Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the accomplished Michelle Chee, Program Manager and Mentor at Cicada Innovation’s in Episode 2 of the Pop Perceptions podcast. Michelle talks about her career progression from ‘vanilla’ high school student to internships in a global Med Tech firm being based in Bangalore, India at the age of 22 years old. An internship at the U.N. and more recently her work at Australia’s Leading Deep Tech Incubator. This conversation is an honest and frank account of a career path that began with a Bachelor of Science, with great insights and advice for those unsure of their career direction and interested in making a difference in the new world of work.
Bec McIntosh: Welcome to Michelle Chee Program Manager and Mentor at Cicada Innovations . Some maybe familiar with Cicada Innovations in its previous incarnation of ATP Innovations, Australia’s leading Deep Tech Accelerator, so welcome to the show Michelle.
Michelle Chee: Thank you so much Bec for having me.
Bec McIntosh: It’s a pleasure! So let’s take it back in time to the high school years, what were you excelling at school. What were the things that you were doing, at school.
Michelle Chee: Well, in terms of academia I was pretty vanilla, not very exciting to be honest. I did a language, I studied Japanese, I did biology, chemistry. Chemistry is really interesting, I had a fantastic teacher which sparked by attention there. Even though I wasn’t the best performing student she had a profound impact on me. But, during my high school years I did a lot of music. I has classical guitar lessons and was in the ensemble. I was in the choir, did singing lessons and I felt like quite a creative person and I really enjoyed that. Thinking back I really should have applied myself more, I think it was great. Something to note in high school is that I didn’t really enjoy it in general. I went to an all girls catholic high school and I guess I felt I really didn’t feel like I fitted in anywhere. I was the quiet one in the library not really outside talking about sport or dresses, or things like that. Something that seemed to consume the interest of others at the time.
Bec McIntosh: And did that sense of belonging change when you went to university?
Michelle Chee: Definitely
Bec McIntosh: And so the path led to a Bachelors of Science. Where did the thought processes come about in terms of you looking towards a career path in the area of Science.
Michelle Chee: So again, looking back it was that chemistry teacher that really inspired me and at this point in time I knew I wanted to to something important, or something with impact. I really did not know what was. I thought at the time, what is a problem that I face? Growing up I have had various skin issues so I thought I would study chemistry and be a chemist and work in a big corporate like L’oreal However, as I went through it things changed dramatically, particularly in the middle of my Bachelors.
Bec McIntosh: Was that a thought ‘beyond the bench’, that you were going to step ‘outside’. Was there any particular guest speakers that came in that opened your eyes to a different world beyond the lab?
Michelle Chee: No, what I found during my Science degree was that I wasn’t enjoying it that much. I found it interesting in terms of how it could be applied to technology and impact in that way. But actually doing the science, I didn’t really fit in and I didn’t enjoy it that much. It was a little bit isolating and I loved talking to people. So I thought I’m not seeing myself working in a lab down the track. So I was half way through and I thought I just need to finish this because it would be a waste if I completely changed and it wouldn’t make sense either. I didn’t know what I wanted to do if if wasn’t science so I thought, just finish your Bachelor of Science and figure out what you should do next.
Bec McIntosh: And during your Bachelor’s you went overseas to China and experienced life in another country. What was that like? Was that your first time you had been overseas?
Michelle Chee: No, the first time I went overseas was in Grade 12 (the final year of high school) for a NASA competition. We had to create a space settlement. That really opened my eyes and that was fun and meeting other students from around the world, working this big project and not sleeping from 48hrs. It was incredible, it was so fun.
Bec McIntosh: An early introduction to startups?
Michelle Chee: Exactly.
Bec McIntosh: Maybe that was where the seed was planted?
Bec McIntosh: Towards the end of your Bachelors, there was a point where you secured a very competitive opportunity from the Queensland Government through Trade and Investment Queensland A cadetship which took you to Bangalore, India. Can you tell us a bit about the process for getting into that program and what it was like in that process?
Michelle Chee: The one thing I did know at the end of my degree was that I wanted to go overseas. I was hooked on travelling and wanted to get out of Brisbane. I guess I didn’t appreciate Brisbane at the time. Now I love it but it was a bit too slow for me and I wanted more and I thought overseas was the best thing. I was so obsessed with this idea of being overseas. I didn’t really care what job it was.I just looked at every single opportunity I could find and I came across this international business cadetship and it sounded like it was tailored to people who studied business but it said it was open to all graduates from all fields, so I thought, why not? I applied and I put in a lot of effort and I actually got a call and they said you have made it to the next round. What I didn’t realise that was, out of about 250 applicants only 4 people had science degrees, the rest had international business, so I really stood out from that perspective. Also what I didn’t know is that one of the corporate sponsors was a medical device company. They saw the value in having someone from a scientific background to go on this cadetship and do a project.
It was a laborious interview process. I did everything I could possibly imagine to get this job. I researched to the nth degree about the economics of India. Talking to former trade ministers, if I could to prepare myself. I would have this little book and I would write my notes in detail. And I guess it wouldn’t have happened, if I hadn’t put in that hard work.
Bec McIntosh: There was hard work in the application but then, eyes open, on the ground in Bangalore, a youthful 22 year old in a research project with a lot of responsibility in a medical device company. How did that feel in the first couple of weeks?
Michelle Chee: Going there I felt proud and I felt I had made it, it was so exciting. I landed and then India just hits you in the face in all sorts of ways and all senses. From the smells to the sounds and the sights and culturally just so different and the way you get treated as well amongst all of that is quite profound. I struggled a lot as I was working fine, but I didn’t have a good support network. Naturally I would try and find some friends and as a 22 year old female in India, it was really hard to find friends and a support network to feel like I really fit in and enjoy that aspect of it. It was hard, a lot of other people working in India were older men, expats. It’s not a group of people you want to hang out with all the time. It taught me a lot about myself and it actually broke me towards the end to be really honest because it was that isolating. It was hard from a mental perspective. Travelling, you had to plan it out. It wasn’t so easy in India, so I think that was a pivotal point in my life where I got off my high horse and really felt vulnerable for the first time.
Bec McIntosh: Those types of experiences are often a turning point as to where you look to next. You have had the opportunity through proving your aptitude to secure a grad role in a multinational company. What did it feel like moving from someone who needed to prove themselves in an internship did you feel you had done that in your internship and you just needed to forge a path?
Michelle Chee: It was great that I produced something that Cook Medical were happy with and hence they took me on and they had bigger plans for me. I started off doing enterprise risk as an in between role and that was something a bit funny for me. When they were ready a few months later I was transitioned into the Research and Development Team. I had a great boss, Dr Samih Nabulsi and I’m still talking to him now, which is great. He had a vision of building a new technologies team to go scout around the Asia Pacific for new ideas and concepts that clinicians have and research that was going on at universities and could be applied at Cook Medical and the products there. There was no such team that existed and I was charged with building that from scratch and really it was a blank slate and that was really fun. Through that experience I learnt that I really loved to build things, so I set up all the processes. I did a lot of relationship building, not just with the hospitals and the universities but internally as well because when you work for such a huge company you can, kind of operate in silos between departments. I had to go in there and pull the right stakeholders in and really pull them on board to this project to make sure it was a success.
Bec McIntosh: And in order to do that, that is quite a sophisticated communications skill set. When you talk about your time at high school you were on of the quieter people in the class. Did that change over time when you felt more comfortable in a role or where you in a place where you had just found your rhythm you found the things that really clicked with you?
Michelle Chee: I think that I hadn’t found my rhythm yet but it was a stepping stone. For me, to be able to speak to more people and be really comfortable with that is because I had a very specific task or objective in front of me. That was the thing that I needed to achieve so if that meant that I had to talk to a lot of people, then, yeah, I was fine talking to a lot of people. But at that time I still had not found comfort within myself. To be natural about that but it was a stepping stone.
