How govt can boost startup ecosystem (other than by splurging)

April 27, 2018 17:32
The Hong Kong Science Park is one of the parties benefiting from the government's HK$50 billion spending on the tech sector. Photo: HKEJ

Amid the startup boom, governments around the world are thinking of ways to boost innovation and technology in their respective territories. In Hong Kong, the government has allocated HK$50 billion for the purpose.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal recently sat down with two tech veterans in the city – Keith Li, co-founder and chief executive of Innopage, a mobile applications development startup, and Wilson Yuen, founder and CEO of TFI Digital Media, a video solutions provider. They shared their thoughts on Hong Kong’s latest push in tech innovation and entrepreneurship, and how the government can help aside from splashing out.

HKEJ: With the government allocating HK$50 billion to support tech innovations, how do you think startups like you can benefit from this new funding?

Li: I believe one measure that will benefit local small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and startups is relaxing the eligibility for the Technology Voucher Programme (TVP), which subsidizes SMEs in using technological services and solutions. The government has relaxed the eligibility requirements, which are widely regarded in the sector as too complicated.

Yuen: In the past, we applied for the University-Industry Collaboration Programme (UICP) under the Innovation and Technology Fund, which promotes collaboration between private companies and universities in Hong Kong, while leveraging the expertise of universities. Under the program, all intellectual property rights of the projects will be solely owned by the participating companies. This is attractive to private companies.

Meanwhile, we have applied under the Enterprise Support Scheme twice. We were asked to draft a complex proposal, wait three to six months after submission, and eventually, we met the panel in the final stage. Even if we ended up being granted a HK$5 million funding, the money was released in installments. The whole process should be fine-tuned.

Q: Of the HK$50 billion the government is spending on the technology sector, HK$20 billion will be used for the development of the planned Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park in the border area of the Lok Ma Chau Loop, while another HK$10 billion is for Cyberport. The Innovation and Technology Fund will be injected with HK$10 billion to support the city's innovation and technology development. Any thoughts on the allocation?

Li: By now, the bulk of the money the government is handing out will go to the building of infrastructure. It seems to me that the construction sector is benefiting more than the technology sector.

Of course, we can’t expect to see results overnight. But I believe more can be done in the area of education and other related policies. For example, in fintech space, the government can launch more sandbox trials for, say, electric vehicle, electric scooter, ride-sharing. In the education sector, building a PhD talent pool is clearly a downstream solution. What is worth more concern is the upstream: how should we allocate the funding in secondary and primary schools, and even in preschool education? For example, we can use more funding for STEM education, and teaching students how to code in secondary schools.

Yuen: Government should adopt a forward-looking principle in spending its resources to allow the people to bring their talents into play, which is not just about money. It’s about the policy. Take electric vehicles as an example. Some say we have to promote electric vehicles in Hong Kong, but that lacks a clear goal. Meanwhile, the government has amassed huge amounts of data, which can provide insights into policymaking.

It’s not just about where the funding goes, but about whether we are wise enough to find solutions to our problems. Why don’t we have a Stanford in Hong Kong? We can put the money to build one for sure, but we don’t have the culture and talent that will contribute to its success.

Q: Other than the measures in the budget, what else can we do to boost the tech and startup ecosystem?

Yuen: There is a national-level laboratory for antennas in a local university, and they're doing some remarkable research, which presents a huge business opportunity. If the government promotes the commercialization of that, I believe it would encourage an update in engineering subjects. Moreover, we have seen that foreign universities supporting their research professors with research funds. They don’t even have to apply for it. With so many outstanding research professors in the city, maybe the government should ease the application requirements?

Li: On the startup ecosystem, I think industry support is needed. On the other hand, the government has to build a startup culture around the campus. In Stanford University, the University of California Berkeley in the US, there are courses for startups.

The Silicon Valley startup ecosystem starts from the universities, with researchers bringing their products or research results out for financial backing from venture capitalists around the region. And eventually, some of them can have their companies listed on Nasdaq. That’s an ecosystem for the whole journey of startups. Right now, we don’t have that in Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 27

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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