MTR accused of stealing tech startup's ideas

September 15, 2017 14:09
MTR has been accused of copying an idea from startup Pokeguide and adding the function to its own smartphone app. Photos: Pokeguide/CNSA

MTR Corp. has been accused of copying an idea from a small tech startup and using it in its smartphone app, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

MTR Mobile, the train operator's app, has recently added a new function called Fast Exit, which is intended can help passengers speed up their travel to their destination by showing them which train car they should board and which door is nearest to the exit they will use.

Brian Hui, founder of startup Pokeguide, told HKEJ reporters that he met with MTR officials last year and proposed an "in-station finder" to assist passengers in finding their way by means of Bluetooth technology.

The meeting was meant to explore the possibility of a collaboration between the two parties.

“The MTR praised the idea and said that they would have to do some research on the topic during the meeting, but they never contacted us again,” Hui said.

Later, Hui learned that the MTR had adopted the “In-station Finder” and made it one of latest features of its mobile app.

Reacting to the allegation, the MTR said it has been working on similar technologies since 2015, but did not mention it during the meeting because some of the relevant corporate information was sensitive.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Pokeguide said the new navigation functions on the MTR app were “exactly the same” as those that Hui and his colleagues presented to MTR during their meeting, including the Bluetooth notification system and related functions.

The post has so far received over 20,000 reactions and has been shared over 5,000 times with netizens siding with the startup and criticizing the MTR management.

According to Hui, he met with MTR representatives about his idea in March last year. “I suggested using Bluetooth to measure the weight of the train cars in order to know which train is overloaded,” he said.

The MTR told him that they were already researching the possibilities.

In April last year, Hui attended another MTR event, in which he mentioned about the Bluetooth exit finder. He said the MTR managers had responded positively.

Hui said he had never been contacted again, until he learned that MTR has launched similar functions on its mobile app.

“A giant corporation can just copy your ideas without your consent, without even notifying you, they take the idea and claim it as their own," Hui said.

The MTR said it has been using the Bluetooth technology for certain infrastructure projects and at Telford Plaza as early as 2015.

However, Hui said he cannot accept the flimsy explanation. “Why would they say they were researching one function but praise another if they were truly developing it already?” he noted.

The train operator said it had seriously thought about working with the startup but decided to use its own mobile app after considering the pros and cons.

Professor Erwin Huang of the Hong Kong University of Technology, who founded WebOrganic, an internet learning resource center, said in the startup world, an idea is not worth anything until it becomes a product.

Startups must prepare themselves for the possibility that their ideas will be copied by larger companies that have greater resources and more marketing power.

Fong Po-kiu, president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, declined to comment on Hui's case but reminded startups to always apply for a patent.

They should also note down the minutes of a meeting and sign non-disclosure agreements with prospective investors and partners to avoid disputes, Fong said.

There have been many similar cases in the past. Local startup Innopage, for example, has accused Alibaba of copying its technologies.

Innopage said it has developed a social media app called “Worthy”, which allows users to connect with people with similar interests and values.

Innopage staff met with representatives of Alibaba to explain their app and explore possible collaboration, but they later learned that the e-commerce giant had adopted the function for its own match-making app.

Innopage founder Keith Li advised startups to always protect their ideas and guard against theft.

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