Bec McIntosh: How long did role in building out this team in Cook Medical take, because there was a point in the future where you decided the path was going to look a little different for you.
Michelle Chee: It started off with only two of us co-designing this program. And then it grew to 5, 5 of us actually doing that. Our processes were working well, I was also working with this particular clinician on developing his technology and taking that through the different R & D stage gates and that was fun. But it did start to become a bit routine and I was still hungry to learn more so I thought I’m going to study a Masters. I chose to do a Masters of Finance, now it was really different to what I studied in my Bachelors.But I think that’s the reason why I decided to take it, because I could see the value of studying finance as well. To be able to speak to non-scientific people, people who weren’t engineers to bridge that gap because I saw that in my role as a technology scout. How do you bring the scientists and the engineers to talk to the business people and have a common language? So that’s why I chose to do finance.
Bec McIntosh: In that Finance Masters there were other opportunities that you took advantage of including a study abroad period to France. What was it like in the European scene. Were you exposed, I mean Universities can often have a different feel to the ‘real world. Were you able to tap into the MedTech scene over there and get a bit of exposure?
Michelle Chee: There wasn’t a lot of Med Tech, I guess, things that I was related to however, it’s a private business school that I attended, one of the top 3 Business School’s in France and they talk quite differently. The Professors worked in industry for a while so they had that industry knowledge and it was very, very practical. It was a little less academic then you would traditionally think from an established university. There was lot of group working with Europeans and that was fun and it was hard mentally but very rewarding in the end.
Bec McIntosh: Coming back to little old Brisbane, Australia and winding up that Masters of Finance. Where were you looking to next? You had done a little bit of Europe, but the scene was a bit immature. You had explored a bit of Asia. Where did the path lead next?
Michelle Chee: At this point the same calling happened. I just want to make an impact and I still wasn’t really sure of how I was going to make that impact, but I think naturally the most default thing people think of is working for an NGO working to help disadvantaged communities. And so I went down that path to explore that and I did an internship in the United Nations in Thailand, in Bangkok. I realised though I couldn’t change the world as a little intern in this huge bureaucratic, slow moving organisation so that wasn’t going well. But my head was still in that ‘help disadvantaged communities’. I had a friend who was living in Myanmar and we met at the United Nations. Myanmar had recently opened up in terms of their economy to the global world and I thought well, and I thought well, I’d be part of the grass roots movement there to build their communities, so I spent some time in Myanmar and again realised my skill sets did not match the kinds of jobs of what the NGO’s really needed there. And so I came back to Brisbane and on the flight back I connected with Petra Andren who is the current CEO of Cicada Innovations. I sent her a message and I was like, Petra, I loved working with you in my days at Cook Medical. I am just wrapping up my Masters now and looking for new opportunities. Is there anything at Cicada? By chance she was like, yes, please apply now. we are actually looking at growing the team. So it was really good timing in terms of that.
Bec McIntosh: As Australia’s leading Deep Tech Accelerator it offers something very special and niche in the Australian startup scene. It offers with an opportunity to work with clinicians, founders, investors. There is a fantastic network surrounding the accelerator. I suppose that brings you so much closer to the ‘impact’ in terms of the change, being at the front line of impact when you are working with founders and you get to travel in those founders shoes. Tell us a little bit about your role as a mentor?
