1 September 2020: Yale-NUS student partners with NUS team in water filtration start-up

By Lim Tian Jiao

Yale-NUS College’s liberal arts and sciences curriculum seeks to challenge students to step outside of preconceived academic boundaries and approach learning with an open mind, even when the competencies demanded from courses are not directly linked to their supposed area of study or expertise. This mindset proves advantageous to students looking to enter the start-up scene, where creativity, flexibility and willingness to learn are valuable assets.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics major Ethan Teo (Class of 2022) is one such student pursuing entrepreneurship. Since early this year, he has been the Strategy Lead of MANTA, which researches and develops high-performance, clog-resistant manta-ray inspired filtration mechanisms. The MANTA team aims to apply their innovative filtration technology in algaculture to the removal of microplastics from the marine environment. This focus is especially timely as algae is an up-and-coming source of biofuel and sustainable food.

Ethan (centre) with fellow MANTA teammates Joshua (left) and Tun Shien (right). Image, which was taken earlier in 2020 before the implementation of the COVID-19 safe distancing requirements, provided by Ethan Teo Yiteng. 

Ethan founded MANTA alongside his friends Joshua Seetoh, Foo Tun Shien and Chu Yao Quan from the National University of Singapore (NUS). The team was accepted into NUS Enterprise’s Lean LaunchPad Programme (LLP), an entrepreneurial education programme targeted at helping research scientists and engineers translate their innovations into viable business ventures. LLP graduating teams are then eligible for a grant of up to SGD$10,000 to support further market validation work overseas.

“I am fortunate to be able to work with my NUS friends, who have in-depth knowledge in the fields of environmental science and engineering, in this start-up,” said Ethan.

“Furthermore, MANTA is the first undergraduate team in the LLP without a ‘Principal Investigator’, referring to a professor or postgraduate researcher. We were very lucky to be accepted into the programme, as we get to learn and work alongside Masters and PhD students and researchers — this certainly shows NUS’ commitment to supporting entrepreneurs early on in their university education.”

Through the LLP, MANTA has since engaged relevant stakeholders from the Public Utilities Board (PUB), a governmental statutory board, and multinational company CapitaLand, which are looking into more sustainable business models.

As Strategy Lead in an early venture, Ethan’s responsibilities lie largely in pitching and outreach to secure mentorship, funding and business partners. This allows MANTA to de-risk its potential business and determine if there is demand for their product in the target market. His other teammates, Joshua, Tun Shien and Yao Quan, are in charge of testing and research, as well as legal issues such as intellectual property protection.

“Of course, as a start-up, the tasks of my teammates and I overlap heavily. We all have to get our hands dirty doing things which we may not specialise in,” said Ethan. “This is an exciting part about being in a start-up pre-seed: we inevitably learn some transferable skills about building a business by maintaining relationships with stakeholders and marketing the product in an accessible way without scientific jargon.”

To Ethan, Yale-NUS’ liberal arts pedagogy has proved formative in equipping him with the tenacity and adaptability to thrive in the fast-moving start-up environment.

“Entrepreneurship, to me, means dealing with problems which are always evolving. Furthermore, the barriers to entry for technical roles are dropping. Many tasks that once required specialised training can now be done with simple tools and the internet,” said Ethan.

He elaborated that the College’s curriculum encourages students to take modules which are not in their direct line of ambition. “This mindset gives me the space to venture into new and old interests, conditioning me to be unafraid to take on different learning experiences. It is one of the ways in which I commit to lifelong learning and always being curious, and is critical to entrepreneurship and working in the start-up system,” he shared.

“My entrepreneurial journey has certainly immersed me in a field of research which I did not think I had access to. I personally think it is worthy for the students of the College to seek opportunities at NUS and foster a synergistic relationship between students, mentors and professors of both institutions.”

Looking forward, MANTA has big plans to turn their technology into commercially viable products and feasible business ventures in the near future. Said Ethan, “I am excited about a potential pilot programme with a governmental agency that is currently in the talks.”

Ethan is also enthusiastic about transferring the skills he gained from this venture with MANTA into an internship with SGInnovate, a venture capital firm owned by the Singapore Government. Enhanced by Singapore’s recent Fortitude Budget, he is currently working on partnering businesses with portfolio companies to build more capabilities, especially for fresh graduate roles, in Deep Tech start-ups.