Five minutes with … Marita Cheng, tech entrepreneur and the inaugural Victorian Government TechSchools ambassador

Meet Marita Cheng. The 28-year-old – named Young Australian of the Year in 2012 – has garnered international acclaim for her robotics inventions and is also helping Victorian students prepare for the tech jobs of tomorrow.

You’ve recently completed your Victorian Government ambassadorship for TechSchools – a $128 million initiative where 10 tech hubs are being built across the state to be used by more than 160 secondary schools, upskilling students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects for future tech careers. The Yarra Ranges and Monash Tech Schools opened last year and the remaining eight will be up and running by mid-2018. How is TechSchools preparing students for jobs of the future?

TechSchools is a great way to encourage the next generation to get “hands on” with making and learning through applying scientific principles: these learning centres will create a wave of tech-savvy learners ready for the 21st century, giving students at taste of robotics, virtual reality and 3D printing.

Are more girls becoming more interested in tech careers?

Yes, girls are definitely more keen on a career in the STEM sector. I tell them about all the opportunities I see globally and try to explain to them really simply how they can travel the world, work on exciting projects and make a huge difference.

You’re the founder and CEO of aubot – recognised globally through ‘Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia’ in 2016 – which makes a telepresence robot on wheels called Teleport. Tell us more.

Teleport, which we began shipping in November 2016, allows people to be present in multiple places simultaneously. You could be a child with cancer in hospital missing school, going to school remotely. Or an executive attending meetings in another country, without needing to hop on a plane and pay for accommodation. As well as telepresence robots, aubot makes robotic arms and is researching virtual reality and autonomous mapping.

In 2012, you were named the Young Australian of the Year for founding a robotics workshop called Robogals Global, inspiring girls to consider a career in robotics. It was initially conceived as your response to the low number of females in your engineering course at the University of Melbourne. The workshop has now taught 70,000 girls from 11 countries. How did your Young Australian of the Year appointment help this business?

It gave me the opportunity to give speeches around Australia and meet people from all walks of life, which inspired new ideas. And it gave me a profile to promote my ideas.

Why is robotics increasing in popularity?

Robotics is more accessible now due to the decreasing cost of prototyping with electronics and hardware. There are 3D printers, arduinos (an open-source electronics board with programmable software) and raspberry pis (tiny computers that connect to a television and a keyboard to teach basic programming) – it’s never been cheaper to buy a kit and create your own electronic solution or project.

What has helped you thrive in a traditionally male-dominated domain?

I’ve surrounded myself with people who inspire me to do more and do better, and my key strength is that I work really hard to make our projects work.

Advice for tech entrepreneurs?

Just start prototyping. Think of a project that inspires you, then work on making that project happen either by yourself or with friends. Start with building the simplest version of the project, add features and build it out from there. And don’t quit.

Who do you admire?

I’m inspired by people who are striving to learn more and better themselves, and who are striving to make a big difference.

Robotics prediction for 2018?

We’re going to see a lot more robots out-and-about in our community. I’m really excited about launching another three robots this year for the eldercare and disability sector.

Marita Cheng’s tips for Victorian businesses on how to stay competitive in a fast-paced technological world.

  • Tip 1. Work hard to ship as soon as possible.
  • Tip 2. Read the news – find out what your competitors are doing globally. Think and act global.
  • Tip 3. Think of how you can innovate to stand out from the competition.