At the spacious, marble-floored MaRS building at the corner of University and College, Vincent Cheung won the student entrepreneur competition in the National Business and Technology Conference held last Friday and Saturday. Cheung, a PhD student at U of T, is a computer engineer and budding business mogul.

Cheung won for his company, Shape Collage Inc., which takes photos and makes them into any shape. On March 8, Cheung was named by the group Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship as the 2010 Student Entrepreneur Regional Champion, competing against students from Ontario and Quebec in front of a live panel of business professionals. He’ll go to the ACE national exposition in May and could move on to compete for the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.

In 2007, Cheung wanted to display pictures to family and friends but couldn’t find a program that worked well enough. He tinkered and came up with a new algorithm for automatically arranging photos in a collage.

“Imagine I give you 50 photos and I throw it on this table”—Cheung points to the square coffee table in front of him—“You’ll only be able to see five of them because they’re piled on top of each other. So what you would do is one by one spread them apart from each other and that’s essentially what the algorithm is doing. You randomly put this on a digital canvas and you move them around until you can see them all. The only difference is that this table can be any shape that you want, like a heart or a word.”

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At first, Cheung posted the program on his site, where it received no attention. But after more publicity, the program has, in Cheung’s words, “gone viral.” “In February last year I emailed a couple of blogs,” said Cheung. “I said, ‘Hi my name is Vincent and I made this program called Shape Collage.’ Maybe one out of the five websites would write a review about it. They would have a couple hundred or even a thousand viewers who would then find out about me and also start blogging.”

Shape Collage has had a million downloads in the past year. Cheung recently cut a deal with Photobox, the largest online printing company in Europe.

Cheung graduated at top of his class from the University of Manitoba. He has interned at Microsoft and Google.

As a computer engineering PhD candidate, Cheung focuses on machine learning and computer vision, using probability and statistics to make sophisticated algorithms for solving problems. He also does work with molecular biology, using algorithms to analyze DNA and genome data in order to find patterns that will become platforms for experimentation.

Cheung credits all his success to “hard work and an open mind.” On his website he calls himself the “CEO, founder, and janitor.”

“I don’t see the point of being money-intensive,” Cheung said. His extravagant purchase since his business took off was a new cell phone. He quickly explained that the phone is for business purposes, so that he can expand Shape Collage into phone applications.