Podcast with Shreya Singhal, VP Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club

The CUTEC Committee, Shreya 3rd from the right.

Out today, listen to Episode 30 of the “Inside The Bradfield Centre” podcast here, or on your podcasting service of choice.

We meet Shreya Singhal to learn about The Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club which aims to enhance the entrepreneurial spirit amongst academics and students at the University of Cambridge. We cover the activities of CUTEC, the environment and opportunities for students interested in entrepreneurship, and how students can engage in the wider Cambridge Tech ecosystem.

A full transcript of this episode is included below.

Episode Transcript:

James Parton:

Welcome to Inside the Bradfield Centre. I’m James Parton, the managing director of the Bradfield Centre.

Adelina Chalmers:

And I’m Adelina Chalmers. I’m known as the geek whisper up because I bridge the gap between engineering and other department.

James Parton:

Joining us today Shreya Singhal, who is a medical student at Cambridge University and also VP of CUTEC. I’m really looking forward to this episode. I think we heard from Bruno recently who runs the entrepreneurship center at Judge Business School. Shreya coming on today’s show, it gives us the opportunity to hear what it’s like being at the University of Cambridge as a student that’s interested in entrepreneurship and technology and all the things that are on offer there.

Adelina Chalmers:

I’ll be really interested to hear about how COVID has impacted the students’ experience of Cambridge and how things look like at the moment.

Adelina Chalmers:

Welcome Inside the Bradfield Centre podcast. Tell us a little bit about your background.

Shreya Singhal:

Hi Adelina. Thank you very much for the invitation to this podcast. So yes, a little bit about me. I’m currently a medical student in my penultimate year at Cambridge. I’ve previously done a master’s in engineering, specializing in bio and mechanical engineering. So my professional interests really lie not just in the practice of medicine, but also in the intersection between engineering and medicine. And I think there’s so much potential for applying both of those fields into innovation in healthcare. So pretty broadly, that’s where my personal passions lie. I’m also currently the VP of CUTEC, which is the Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club, and also very briefly, I founded one of CUTEC’s now flagship initiatives a couple of years ago, which is the podcast called CUTalks, And maybe we’ll go on to talk a bit about that later. So that’s a short summary of myself.

James Parton:

Fantastic. So obviously we first met actually through the podcast when I came on with Stew McTavish a few months ago now, or maybe last year. Time flies. So what I’d love to get through in this conversation is just your experience of being a student at Cambridge and having an interest in technologies like medicine and entrepreneurship and what’s what’s available and what people can expect. So why don’t we start off with CUTEC. Why don’t you give us a little rundown of what CUTEC is and how you came about getting involved in it?

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah, definitely. So CUTEC, as the name suggests, we focus on all things technology and enterprise related. Our three main initiatives, one is CUTalks, which is our podcast, and for that we release fortnightly episodes and we have such a massive range of speakers and they’re all experts in their area. So the speakers include founders, investors, and thought leaders. As well as CUTalks, we also run a coffee club, which is basically where we match two people to have a 15 to 30 minute chat every fortnight again, and it’s all voluntary, people have signed up to it.,And I think it’s a great way for people to meet lots of different people, especially during these COVID times when it’s quite difficult to meet people who are interested in similar things to you.

Shreya Singhal:

And then the third thing that CUTEC does is running webinars and events. So the events might be listening to speakers, it might be a panel where we’ve got some workshops coming up, so there’s a whole range of things that CUTEC can offer to its members. So if you’re interested in what CUTEC has to offer, you can go to the website or follow CUTEC on any of the social media platforms, and you’ll find all the information there.

James Parton:

And how long has it been around as a society?

Shreya Singhal:

It’s been a while. I think Adelina might know the answer to that better than me.

Adelina Chalmers:

I don’t know. I came across CUTEC almost 10 years ago, and I was quite intensely involved with it back in in 2011, 2012, maybe 2013? So yeah, it’s been going for quite a long time. I think someone said about the year 2000, but I may be wrong.

James Parton:

So what’s the culture like inside the university as a student? How’d you get made aware of these societies, how’d you get involved? Did you go through a selection process to get involved? Did you just volunteer? Just talk us through how that works.

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah, I think that’s a really excellent question. So the first part, I guess, is as a student, what is the environment? And I think it really depends at which stage you are as a student. I think as an undergrad in Cambridge, you sometimes don’t know what your priorities are, you’re still trying to figure who you are as a person and realize that by the end of your degree you need to find yourself some sort of job in most degrees. So I think when you’re kicked into thinking about that, some people might be thinking about entrepreneurship, so then it makes perfect sense to be seeking out one of the entrepreneurship societies, and CUTEC is an example of that.

