It Changed My Life

Warm, Fuzzie feeling after surgery

Mr Farhan Noor at the office for Fuzzie, a mobile gifting app he conceived which has attracted big corporations, including Singapore Press Holdings. (From left) Mr Farhan Noor with younger sister Nur Nazira, father Noor Mohamed, mother Amirjan and yo
Mr Farhan Noor at the office for Fuzzie, a mobile gifting app he conceived which has attracted big corporations, including Singapore Press Holdings.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
(From left) Mr Farhan Noor with younger sister Nur Nazira, father Noor Mohamed, mother Amirjan and younger brother Luqman Nol Hakim. Mr Farhan had undergone an operation for a damaged spine.
(From left) Mr Farhan Noor with younger sister Nur Nazira, father Noor Mohamed, mother Amirjan and younger brother Luqman Nol Hakim. Mr Farhan had undergone an operation for a damaged spine.PHOTO: COURTESY OF FARHAN NOOR

After overcoming a host of health problems, Farhan Noor could hit pay dirt with new app

In 2011, Mr Farhan Noor was one semester shy of graduating with two first-class honours degrees - one in life sciences, the other in economics - from the National University of Singapore when he was beset by an avalanche of health problems.

Among other things, he experienced intense pain in his ears, and found it hard to breathe. "At night, I found myself waking up every hour or so gasping for air," he says.

He developed allergies to food which never used to give him problems, and also began stuttering.

Visits to various specialists did not help; scans and tests yielded no clues either. "None of the doctors could put the pieces together."

It took a couple of years before he found a neurosurgeon in private practice who told him his spine was severely damaged.


  • Look out for Wong Kim Hoh's upcoming book commissioned by Standard Chartered Bank.

    It Changed My Life is a compilation of inspirational stories from this series, and is part of the bank's initiative to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee.

"He said it was very serious and that I had to have emergency surgery," says Mr Farhan, 30, who reckons he hurt his spine during a biking accident several years earlier. "He said that if I had waited for one more week, I could have been paralysed from the waist down."

A ceramic disc with a titanium rod was implanted into his spinal cord to replace his damaged disc at cervical spine level C4-5.

By then, he was convinced that he did not have long to live.

"I decided to give up my studies. I felt it was not important and I wanted to make the best use of my time and leave behind a legacy and some money for my parents," says Mr Farhan who, as it turned out, had completed enough modules to earn a degree in Life Sciences with a minor in Economics.

He hatched a couple of businesses which did not quite take off.

But he may have hit pay dirt with Fuzzie, a mobile gifting app which he conceived. To be launched before year-end, it allows users to send gifts - vouchers in different denominations from fashion retailers to spas and hip cafes and restaurants - to family and friends.

Besides angel investors, his start-up Fuzzie, with a team of 11, has already caught the attention of venture capitalists and corporations including Singapore Press Holdings. It is the first start-up to receive a Collaborative Industry Projects grant from Spring Singapore, given to encourage collaborations between enterprises and industry partners.

Happily, Fuzzie's flight dovetailed with his recovery. "It's only in the last two months that I stopped stuttering," he says.

Mr Farhan grew up in Bukit Batok, the third of seven children. His father works in a printing company; his mother is a masseuse specialising in antenatal treatments.

At Bukit View Primary, he was a bright but non-conformist kid who always challenged teachers and questioned rules.

"I remember we could not fill up our water bottles at the water cooler. How dumb was that?"

He continued his education at Gan Eng Seng Secondary, where he was, he sheepishly confessed, a "dirty prefect".

Recalcitrant students needed only to bribe him with a Snickers bar if they wanted to puff away in peace.

"I guess that was the start of my entrepreneurial journey," he says with a hearty laugh.

He then had "two phenomenal years" in National Junior College.

"I fell in love with biology, spent a lot of time in labs and took part in national-level science competitons," says the straight-A student.

National service beckoned next. But just one week before entering the army, he got involved in a nasty accident, one which changed the course of his life.

He had gone to the Bukit Timah Bike Trail to test out his new mountain bike, not knowing it was a challenging trail. To make matters worse, he wore neither a helmet nor other protective gear.

While careening down the trail, he accidentally pressed the brake of his front wheel as the bike went over jutting roots. Thrown into the air, he landed face down, tearing his lips and injuring his legs and back.

Since he could still walk, it did not occur to him that he could have injured his spine. At a polyclinic, he did not take up the doctor's suggestion to undergo a scan. One week later, he entered the army.

"I didn't know I was harbouring an injured disc. Two and a half years of carrying heavy fieldpacks and rigorous training probably took a toll."

