For National University of Singapore (NUS) alumna Hor Sue Xian, the trip to Stockholm in 2015 was a defining moment in her life.
At the time, the industrial design student was harbouring doubts about her chosen career path, but a year-long internship at Swedish tech start-up Narrative – under the NUS Overseas Colleges programme – reignited her love for her craft and also awoke her entrepreneurial spirit. “My time in Sweden really validated my love for industrial design going beyond what I was learning in school,” she said.
“It was a journey of self-discovery. I was finding out the type of design I liked or enjoyed doing the most. I was also challenged constantly to perform tasks that I was initially clueless about.”
At Narrative, Sue Xian was put in charge of designing accessories for the Narrative Clip 2 – a tiny wearable camera that can record and store every moment of a person’s life.
Her responsibilities though, went far beyond design. They included conducting market research, performing material and technical feasibility tests, and supervising manufacturing processes for her accessories.
“I learnt that execution is everything. You may have an idea, but bringing it to life isn’t just about saying, ‘let’s do it’. The real challenge is about figuring out the technical aspects of whether your idea is feasible, like whether the manufacturing cost is too high, or if there are people who will actually buy the product you’re making,” Sue Xian explained.
These lessons came in handy for Sue Xian when she returned to Singapore.
In 2016, with a team of three other NUS students, John Teo, Jacelyn Lau and Jolyn Kang, they created the Aubergine Pillow – a unique travel pillow that can be inflated from about the size of an iPhone (16 x 7cm) to 60 x 30cm large.
They felt so good about their design that they decided to crowdfund it, hoping to raise S$5,000 so that they could put it into production. To date, the pillow has raised more than S$23,000 on Kickstarter – nearly five times the initial goal. Orders for the Aubergine Pillow have come from around the world, including remote locations like Reunion Island.
The first Aubergine Pillow was shipped out in October 2017 after nearly a year of hard work from the team.
Sue Xian, 25, is described as the “brains” of the operation using her knowledge and experience gained at Narrative to drive the business forward.
John, 25, is the “eyes”, overseeing product development and aesthetics. Jacelyn, 22, is the “hands” who looks after the workmanship and quality control while Jolyn, 24, is the “heart”, as she creates compelling visuals and marketing collaterals to sell the pillow.
Fate had brought the team together as one. They first met in August 2016, as part of the Design Platform, a programme run by NUS School of Design and Environment’s Division of Industrial Design (DID), where students work with brands such as Shiseido and Samsung to tackle conceptual and real-life projects.
With a tight timeline of 13 weeks to conceptualise, create prototypes, conduct tests, and generate buzz for a product, the team ran “thousands of ideas” past friends, family members, and even strangers, before deciding on making the Aubergine Pillow due to favourable feedback. The team’s sole motivation had been to create something truly unique.
“We also saw a trend in inflatable stuff – for example, the inflatable sofa. So, the mechanism that our Aubergine Pillow has is very similar to the inflatable sofa, and we tapped on this missing product while also riding on the trend of inflatable products,” said Jacelyn.
To successfully produce the Aubergine Pillow, the team had to overcome several challenges along the way, including maintaining constant communication with their manufacturer in China. Once, their manufacturer even changed the design of the pillow dimple without informing the team.
But in spite of the hurdles, the team stuck together and never once thought about giving up.
“We had a tight timeline and we just focused on the end goal,” said Sue Xian. “In the end, this was something we all were passionate about doing and that drove us forward.”
Mr Donn Koh, their lecturer and one of Singapore’s most prominent crowdfunding experts, also gave them advice on improving the pillow and linked the team up with a contact that could manufacture and deliver more pillows. Jolyn joined the team as the marketing specialist just before November 2016.
Sue Xian said that the DID curriculum gave the team a “very strong foundation” in the design process.
“At every stage of the process, we knew what we needed to do, how good is good enough and when we needed to move to the next stage,” she said.
Other contributors, including homegrown brand Uyii, would later come on board to help produce the team’s first prototype, while friends helped by producing and sharing their Kickstarter campaign.
On their journey, Jolyn said: “We are definitely happy with how we took the project from a concept to a functioning product.”
John, who spent half a year on exchange at the Instituto Profesional Duoc UC, Chile in 2017, added: “I think we really have to give a big thank you to all our backers and supporters for trusting us to deliver something to them; without them we wouldn’t have succeeded. “
After a successful launch, the Aubergine Pillow team is now eyeing greater commercial success. Aside from selling the product, they have a vision of “getting it to the shelves of your favourite stores”.