A 25-year tech veteran, Hugh Chow left Hong Kong as an engineering graduate in 1990, founded and sold two semiconductor firms in the US and Canada before returning to Hong Kong to showcase the innovation potential from these shores.
Technologists, scientists or sometimes even nerds. Ultimately, what fuels these uniquely-driven individuals is the sheer intrigue, excitement and buzz of discovery. But there’s more than just the discovery. “From there they simply want to show off how good their stuff is, how much better they are,” said Hugh Chow, former CEO of the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI).
Serial entrepreneur, technologist, investor, sportsman and engineer at heart, Hong Kong-born Chow has been there himself. Shamelessly fueled by the same fire for a moment of glory. “Technologists want to see the results of their work, see it applied and impact the world,” said Chow. “And there is nowhere better than Hong Kong to see your work generate immediate impact and feedback, be it in 5G, biotech, fintech, AI or robotics.”
This is precisely why his mission in leading ASTRI lured him from a content life of achievement in the US back to Hong Kong. The 25-year veteran of tech who left Hong Kong as an engineering graduate in 1990, founded and sold two semiconductor companies in the US and Canada, and then started his own successful tech VC firm.
Chow admits he could have just gone away and played golf every day. Instead he returned to his place of birth to be a champion for Hong Kong technology. “It’s not about how much money we make, it’s about how successful we can make the companies that come through ASTRI and how competitive they have made Hong Kong,” Chow added.
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ASTRI was set up by the Hong Kong Government to do one thing and one thing alone—apply research. Completed over 500 research projects and granted around 800 patents in the US, it has transferred over 750 technologies to the industries.
This is the precise mission at ASTRI. “We are a company that was set up by the Hong Kong Government to do one thing and one thing alone—apply research.” Every piece of research that takes place at ASTRI must aim to solve a pain point or a defined problem. He noted that ASTRI has over 600 staff, with researchers from all around the world making up almost 90% of that number dedicated to improving business or life in Hong Kong.
People are ASTRI’s greatest asset, noted Chow. A quarter of ASTRI’s staff are PhDs, over 50% from overseas, all geared to solve mysteries and focus on applying science to improve industry and society.
Since 2000, ASTRI has completed over 500 research projects and been granted around 800 patents in the US, mainland China and other territories. It has transferred over 750 technologies to the industries.
Chow’s extensive experience and track record in turning innovation into genuine success aligns with ASTRI’s pursuit of commercializing the best emerging technologies in Hong Kong. ASTRI has established leadership in the areas of: 5G and next-gen communications; fintech and blockchain; semiconductors and integrated circuits; IoT; and finally AI and big data analytics.
"There is nowhere better than Hong Kong to see your work generate immediate impact and feedback, be it in 5G, biotech, fintech, AI or robotics."
Examples of ASTRI’s great strides in accelerating the path from idea to productization and application are evident with initiatives like its fintech sandbox with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority which gives banks and fintechs a platform for blockchain testing and experimentation. Another is the Smart City Innovation Centre which is Hong Kong’s first 5G lab, purpose-built to support 5G and machine-to-machine communications applications.
ASTRI excels in bringing together the greatest minds with leading corporate entities and innovation ecosystem enablers like Hong Kong Science Park to ensure technologies are best positioned for real impact. Hong Kong’s leading corporations in property, financial services, retail, telecoms/IT and many other sectors collaborate extensively with ASTRI to put Hong Kong tech on the global map.
Chow was inspired by the growing sense of pride in the Hong Kong’s tech potential. “You could see the commitment with the doubling of R&D spending in Hong Kong from 0.7% to 1.5% of GDP.” He remarked how the Hong Kong Science Park has now emerged, “from its early days of low occupancy in 2000 to the current vibrant buzz of small and large tech companies—you can feel the atmosphere has changed dramatically,” said Chow.
The tipping point was the realization of the opportunity in Hong Kong and the bigger Greater Bay Area. In addition to the usual infrastructure aspects of Hong Kong, it is within an hour of anywhere in the Greater Bay Area. Chow noted that close to one hundred million people are within reach – three times the size of Canada, a quarter of the US and more than the states of California and New York combined.
“With that size of economy, all the investment into tech, you cannot find another eco-system as vibrant and with as much potential as Hong Kong right now,” Chow stated. Silicon Valley is clearly known for its tech, but little else beyond that. “Silicon Valley doesn’t have much else there. Nothing is made there, it’s not a financial center, but in Hong Kong and the GBA, you can find anything,” he added.
Given his lengthy time away from Hong Kong, Chow can view Hong Kong from the objective lens of an global entrepreneur. He identified unique factors to Hong Kong that are clear advantages for people who try to succeed in technology. “We have the world’s most advanced financial center, the strongest tax system, our legal framework and protection of IP and data privacy, plus a great draw for talent,” said Chow. “It’s tough for any other city in the world to have such an attractive pull for talent.”
"Technology is no longer a thing or a product, it’s a lifestyle and it pervades across everything and every sector"
Another key point raised by Chow is the often-incorrect view that technology is not a core industry or focus in Hong Kong. “It’s a mistake to say there is no tech sector, technology is no longer a thing or a product, it’s a lifestyle and it pervades across everything and every sector,” stated Chow. “There is room for technology in every sector to make things better, more efficient or safer—there is no better place to do that in Hong Kong with our eco-system and the Greater Bay Area.”
His parting advice to aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs is three-fold. “When you get your first funding and raise a million dollars—don’t celebrate yet as the hard days are ahead not behind you.” Investors expect startups to use their money wisely and to deliver a return, this is when the pressure starts. “Second be ready to be challenged on your perseverance, fortitude, commitment and tenacity—you are obliged to every investor, employee and partner to make this succeed.” The attitude he adopted was that the investor may have swept floors or poured all their savings into your idea. “You have to be responsible with that money and make sure you get up every day and go at it again no matter the adversity,” said Chow.
“Finally, be 200% convinced you are the special one.” He noted that investors need convincing that the person they back is the one that will win, so without that confidence and certainty the chance of success is zero.
Another useful tip in business and life from Chow. “Always think that the best is yet to come, that you have yet to complete your greatest achievement.”
These stories, contributed by Hong Kong Science Park, are examples ofHK10Xin action, showcasing Hong Kong’s world-leading technology innovation and the city’s unique pioneering spirit and scale-up mentality.