Wearing the Pants: Hardware Engineer Nan-Wei Gong Defies Gender Stereotypes to Create 3D Tech

Nan-Wei Gong ● Hardware Engineer ● CEO & Co-founder of figur8

Growing up in Taiwan, entrepreneur and engineer Nan-Wei Gong was not exposed to the type of traditional gender stereotypes children in the US typically grow up seeing. Though she went to an all girls high school, her family never raised her with a specific gender identity.

“My parents didn’t care that I carried a BB gun or wanted to be a ninja, play darts, or dress like a tomboy,” said Nan-Wei. “Culturally, I was not influenced by gender norms.”

Nan-Wei wanted to be a musician as a child, but she also excelled in math and science. Her high school physics teacher saw something in her that she didn’t yet see in herself and encouraged her to consider a career in STEM. Combining her interests in music and engineering, she earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Materials Science and Engineering at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

During a summer internship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the high energy physics lab, she worked with sensors and analog synthesizers under Professor Joseph Paradiso, a pioneer of wearable computing and consumer tech.

This internship influenced Nan-Wei’s future business ventures and motivated her to attend MIT to earn her Master’s and PhD from the Media Arts and Scientists Lab. In 2013, she started her first company, 3dim Tech Inc., which made software for mobile 3D sensing cameras, and won the MIT $100K entrepreneurship competition. Within their first year, 3dim Tech was acquired by a major Fortune 500 company in 2014. In that same year, she founded Circular 2, a technology consulting firm that specialized in wearable technology.

“I enjoy building interfaces between the digital and physical world,” said Nan-Wei. “It’s mysterious. I need to understand everything; it’s like magic.”

While at Circular 2, Nan-Wei did research for and consulted with top universities like MIT and Harvard, and major companies like Samsung and Google to create wearable technology. She led Research and Development (R&D) for Project Jacquard, a collaboration between Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) and Levi’s to create clothing with sensors built in them that allowed wearers to control actions on their phones, like answering calls, using GPS and playing music.

Currently, Nan-Wei is CEO and co-founder of figur8, which digitizes 3D body movements using sensors to analyze movements. She notes that Hollywood uses this type of technology, especially when creating action movies, but the equipment they use is bulky and expensive. Nan-Wei offers this same type of technology, but more easily accessible and less expensive.

“We are here today because of inventions of the past,” said Nan-Wei. “We take things from sci-fi movies and make it a reality, but it takes a team and company support.”

Figur8 is focused on sports science, animation, and biomechanics. Additionally, Figur8 partners with a research group at Massachusetts General Hospital and works with professional athletes to reduce risk of injury and improve performance. The company will release the final product to consumers this summer.

Nan-Wei says that starting this business is one of the most difficult things she’s ever done, specifically because she created a hardware product. Raising money, doing R&D, building the product, hiring people and selling the product involves a lot of hard work.

“It’s not just engineering anymore,” says Nan-Wei. “There are so many other aspects of a business.”

Nan-Wei credits her supportive network and positive attitude for her success. She encourages people to find a group with similar interests to consult with and learn from. Not offended by criticism, Nan-Wei draws motivation from the scrutiny she faces.

“People hold women to a higher standard. Maybe it’s not negative, but a good thing because it encourages you to be better,” she said.

To those considering a career in engineering or entrepreneurship, Nan-Wei recommends being stubborn about what you want to learn and finding role models in the field. “It’s not about being a woman or an engineer, but about doing it.”

This story was written by Kristen Shipley, wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Learn more about our fellowship and apply for the next round at wogrammer.org/fellowship.

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