Shreya Singhal:

I think the other slant that people have is if they’re a postgraduate student, and that might be as a PhD student, in which case they’re looking to commercialize their research, or as a, for example, MBA or a student at the Judge Business School and they’re interested in entrepreneurship in general. So I think in terms of the environment at the university, I think if you know which doors to knock on, once you unlock one door, everything is out there and there’s such a wealth of knowledge and opportunity at the University of Cambridge that it’s just such an incredible environment. And I think what people maybe struggle with is they don’t know how to make those initial steps.

Shreya Singhal:

So that sort of leads on to your second question about getting involved in a society. So in my personal circumstance, I found by complete coincidence an event advertised for the CUTEC launch event, which was two years ago. So I went to the launch event and I was sitting in the audience listening to these panel of speakers and I decided at that point that I wanted to start a podcast, and I thought CUTEC would be a great way to facilitate me doing that. So I approached them with the idea, had an interview, and they said, “Yeah, sure, come on board and do that.” So that’s the general way that you would see that there’s a role advertised for the society and you would apply for it. And if you want to get involved out of the cycle of interviews, then there’s nothing stopping you getting in touch with one of the societies and seeing how you can get involved, especially if you’ve got an idea of your own that you want to launch.

Adelina Chalmers:

Tell us a bit about the competitions that are within the university about entrepreneurship, about getting business ideas out of students.

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting aspect that definitely exists, and there’s so many different competitions out there. I think there’s different styles of competitions. So there are those where you’ve got your idea already formed and you’re pitching for investment in that idea. There’s the other style of competition where you just want to find a bit more about entrepreneurship and it’s a style of competition, but also a way of getting you to learn as well. And those are more the workshop styles. So in terms of the competitions where you want to pitch your idea, there’s so many different avenues. A lot of the key organizations will have their own competition. So for example CUE, the Cambridge University Entrepreneurs, they run a competition called the 10K competition, I believe. There’s the Trinity Broadfield prize, I believe.

James Parton:

You get a prize for mentioning that. Well done.

Shreya Singhal:

I had a feeling, had a feeling. I can’t name all of them, but they’re certainly out there if you’ve got an idea that you want to pitch. And then the other style that I was mentioning, there’s the Judge Business School run loads of loads of great events. So there’s the venture creation weekends, which I absolutely love, there’s hackathons that you can get involved with. CUTEC also run workshops, which are less competition style, but they all involve you working as a team towards some end goal, and the main goal is that you’re learning in that process.

James Parton:

We spend a lot of time on our podcast talking about what makes Cambridge special and how so much value and so much activity is happening in such a relatively small place. As a student, are you aware of that or are you somewhat operating in a bit of a bubble? Do you feel like that opportunity’s within your grasp, or do you feel like there’s maybe even added pressure because of the people that have gone before you and gone on to be successful? What’s your feeling being inside the university of the surrounding entrepreneurial ecosystem outside the university?

Shreya Singhal:

I think it’s an interesting one because when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s very difficult to figure out how to know those things. So I definitely felt that a couple of years ago when I had these thoughts that I’m interested in entrepreneurship and really didn’t know where to go from there. So I started attending some talks and I found that so helpful because the speakers were great, but what I loved was meeting the people afterwards. And I think that’s something that’s a real shame during COVID is really not being able to meet so many people, because I think that’s one of the major assets about Cambridge is that you’re all drawn together to these key events, and you would suddenly start increasing your network very quickly by attending just a few events. And that certainly was my experience.

Shreya Singhal:

I know during the virtual events that are happening, people are making an effort with networking afterwards, and I think that is great, but I definitely think it’s difficult to replicate the in person feeling that you get when you meet somebody. So I think from there, once you start to meet a few people, it’s really easy to see your network grow very quickly. And then I think it’s possible to, as a student, really unlock the potential within Cambridge and this ecosystem.

Adelina Chalmers:

Can you tell me a bit more about… What do you see the connection between the students within the university and Cambridge Enterprise, do you have much to do with them? Because I know Cambridge Enterprise obviously focus a lot on post-docs and more PhDs and people like that. So I just wondered what your take was on that?

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah, I think as I did my undergraduate and master’s in engineering, and then during medicine, Cambridge Enterprise don’t necessarily have a lot to do with those areas or necessarily that they perhaps think that they don’t, but they might do. There’s so much research that goes on in the faculties of engineering and medicine that has so much commercialization potential, but personally, I didn’t come across Cambridge Enterprise through either of those faculties. I think the reason why I’m aware of Cambridge Enterprise and what they do is more because I’ve put myself out there and because of the people that I’ve talked to in my networks, that I know that they exist and their purpose. So I do believe that they play a really great role in allowing those students who are interested in commercializing to be able to do so, but it’s perhaps not as obvious to some of the students who might not seem as directly relevant.

