Commercialization of scientific results helps retain talents

April 30, 2019 12:18
R&D breakthroughs won't amount to anything if efforts are not made to develop practical applications for the market. Photo: Bloomberg

Governments around the world are stepping up efforts to strengthen STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education for their young people. Hong Kong is no exception. The city's top leader, meanwhile, has also vowed to boost investment in scientific research and development (R&D) to enhance the economy's competitiveness.

It is well known that Hong Kong is strong in scientific research but weak in turning research results into products and services. Though numerous academic papers from the city had won international recognition, very few have led to commercialization and improved products. As researchers can't reap financial benefits, it has become difficult to retain talents.

Given this situation, we need to support the application of research results, along with the efforts to promote STEM. This is the core of a case study exercise conducted by the Master’s degree students of the Computer Science Department of the University of Hong Kong (HKU). The students were required to use information technology to develop business solutions.

In addition to teaching Master's degree classes, I served as a mentor for some pupils in relation to case studies. This allowed me to see the creativity and international exposure of our young people.

For example, one group has discovered something that is currently receiving little attention but has great potential. That had to do with the travel and tourism market.

Europe is a hot destination for China and Hong Kong tourists. According to the World Tourism Organization, nearly 90 million Chinese and Hong Kong tourists visited Europe in 2016. Flight delays or cancellations are not a rare occurrence. During the 30 days from February to early March this year, there were more than 100,000 delays and over 8,000 cancellations for flights to and from Europe. According to regulations implemented by the European Union since 2014, once the flight delay exceeds three hours, the airline must pay compensation up to 600 euros (approximately HK$5,400) to each passenger.

In Europe and the US, it is common to claim compensation from airlines for long flight delays, but such thing is not widely known or followed in Asia, especially in China and even in Hong Kong. If one percent of the passengers from China and Hong Kong encounter flight delay of more than three hours or cancellations, the number of potential travellers entitling to compensation will be nearly one million, and the total compensation will reach several billion Hong Kong dollars. The HKU students were exploring this new market.

Their analysis was done comprehensively from the viewpoints of potential customers, competitors, business development, etc, and they automated the entire claim process with computer programs. The students also planned to promote the platform to different sectors of the tourism industry, such as travel agencies, insurance companies, and bloggers to expand market share and consolidate the first mover advantage. What’s more, they gave this project an authentic name: ReturnWater – the Hong Kong slang means refund.

When I was mentor for this project, I was not only interested in the idea, but also appreciated the business acumen and international vision of the students. The pupils lived up to expectations and were praised by the judging panel unanimously. Two members of the team, Ernest Lee and Tiffany Ng, won the first Tang Chui Wai Hing Project Prize.

This award is a small scholarship in the name of my grandmother, a donation of all of my income from teaching the HKU Master's degree class in the Computer Science Department over the past three years and also in the future. I want to encourage students of the Engineering Faculty to embrace innovation. I always bear in mind a message from my grandmother: "To serve, not to be served". I hope to pass my experience and knowledge to the younger generation.

There was another award-winning student group, headed by Sze Ho Chan, in another project. This group of students created an online matching platform for teachers and students. There are currently three types of classes on the platform: businesses related to music, sports and makeup. The idea is very interesting.

The HKU's Faculty of Science celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. A new interdisciplinary AI application Bachelor’s Degree program will be launched in September to train young people to meet the challenges of the future. As a graduate of the Faculty of Science, I also sponsor a scholarship to appraise outstanding students in the program in support of the move.

I hope these actions will prompt other parties to become more active in encouraging STEM talents. I also hope there will be more outstanding projects and award-winning students in the near future, and everyone can work together to create a better future.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong