• Abundance of funding, strong research capabilities and easy access to China market prove key to vibrancy of city’s start-up sector
• Pivotal role in Greater Bay Area helps city's entrepreneurs promote their ideas and inspire future generations
For 30 years, Hong Kong has consistently topped the world rankings for economic freedom thanks to its low taxation, free trade and strong protection of intellectual property rights, according to a report published by Canada-based think tank Fraser Institute in September.
These advantages have allowed the city to become an attractive location for start-up entrepreneurs and technology pioneers to realise their dreams. In 2019, the number of start-ups in the city reached 3,184, a 21 per cent increase compared with the year before, Hong Kong government statistics revealed.
The vibrancy of Hong Kong’s start-up scene can be attributed to an abundance of funding, strong research and development (R&D) capabilities, and its easy connectivity to both mainland China and the rest of the world.
International financial centre
Duncan Wong, founder of blockchain technology company CryptoBLK, says Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre has provided ample opportunities for him to apply his technological research in the market.
The company, which is incubated at the Hong Kong Science Park (HKSTP), has been developing advanced blockchain systems for enterprises – especially those in trade finance – to boost efficiency and simplify workflow.
Before starting the business in 2017, Wong was heading a financial technology initiative at the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI), the city’s largest publicly funded research and development (R&D) centre. He was also a professor at the City University of Hong Kong for more than a decade, where he taught courses in information security and cryptography.
“I love new challenges and I would like to see more tangible things – like building a [blockchain] system and seeing how it is actually used in the real world,” he says.
Wong says Hong Kong has been an ideal location to develop the technology because it allows him to establish close relations with companies working in the financial services industry. “We need to get close to our customers,” he says. “As a global financial centre, Hong Kong is the best place to set up our company.”
In 2018, his company became the first technology partner with multinational bank HSBC as it completed its first trade finance transaction on a blockchain platform. Last year, it won the award for excellence as best software provider at the annual Trade Finance Awards, presented by Trade Finance, an online news and analysis service that tracks global market activities.
Wong says the key to success is to be confident that his vision will have a positive impact on society. He hopes that in the next five to 10 years, his technology will also be applied to other industries, such as property management.
World-leading research base
Hong Kong’s role as a thriving R&D centre – especially in the medical sector – has also provided an abundance of talent for pioneers to scale up their businesses in the city.
One start-up that made use of this strength was Cirina, a Hong Kong-based life sciences company focused on developing blood-plasma tests for the early detection of cancer. In 2016, it raised US$12 million in funding, before merging the following year with another health care company, Grail.
Cirina was set up by Dennis Lo, a chemical pathology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lo is widely regarded as one of the top experts in cancer detection, and was awarded the 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in September. “At the end of the day, I want to make my discovery, my invention, to benefit society to [ensure] the best of health,” he says.
Lo says Hong Kong’s strength in scientific research provides a favourable environment for start-ups to develop new technology and drugs in the market.
“I think that now, the atmosphere in Hong Kong in terms of innovation technologies is unprecedented in our history,” he says. “I can imagine some synergy between medicine and chemistry in pharmaceutical areas, in the development of new diagnostic props.”
Lo is also optimistic that more aspiring innovators will be encouraged to become part of Hong Kong’s vibrant start-up scene. “We’d like to show our young people that this can be a career for you, and that you can do very well,” he says.
The great connector
Besides providing a favourable business environment, Hong Kong is also well-positioned to serve as an international gateway to southern China.
The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, which covers an area with a combined population of 70 million, is one of China’s most economically vibrant regions. In 2017, the State Council announced plans to turn it into a world-class urban cluster that could rival Silicon Valley, in the United States, and Japan’s Tokyo Bay Area.
The plan also outlined the roles that different cities, including Hong Kong, will play. The city will serve as the leading hub for finance and international collaboration, while the mainland Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan will focus on research and manufacturing, respectively.
Hugh Chow, CEO of ASTRI, says the city’s role as a regional connector has provided valuable opportunities for business pioneers to develop and promote their innovations.
“[We are in] close vicinity to the Greater Bay Area, which is really the factory of the world,” he says. “Given the size of the economy here in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area, there’s no other place you’d rather go if you want to instantly see the results of your work.”
Chow says that start-up entrepreneurs wishing to replicate the success of others should always be passionate about – and confident in – their work. “You have to be 100 per cent, 200 per cent convinced that you are the special one who is going to make it. It is ultimately that belief that will carry you through all the difficult times,” he says.
Albert Wong, CEO of Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, a government body set up to foster innovation and technology in Hong Kong, which manages Hong Kong Science Park, says the presence of these pioneers has been crucial in helping the city to further promote itself as a global innovation hub.
“We are fortunate to have them paving the way for many more future generations of young talent, who have distinctive vision and extraordinary execution power, to begin their transformative journey in innovation and technology, right here in Hong Kong,” he says.
As seen in South China Morning Post