This is the third of our series of articles written by Penn Engineering alums about their experiences at Penn and how it shaped their lives. This article is by Nicholas Yiu, who graduated with a master’s in Nanotechnology in 2016. He is currently working as a process engineer at Heliotrope Technologies, a startup company based in Silicon Valley, developing electrochromic smart glass. He is also co-founder of Mixathon48, a non-profit music production startup that received a Wharton Innovation Fund award.
I always saw it as my life philosophy to live, study, and work in multiple places around the world. I spent my first 18 years growing up in Hong Kong and Sydney, and fell in love with engineering in my high school years. As a 15-year-old watching the swimming events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I was so captivated by the fluid mechanics and materials science involved with the Speedo LZR Racer swimming suits. At that moment, I decided to dedicate my career to studying chemistry and materials science, with the goal of integrating technological improvements to real-world products. To combine my interest with my desire to live abroad, I decided to attend UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) for my undergraduate degree to study chemical engineering.
The program at Berkeley was intensive and comprehensive, and I did research under leading professors working on silicon-carbide nanowires for energy storage, investigating lithium-ion battery failure analysis via SEI formation, and interning for a startup developing electrochromic smart windows for green buildings. As I came close to graduation, I realized I still wanted to learn more about fundamental materials science on a nanoscale level. I also wanted to gain experience from the business community in terms of finance, management, and bringing lab products to the market. In my extensive search for grad schools that offered an interesting balance between technology and commercialization, I landed at the University of Pennsylvania’s master’s program in Nanotechnology.
My time at Penn was challenging but a lot of fun. I enjoyed the 10-class curriculum where we had to choose classes in 5 fields: nanoscale engineering, nanofabrication, devices, biotechnology, and technology commercialization. My favorite classes were Nanotechnology courses MSE 525 and 565, which were a very comprehensive dive into nanotechnology fabrication, characterization and applications on a theoretical and lab level. I also thoroughly enjoyed Engineering Entrepreneurship courses EAS 545 and 546 ; the latter was an “incubator” style class where we developed a business model for a product over the whole semester.
I really liked the flexibility of the program, and I could take more classes focusing on commercialization and entrepreneurship, and fewer in other areas where I had less of a career interest. In terms of clubs, I was highly involved in the Penn Engineering Master’s Advisory Board and Graduate Student Engineering Group, working on team projects to organize professional and social events for the graduate community. Since one of my goals was to learn more about commercialization, I also took part in pitch competitions like Wharton Innovation and Design, Wharton Innovation Fund, iDesign Challenge, and the Y-Prize. One of my pitches even won a Wharton Innovation Fund award — it was an idea for a nonprofit music production event company called Mixathon48. The award gave us seed funding, allowinged us to start building the company, which I continue to run today after work hours.
I currently work for Heliotrope Technologies, a UC Berkeley spinoff company developing electrochromic smart glass for energy-efficient green applications in the automotive and architectural industries. I work as a process engineer focusing on product development and design of our nanocrystal thin film composition and manufacturing optimization processes. I found MSE 525 and 565 to be the most useful for my work, helping me understand a big overview of all things nanotechnology, and also hands-on characterization work with nanolithography, scanning electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes, dynamic light scattering, ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy, and nanocrystal synthesis, a lot of which I use at my current job. I also found EAS 546 to be very helpful with the topics on startup entrepreneurship, understanding venture capital financing, and regularly working with overseas vendors and partners to aid our product development timeline.
The program at Penn trained my time-management skills and ability to juggle multiple things at once. It is great to work in the bay area where I attended my undergraduate degree, and also to be around like-minded scientists and engineers in the Silicon Valley startup scene. In my free time outside work, I like to write original electronic music with other local vocalists in the area. I find it a lot of fun to play with audio engineering to create new sound design; you can listen to my music here.
I also shoot photography for corporate clients occasionally, recently covering events for VISA and Cal Hacks. I miss the school environment where you can focus on academic studies, so I have been doing courses on Coursera to continue the same learning environment on my own, focusing on data science and computer programming courses.
Penn’s network is very extensive and I keep closely in touch with a handful of friends from my clubs and also the nanotechnology program. We update each other on our jobs and career directions, and it is interesting to see what different roles are like in different industries and different functions in nanotechnology.