“The way education works in China, the gaokao exam determines where you can go to college. That score decides everything, so China’s education system is geared to preparing students to do well on exams. When we graduate from college, we know how to take exams but not necessarily how to apply our knowledge and solve problems in the real world,” said Rice University Computer Science alumnus Xinran “Nick” Zhu (B.S. ’10, M.C.S. ’11).
“I first realized the discrepancy in acquiring and applying knowledge at an international science fair during high school. It was sponsored by Intel and their CEO was on the stage encouraging all of us to dream big. He said, ‘You never know what you can do, what you can achieve.’ Each of the students presenting their science project had already accumulated knowledge, and he challenged us to use that knowledge to solve real world problems. It inspired me.”
The CEO’s speech also inspired one of Zhu’s classmates at the same science fair and the two friends began discussing the challenges Chinese students faced in learning to solve real world issues.
“It was in 2005 when we realized we were not prepared to explore problems with no known solution. We believed Chinese students’ science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education had room for improvement; at that science fair, we decided to do something about it.”
But first, they had to go to college. The friends pursued different degrees on separate continents, began their careers in education and technology industries, and kept in touch. Ten years after that international science fair, they launched Shanghai STEMCloud Center.
Zhu, the company’s co-founder and CTO, said, “We created an online platform with improved STEM courses and approached primary school principals with our idea. Our early clients felt students who completed courses like ours were better prepared for solving problems without predetermined answers.
“Luckily, the Chinese government was coming to similar conclusions as demand rose for innovative thinkers in the professional workforce. Two years ago, they launched a STEM education initiative. It was our chance to take advantage of a business opportunity while creating value for Chinese students.”
Zhu had been contributing to the startup on a part-time basis while continuing to work full-time in Seattle for Microsoft. When their startup received seed funding in 2016, his partners asked if he’d be willing to move back to Shanghai. Zhu considered STEMCloud’s rapid rise of interested customers, their investors’ confidence in the product, and his growing desire to focus all his attention on improving Chinese student STEM outcomes. Then he called his parents.
One of the biggest challenges Zhu faced in co-founding a Shanghai startup was his mother.
“I was eager to create something of value for society, but respect for my parents is a powerful motivator. Both of my parents were proud of my career as a software engineer at HomeAway and Microsoft in the U.S., and launching my own company in Shanghai felt risky. Dad was on board, but Mom needed convincing.”
He spent time listening to his mother’s concerns and acknowledging her perspective. His style of exploring a problem by asking questions gave Zhu insight into how he could best respond to her uncertainty. Over the course of several long-distance conversations, his thoughtful approach and his passion for STEM education secured his mother’s approval.
It was good practice for introducing his company to future customers in Chinese schools. Upon his return to Shanghai, Zhu dove into expanding their platform.
He said, “Our product is a network system supporting a variety of STEM classes and one of our early challenges was how to scale. We had 10-15 clients back when we were a five-person company. Today, we serve over 400 primary, middle, and high schools, and seven of our 70 employees are on my engineering team.
“When all those teachers use our courses, the videos have to run smoothly and function with a 2-3 second delay max –that is a big challenge. One of our online modules includes a STEM assessment, where students complete a quiz and our system analyzes their knowledge. This module has become popular at science fairs in Shanghai. Even when we see a surge in traffic during those fairs, the response has to remain stable with minimal delays.”
STEMCloud also faces logistical challenges because their courses are built around the kits and equipment students use to perform experiments and get hands-on experience in their classrooms. Developing an internal system to read school schedules and synchronize kit assembly and delivery prior to the start of the semester was one of the first challenges Zhu had to address.
He is satisfied with their progress and growth, and STEMCloud has successfully completed a second round of funding. Where Zhu hopes to see improvement is not inside STEMCloud, but within Shanghai’s startup community.
“There are actually a lot of startup communities in Shanghai, organized by other founders and people interested in startup culture,” he said. “Those communities were helpful in introducing us to potential investors, but what we lack is an advisory group.
“Silicon Valley has a lot of CEO coaches and mentors. But in China, the VCs and investors are more focused on looking for new projects than in helping their current companies. The existing founders could use some guidance. If the VCs are too busy to help us because they are looking for new ventures, that is a problem.”
Zhu is used to solving his own problems and is open to non-traditional approaches. When he was applying to international universities with computer science programs, he chose Rice for its residential college system. When he discovered an interest in more CS courses than he could fit into four years, he stayed on for a master’s degree –and one of his courses was so enjoyable, he took it a second time as a graduate student.
“During high school, I had science projects involving computer graphics, and got really interested in that area, so I took COMP 360 and 460 at Rice. Those computer graphics courses were taught by Ron Goldman and Joe Warren. Making a video game in 460 was so fun, I took again as an M.C.S. student.
“That is when our COMP 460 team built a video-game based training system that helps physically challenged children walk better. Our game was tested in physical therapy sessions at Shriners Hospital and we got a lot of positive feedback. Seeing how our product could change lives was powerful. The experience of creating value for society made a big impact on me and eventually led to my startup.”
Seeing his products in use remains a high point for Zhu and visiting classrooms to watch their STEM courses in action adds a valuable perspective to his team’s data-driven analysis.
“When I can see students enjoying the material and really learning something new, that’s the joy of starting up a company. Giving students something of value is why I became an entrepreneur.”