Michelle Chee: Definitely I feel like I am able to create the impact, not directly, but indirectly through the founders and you get to travel in those founder shoes and they are working on some amazing things. I guess I should give a little context about Cicada because it is a big beast and it will probably give you more of a sense of what I actually do. We run our accelerator and pre-accelerator in Med Tech (Medical Technologies) and also Ag Tech (agricultural technologies). Then we have the incubator, so after we have created and validated businesses through this program we can nurture these startups over a longer period of time and provide tailored mentoring for them for up to 5 years. Now this is critical for Deep Tech, because Deep Tech takes a lot longer to get to market and a lot more capital. It’s not like your digital apple marketplace where you can scale that really fast and quickly. There is a lot of testing hardware involved there is a lots of regulatory barriers you need to jump through and also manufacturing to scale. That is why we have a pipeline to be able to serve these deep tech founders about different stages of the journey. So my day to day involvement might be meeting with these startups regularly. That might be daily that might be weekly and delivering some of the content for the program we run as well, how do articulate your value proposition to, how do your properly structure an investment pitch and how do I build a financial model? I am a generalist across all these areas and always be able to educate founders on these topics. But also when a level of knowledge needs to go a lot deeper or they need professional advice, make the right introductions to those people and we have a wide network there.
Bec McIntosh: In working with the founders you have developed quite a sophisticated skill set not only in the journey of a startup founder but also in the quite challenging area in the regulatory environment of working with medical technologies. Where does the path lead for you now? Have you been bitten by the startup bug? Is there inspiration you have sought seeing some of the problems trying to be solved? Have you thought you would jump into a role in a startup? Which side of the fence does the path lead? Have you seen that journey and understand the depth of their soul the founders are giving to their startup and think impact can happen more in a broader sense working with founders rather than as a founder?
Michelle Chee: The last thing you mentioned.
Bec McIntosh: That was s very long winded question, apologies for that.
Michelle Chee: You have seen that journey I think we all have seen it. It is a really long journey of a founder, and I congratulate them for taking that wild ride of entrepreneurship, because it’s not easy. It is a really fine balance of being confident about what you are doing or about being yourself and not being a dick about it. But for me in the future, at the moment I am not trying to plan too far ahead, I am at a stage now where I really feel I am comfortable in my own skin and I not that sky girl anymore in high school. I feel I can accept myself for who I am and I’m not going to to the best at everything and I think my journey up until now from a career perspective has been, I have to be the best, I have to be exceptional to be noticed, I have to know everything. That’s actually quite tiring and exhausting and it’s not who anyone is because none of us know everything and are perfect and I think now I have been really able to accept that and now in my role at Cicada there is plenty to do Building a new maker space, designing a new hardware program, I am really enjoying that now and finding that challenging and I think this is going to keep me very busy for a while. So I’m no planning too far in advance.
Bec McIntosh: For aspiring Bachelor of Science students who are looking to develop a career working alongside founders in the Medical Technologies space. What kind of advice would you provide them about how to build the right skills and characteristics to secure a role?
Michelle Chee: I would say, never turn down an opportunity even if you feel you don’t know how to do that or achieve that, just take it. Don’t just stay inside your scientific world, branch out, talk to the business students or look for experience where you can peer into the business world so you become more well rounded. Don’t be afraid to cold call someone, to reach out over the phone, to reach out for help or you want to find out about their experiences or what is available? It has worked for me and if you don’t try then, you will just never know. Just go for it!
Bec McIntosh: Having come to this point in your career. Thinking back to how you felt as teenager around the age of 15 years old. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you provide to your 15 year old self?
Michelle Chee: Talk to a lot of people and ask advice but don’t necessarily take that advice. If you listen to yourself, I think, you can’t do yourself wrong. The thing is your values and aspirations are going to change over time and that’s ok. I also want to elaborate on talk to people to get advice but don’t necessarily take the advice. I remember I was told at the end of my Bachelor of Science, you have to do an Honours program or you’re never going to get a job. I was actually quoted that by someone. I also remember I was at a careers fair and I as looking at a company in the infrastructure and I approached the person there saying, I am interested, can you tell me about it. I actually got looked up and down and they said, we don’t really look for girls, we look for men who are more suited to the job. I walked away at that point and you just listen to your drive and if something doesn’t feel right, then walk away.
Bec McIntosh: Michelle Chee, it has been an absolute pleasure, so exciting to talk to you today and hear how your career path has sky rocketed and I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing where the next 5 to 10 years will take you. Thank you Michelle
Michelle Chee: Great, thank you so much Bec.