Exclusive Interview with Stephen Liang
HKTDC Launches Start-Up Express to Fast-track Innovation
The Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) launched its Start-up Express campaign in March, designed to identify providers of some of the most promising products and services to come out of the Special Administrative Region, and support their development over the course of a year, said HKTDC Assistant Executive Director Stephen Liang.
Last October, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, described the city as “one of the fastest-growing technology start-up ecosystems in the world,” with some 2,000 innovation and technology start-ups and about 50 incubators. Those figures might now have been surpassed, but when it comes to the HKTDC’s mission in helping the city’s small and medium-sized enterprises find clients and partners worldwide, it is “not about the numbers, it’s the quality” that matters, said Mr Liang.
With that in mind, the Council is seeking only 10 fledgling businesses that each “have a very innovative product or service and could probably be suitable for developing into a very marketable product or service in China, Southeast Asia or Asia overall, for its Start-up Express initiative” said Mr Liang. Start-Up Express is “one of the biggest campaigns we have ever launched,” he emphasised.
The HKTDC has joined hands with Our Hong Kong Foundation for the initiative, with interest already being sparked at local universities, science parks such as Cyberport on Hong Kong Island, and in co-working spaces. After that, it will be up to the start-ups to come forward and show their mettle during scheduled pitching sessions and during a screening process.
In return, promised Mr Liang, start-ups will be getting a year-long “total package” of support aimed at nurturing them and their products, and “bringing them to market”. It includes a series of workshops, mentoring sessions with successful business people, and study missions to the neighbouring city of Shenzhen and to the surrounding Greater Bay Area.
Mr Liang said he believed start-ups in Hong Kong were already “in a very favourable position” because the city had a lot of investors, venture capital firms and even local family businesses willing to plug in funding for promising ideas. “If you need the money, that’s no problem in Hong Kong, you can find it,” said the executive. The bigger challenge, he explained, was to “get the proper exposure and recognition. Once you are very well known, once people understand about the kind of business that you are putting together, you attract investors.”
Start-up Express will also grant the 10 selected companies the right to take part in the HKTDC’s promotions throughout Southeast Asia and in large-scale trade events further afield. “If they’re looking for overseas partners or investors, they’ll have a chance,” said Mr Liang, because “we will be bringing them over to the different markets”.
He knows some of those markets well. After studying in Canada and in the United States, Mr Liang has had postings in Singapore and in mainland China during his 20 years working for the HKTDC. During that time the executive has seen a lot of changes in Hong Kong’s technology scene. “Just compared five years ago, you can really see a lot of new start-ups very successfully developed here,” he stated.
A travel-related app called KLook, co-founded by Eric Gnock Fah and Bernie Xiong Xiaokang, is one example, having already graduated into a fully-fledged business after attracting funding from some of the world’s biggest investment firms. Unlike travel-related apps touting cheap prices on hotel rooms or air tickets, KLook “gives you a lot of insight when you’re travelling to a city, and helps you to book tickets to shows, or get a SIM card,” for a mobile device, explained Mr Liang.
Also ‘made-in-Hong Kong’ is an app called Goxip, which uses visual recognition technology to link consumers of fashion clothing to each other and to the industry. “If you find this dress that’s very nice, you can post it on this app, it can help you identify all the other similar kind of clothing,” said Mr Liang. When the HKTDC took local fashion brands to the Tokyo Fashion Week last October, it partnered with Goxip to provide “a see-now, buy-now function” for local buyers attending the runway show.
Part of the HKTDC’s approach involves working with already-established start-ups. Even before Hong Kong designers saw their collections on the runway at the New York Fashion Week on February 10, they were already attracting viewers and fans on KLook. “We provided them [the KLook team] with stories about New York, their [Hong Kong designers’] experience, and how they prepared the whole Hong Kong runway show,” said Mr Liang.
He confirmed the HKTDC is promoting Hong Kong as “the fashion hub of Asia” to counter the view held by some outsiders that the city is all about financial services and not much else. In addition, the executive said, “we are gradually becoming the technology marketplace here in Asia”. In the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report published in September, Hong Kong ranked ninth in Intellectual Property (IP) protection among 137 economies. “Hong Kong is actually the best place in Asia for technology start-ups to have their ideas or IP protected,” said Mr Liang.
Once you’ve had an idea, when it’s time for prototyping, “you can just go across the border, to Shenzhen, which is very good on technology research and development and has very efficient manufacturing support,” he added. Then an entrepreneur can shuttle back to Hong Kong to test out a product or service before taking it global. “You enjoy the best of both worlds,” stressed Mr Liang.
The tie-up between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is already well established. “We’re really leading the way in terms of technology cooperation, particularly with [mainland] China,” said the HKTDC executive. In fact, according to China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Hong Kong is the mainland’s fourth-largest source of technology imports in terms of number of contracts.
The HKTDC is looking further afield as well. Hong Kong start-ups are doing the rounds at several major international events, from the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in January, to the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. At the end of the year, Hong Kong’s revamped SmartBiz Expo will bring to town regional players in the technology sector. “It’s a really vibrant scene these days,” said Mr Liang.