everything from VR and big data, to filmmaking and comics) to network. The best part is, USC students can get in for a fraction of the price by using the code N3XTUSC to register!

I always knew I wanted to be an engineer and help change the world. But it wasn’t until I got to USC, and was presented with such a wonderful support system, that I was able to realize my passion for entrepreneurship. I hope to do even more in the future to make this a reality for other engineers, and I hope to see you all at our event this weekend!

Shao-Hua (Nick) Wu is a PhD student in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, where he studies biophotonics and nanophotonics for optical manipulation and radiative cooling. He also loves to meet people and discuss new ideas with them. Learn more about him and his work.

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