Thursday, January 26, 2006

At the Heart of the Vortex

At the Heart of the Vortex

Innovation, like any worthwhile human endeavor, needs the right environment and the right impetus to flourish. There needs to be room for instruction, interaction, and experimentation.

That's the thinking behind Vortex, the special program for the students in the College of Engineering of Silliman University that has been churning out innovative and practical applications of new technology. Its students have worked with radio frequency ID, robotics, LED imagery, and digital video surveillance systems. At the same time, they have also been regular participants in business plan competitions held locally and nationally.

The driving force behind Vortex is Yong Gyun Kim who initiated the program when he started teaching at Silliman in 2001. Vortex quickly became a training ground for the best and the brightest in Silliman's College of Engineering, with participating students chosen after a rigorous screening process.

It may sound surprising to some that the Kim came to Dumaguete primarily as a missionary for the campus ministry. He had earlier visited the city in 1998, liked the environment, and two years later, came here with his wife and two children.

Vortex was a natural progression for Kim stemming from his background in South Korea. He had been a researcher for the Korean Institute of Metals and Machinery. He had also worked for a venture company.

Kim likes to take a practical approach to the student projects. He understands the limitations imposed by financial and technical resources, and so would rather focus on real projects that solve real problems in the community. Much as he would like to expose his students to higher
technology, he feels it is more important work on problems presented by the unique situations and common concerns of the Philippines.

Ultimately, the projects should hold the promise of a commercial implementation, an aspect that Kim emphasizes. He wants his students to become technology entrepreneurs because this is the best way to self-reliance. His challenge to the students is to start a business with what they have learned in school.

Kim can be quite demanding, as most of his students acknowledge, but they also realize that this works out to their benefit. Some of his students have gone on to start an electronics business; another was able to find a job at NCR because of his training experience under Kim. Yet another managed to achieve regular status at her job in the United States after only three months.

What suggestion does Kim have for the city with regard to innovation and technological entrepreneurship? "I would really recommend that the leaders of the city -- the businessmen, for example -- invest in an technology incubator facility. That way, young people with bright ideas
can have a place where they can start their business and make it grow. It would be the best productive investment for the young generation and bright future in this community."

Indeed, if the city needs this advice, they have no further to look for the model of a technology incubator than what Vortex already provides.

And does he plan to stay on in Dumaguete? "Nothing is clear yet but I will listen and follow His guidance," Kim says philosophically, "but I do like it here and I enjoy learning about the culture. Here, I came not just to teach but also to learn."