James Parton:

Just to pause the conversation a second and tell you a little bit more about the changes we’re making at the Bradfield Centre. We now offer a whole range of new flexible membership packages which support homeworkers, hybrid homeworking blended with access to high quality office space, and meeting room hire by the hour. Starting from as little as 45 pounds per month, visit bradfieldcentre.com for more information or call 01 223 919 600.

James Parton:

So just going back on to a point you made about not knowing what you don’t know, I’m sure through CUTEC and also the podcast you’ve personally had exposure now to a lot of people across Cambridge and broader, not just the university crowd. So I’m sure you totally understand the benefits of broadening your network in that sense. Do you see enough work happening to try to encourage the students to leave the university to get out into the city, because I hear from a lot of people, especially further out the town center, places like the Bradfield Centre and other places around Cambridge that would love to see students attending some of the, I guess, more industry focused events that we put on for startups, but there doesn’t seem to be that willingness to travel out to other parts of the city and they tend to stick within the confines of the university. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think we should be doing more to explain the benefits? How do you think we can strengthen those connections?

Shreya Singhal:

That’s a really interesting one, and a tricky one, I think from… I completely agree that Cambridge students have a tendency to stay with what they know, which is a very tight circle. And there is this feeling that as soon as you step out of town, you’ve left Cambridge. And I definitely think that should be improved. I guess the time to pounce would be as soon as somebody is thinking about what they want to do with their life, or if they’ve come into an interesting area of their field that they might not realize that it all ties into entrepreneurship in some way. So I think that would be the time to pounce when people are really thinking about it. And I think that’s one of the roles of student societies is facilitating that lead in, because I know that’s something that we do at CUTEC and a lot of the other societies do is creating that connection for students to the industry organizations around Cambridge, to other centers such as the Bradfield Centre, and I think that’s the way that that awareness is really being spread.

James Parton:

Yeah, and I think obviously the original format of the coffee club was a great way to try and strengthen those ties because obviously students were coming to the center to have those coffee meetings and stuff like that. So hopefully once we’re through the other side of lockdown, those will come back into play.

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah, of course. I guess to look at silver linings, currently the power of social media perhaps can be leveraged even more. I think that we’re all getting all of our information from… And by social media, I’m including LinkedIn as well. As long as you follow a few of the key players in the space, let’s say, then I think awareness can be quite dramatically increased, and that’s maybe something that is a positive change that can be brought forward once we’re able to still see people in person again.

Adelina Chalmers:

Speaking about being able to see people in person again, how has COVID changed your student experience at Cambridge? Because I can imagine it was quite a shock.

Shreya Singhal:

It’s really taken the essence out of Cambridge, I would say. As a medical student, we’re still going into the hospital and things to practice, but I think it’s been such a shame because it used to be that as soon as you step out of your house, you would meet so many people that you knew and you know that everybody here has such an incredible story and an incredible background to them. And I think a lot of people really miss that about Cambridge. It’s that it’s such a small place geographically, that you could very easily… People who are your friends but also those in your network, it was relatively easier to say, “Do you want to grab a coffee to chat,” and that you would build that connection with them. So I do think COVID has had an impact on the student experience in Cambridge. A lot of students are actually not here because that’s the current advice. So it has had an impact, but I think there’s been a strong transition to a virtual presence in whichever way that that can be made to work.

James Parton:

You mentioned that obviously CUTEC has adapted and is now offering a lot of these programs like coffee club virtually. Clearly there’s a benefit there that you can now reach more people than maybe previously, but when you think about those kinds of programs and also, as Adelina asked, they’ve got the various competitions that run across the university, with the student population being dispersed and obviously dealing with a lot of complexity around COVID, what’s your thoughts going into 2021? Do you think engagement levels are going to maintain or increase, or do you think it’s going to be harder to engage the student population in quotes when it isn’t necessarily business as usual?

Shreya Singhal:

I think we’re in a culture of people who get bored very fast. There’s a phrase going around about Zoom fatigue, and I completely agree, and I think for things to be successful, real, true innovation and creativity is going to have to be the winner. At CUTEC we are really making an effort to add a little something different to the things that we offer, and I personally, as well, that in even internal committee meetings, we’re really trying to mix things up so that people are not getting too bored in one way, but also not getting too fatigued by things that would usually be happening in person.

Shreya Singhal:

So I think it really has to be that the status quo is really challenged, and in order to give people some sort of positive experience, I think there has to be ways of keeping it fun and fresh. So for example, you can run workshops in many different ways. I’m not endorsing one platform or another, but there are alternatives to Zoom that make you feel like you’re in a bit more of a realistic virtual environment where you can have little avatars walking around and things. So I think really experimenting is what people appreciate now.

James Parton:

So building off the the conversation around the students breaking out of the university environment, we’re big believers in the serendipity of the right kinds of people being in the same place at the same time. So that advantage of being in somewhere like the Bradfield Centre and just having the opportunity to have a chat with a founder of a startup based in the building and hearing it unfiltered from the horse’s mouth in terms of what it’s really like, to try and run your own business and to to manage people, hire people, all of those kinds of things. Do you feel that that is a more authentic experience than maybe someone coming in and doing a lecture or coming in and doing a networking event? Can you see the difference? Can you see a benefit in that kind of stuff?

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah. I think both styles have benefits, and if we’re talking about during COVID times, I would say the responsibility really sits with the students. There’s only so much that you as an organization can do with all the goodwill in the world. I think it ultimately has to sit with the students to engage. I like the word serendipity, but it’s almost on the other way round, that if you’re offering these opportunities and something comes of it, then that’s the serendipity that you can hope to achieve during COVID, whereas the in person… Outside of COVID, when things were in person, I think it did have those opportunities and those personally are my more preferred ways of engaging with people.

Shreya Singhal:

But I think in the current climate and circumstances, the responsibility really lies with the students. And I think maybe this is a good time to signpost people towards a blog that I wrote recently, which is basically about how students can get involved in entrepreneurship. So I can give you the link to provide. And also if people Google… It’s called investing in yourself and it’s on the JBS entrepreneurship blog. So I’d really recommend giving that a read as well if you’re just really not sure where to start. But yeah, I would say there’s only so much you can do. You can offer as much as you can and hope that it works out, really.

James Parton:

Yeah, yeah. No, interesting.

Adelina Chalmers:

And tell us, Shreya, do you have any ambitions to start your own company?

Shreya Singhal:

An excellent question. I don’t pretend to be able to predict the future, but I would love to start my own company. At the moment I’m really enjoying taking advantage of all the opportunities there are in Cambridge to build up my skill sets in the various areas and really keeping my eyes open for the right time, right place to all come together. So, yeah, I would certainly love to start my own company, maybe one, maybe many, and just waiting for the stars to align and in the meantime I’m really setting myself up well for when that happens. So yeah, working on a few projects at the moment that I can’t publicly disclose. But yeah, just keeping my hand in various pies until things happen for me in the future.

James Parton:

No, it’s an exciting time. So how can people get involved in CUTEC or check out what you guys are producing?

Shreya Singhal:

Yeah, definitely. We encourage anybody who’s interested to reach out. So you can reach out to us on any of the social media platforms. You can go to our website, which is cutec.io, and on there, if you click on the link that says join us and sign up for the mailing list, you’ll get added to our membership and get invited to all of the exciting things that we’ve got. And if being on the mailing list is something that you’re fed up of being on with all the emails, then you can check out the podcast, join the coffee club. There are many different ways to get involved with CUTEC. It all stems off of the website, cutec.io.

Adelina Chalmers:

It was lovely having you on the podcast Shreya, and I really wish you the best of luck with everything else that you do.

Shreya Singhal:

Thank you very much.

Adelina Chalmers:

What an interesting conversation to get a bit of a scoop about what it’s like at Cambridge University at the moment. Certainly sounds like COVID has changed the Cambridge experience quite a lot for people, as a lot of students are dispersed very in their own homes, and it sounds like the only thing keeping people together right now is coffee club and the CUTEC podcast.

James Parton:

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think students right across the country are getting a very different university experience than they normally would, which is a real shame. But yeah, really interesting to hear how Shreya went about getting involved in the society, in CUTEC. And also I really liked the conversation around… Because obviously as the MD of the Bradfield Centre, I spend a lot of time thinking about all of the great things going on in the center that students that are interested in startups would find really interesting and engaging, but it’s like trying to convince them to come out of the town center and come into the center. But good that Shreya just made a really good point that you can only do so much. The student has to take the initiative in terms of engaging.

Adelina Chalmers:

Thank you very much to Shreya Singhal for being on the podcast today, and also thank you for Carl Homer of Cambridge TV for producing the podcast.

James Parton:

You can listen to previous episodes by searching for Inside the Bradfield Centre on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Amazon Music, pretty much everywhere you can get podcasts, or by visiting bradfieldcentre.com.

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