Rescue startups: government adopts more local products and services

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Commercialising innovation and technology is a means of saving local startups, says Dr Winnie Tang, adjunct professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Photo courtesy of Dr Winnie Tang (pictured) at ASTRI’s Smart City Innovation Centre.

Although the advanced technology research and development capabilities of Hong Kong universities is internationally renowned and generously government-funded, there have been few cases of innovation and technology that has been successfully commercialised.

The major problem is the conservative attitude of many officials, which sees most applications fail to pass the review, resulting in many missed opportunities. These include the Polytechnic University’s rapid, automated multiplex diagnostic system of the respiratory tract, the electric vehicle MyCar, and the micro-display of the University of Science and Technology, eventually adopted by Google Glass.

According to the Legislative Council’s estimates of expenditure, the Innovation and Technology Fund under the Innovation and Technology Commission has a low approval rate of application, and the proportion of approved applications in the Innovation and Technology Support Programme (ITSP) from 2016 to 2018 was less than half. The approval ratio of the Midstream Research Programme for Universities (MRP) from April 2016 to January 2019 was less than 20 percent. To promote innovation, the government must assume a more liberal attitude in approving projects and tolerate greater chance of project failure.

Regarding the medium-term measures to save local startups, I advise the government to take the following three steps:

1) Become a user: Although the distribution of copper-core (CuMask+™) masks to all people in Hong Kong has aroused considerable controversy, it is encouraging that the government has the courage to adopt local research and development results. In fact, many local technology solutions can be used to improve daily life. For example, sensors can be used to improve the management and hygiene of public toilets. The optical radar sensors can be used, without jeopardising privacy, to monitor the supply of toilet paper or vacant toilets, and whether someone tumbles in the toilet. It can also measure the levels of urea in the air, which can be dealt with in a timely manner. 

An interactive map dashboard is another technological solution that can be set up in schools to display basic information, such as the area of the school, the teacher-student ratio, and public exam results, it can also display school-based projects, such as the effectiveness of STEM activities, waste reduction and energy saving data, etc., so that teachers, students and parents can be informed at a glance.

2) Evaluation and certification: This epidemic nurtured many local R&D projects. Reusable masks is one example. Although there are various estimates about the growth rate of the global market from several international research reports, they all believe that the demand for masks will continue to rise. If the authority can act like the Consumer Council to ascertain the quality of masks in an objective manner and provide quality certifications, it will certainly enhance the public’s confidence in local products and also benefit the export of products.

3) Investing in science and technology: The Norwegian government pension fund is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund with a market value of more than US$1 trillion (about HK$7.8 trillion). It has invested in more than 9,000 companies worldwide. Apart from actively investing in foreign technology and pharmaceutical companies in recent years, the fund also invests in the local innovation and technology sector, provides seed funds (ie. the first major funding) and helps find venture capital for startups, so as to cultivate the startup ecosystem.

Photo courtesy of Dr Winnie Tang (pictured, left).

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many recently-established startups which were established have to face the problem of funding disruption. According to an analysis by market intelligence company CB Insights in March, since January this year, global startup seed funding has dropped by more than 20 percent from the same period last year.

In this year’s Budget, the government proposed to draw HK$22 billion from Future Fund, its sovereign wealth fund, to set up a Hong Kong Growth Portfolio to invest in companies and projects that are “related to Hong Kong”. I hope that the Future Fund can take reference from the Norwegian government’s investment portfolio and actively support local startups and bring new impetus to Hong Kong’s economy.

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