While in the army, he applied to study life sciences at the prestigious Imperial College in London.

"I applied for three consecutive years, and succeeded each time. But I could not take up the offers because I could not find a bond-free scholarship," says Mr Farhan, who did not want to be tied down to a six-year government bond.

He finally settled on a bond-free scholarship offered by his father's employers to study in NUS.

The go-getter set himself an ambitious goal: to graduate with two degrees in five years. "Pursuing two radically different degrees meant that I would have to do two final-year projects. I told myself there had to be a smarter way of doing it so I decided I would combine both."

His thesis proposal? Cellular economics which uses economic principles to explain cell behaviour.

"Does nature follow the principles of economics when it comes to evolution? Does it follow the path that requires the least amount of resources to get maximum results?" he says, adding with a grin that his proposal got the green light from both NUS' Life Sciences and Economics departments.

His schedule and workload were gruelling. While most students averaged five modules, he took seven in the first semester. On top of that, he also rented a space and ran a tuition centre tutoring 20 students. "I could pull in between $5,000 and $8,000 a month. It was very good money but I got burnt-out very quickly," he says, adding that he gave up the centre after one year.

The savings he amassed, however, came in very handy when his health issues cropped up.

The constant whirring in his ears, his food allergies and breathing problems drove him bonkers and led him to quit university.

"I was losing my mind. I was resigned to my fate and thought I might not live very long," he says.

Desperate to make money, he launched two business ideas - a stylish but functional lab coat and a fund to help families invest in stocks and options - but these did not have the legs he had hoped for.

Mr Farhan then conceived Don't Tell Teacher, which sought to produce animated educational videos to explain science in a fun way.

The idea was to set up a platform to cover three subjects - physics, biology and chemistry - which schools could subscribe to.

He hammered out a script to explain enzymes, and found some talents in New York - from animators to code writers - to help him make a five-minute animated video for just $1,500. The vice-president of Magic Lantern - one of Canada's biggest distributors of educational videos - was so impressed she agreed to a collaboration. "She figured we could easily make a million dollars in sales in the first year. The company has access to over 30,000 schools in North America and they have sales agents who could push and market the products. The investment was $500,000. If each school paid $1,000 in subscription a year, the business could bring in $30 million a year ," he says.

Science North, an interactive science museum in Canada, was keen to come on board as investor and producer. "They were willing to provide the content; I just had to raise half of the investment amount."

Thinking that he had a winning formula, he pitched it to a senior officer at the Media Development Authority of Singapore, who rejected his application for a grant. Mr Farhan learnt later that the officer was jailed last year after being found guilty of corruptly obtaining loans from applicants in return for facilitating grants.

He could not proceed but loaded the video Enzymes: A Fun Introduction on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 330,000 times.

The business plan for Fuzzie was drawn up while he was on his way back from Florida after a meeting with Science North executives.

In the US, he was struck by the sheer array of gift cards - from Starbucks to H&M - sold in convenience stores. The industry , he soon discovered, was worth US$130 billion (S$180 billion) in the US alone.

"The market in Asia hasn't been tapped; it's easily worth $300 billion," he claims. A mobile app, he decided, would be perfect because it does away with distribution channels.

"The challenge is to make the experience fun and throw in lots of cool features - reward programmes, promotions and other killer features I can't tell you yet."

It was only after his trip that Mr Farhan would find the neurosurgeon who diagnosed his problems and performed his life-changing surgery. "I thought my Florida trip was my last trip before I die."

After his operation, he began to develop Fuzzie in earnest.

His experience with Don't Tell Teacher taught him that talents can be sourced globally and operate remotely. Among his team of 11 are a French designer and an American developer. There are three Singaporeans handling marketing, graphic design and administration.

"If you can convince people you have a great concept, they will work for you at low cost. It's not just about making money but making a difference," he says.

It took his team about 11/2 years to develop Fuzzie, which initially drew investors such as the owners of Mad Men Attic Bar and The Butter Factory. But now, big corporations have expressed interest in the app, which has landed more than 50 brands, including Fred Perry and hip cafe Carpenter and Cook as partners. A prototype has been launched and Fuzzie has landed several millions in sponsorship programmes with brands like Topshop and Mothercare.

He is convinced he is on the cusp of something big. "We want to make gifting easily accessible to people so that whenever they want to, they can just send an appreciation to someone by simply pushing a button. And we have just scratched the surface with Fuzzie."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Warm, Fuzzie feeling after surgery'. Print Edition | Subscribe