Hong Kong start-up firm beats electric car giant Tesla to award
Now Lumos is hoping to be the Apple of cycling safety accessories from its office in the city’s Science Park
The more ambitious of the 600-odd start-ups and technology companies in Science Park by picturesque Tolo Harbour may dream of one day being as successful as electric carmaker Tesla, but few would realistically consider beating the American giant in a David and Goliath battle.
Yet one of the smallest start-ups there, Lumos – with nine staff in Hong Kong and Shenzhen and headquarters the size of a single parking space – recently did the unthinkable, defeating the US$40 billion Tesla in an international design competition.
The Lumos smart cycling helmet edged out the latest Tesla Model 3 to win the Beazley Design of the Year awarded by the Design Museum in the United Kingdom in the transport category.
“Tesla was one of the companies I admire the most, so that was very meaningful to me,” Eu-wen Ding, CEO and co-founder of Lumos, told the Post.
But his role model is not Elon Musk, founder of Tesla. “Everyone looks to Apple and Steve Jobs as their hero. We want to be the Apple of our category.”
Its category is cycling safety accessories.
The winning idea was to have LED left/right/stopping lights visible on the back of a helmet. With a built-in accelerometer, Lumos detects when a cyclist is slowing down and automatically displays a brake light and turn signals, allowing vehicles behind to know the intention of the cyclist and reduce the chances of a collision.
Ding felt it solved “a real, very obvious problem in a hopefully elegant and well-designed way”. The prize was perhaps the biggest triumph so far for Ding, 31, who took a gamble when he decided to quit a Harvard University MBA programme half way about two years ago.
Ding, a mechanical engineer who used to cycle to study and work in Boston and San Francisco, said he kept a list of ideas in his notebook, including a helmet with lights. “What I love doing is to build things that I think are really interesting.”
He teamed up with co-founder Jeff Chen Hao-ren from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who was at Harvard as a visiting student, to start the business by designing, making and marketing cycling helmets.
They could have chosen to start the business in other places, such as the US where the two founders met), Singapore (where Ding comes from), or mainland China (where Chen is from). But they decided to build the business from Hong Kong, for reasons that illustrate the city’s attractiveness as a place for innovation start-ups.
“Hong Kong is the middle ground. Our engineering team and manufacturing are in Shenzhen and we need to go there weekly, and our main market is North America,” Ding explained. “Most of our marketing is done online by Facebook and Google, which are not available in China.”
And Science Park offers a helping hand too. “Our rent here is about HK$2,500 per month for our office that can sit six people,” Ding said.
While Lumos has already overachieved in its crowdfunding by raising US$800,000, it needs further funding to achieve its ambitions. Ding admitted there was a lot of hard work between designing a good product and making it in the market, although he said the company was already “operationally profitable”.
A survey by InvestHK found there were 1,926 start-ups in the city in 2016. A study in 2015 by the San Francisco-based research firm Compass found Hong Kong to be the 5th fastest growing start-up ecosystem globally.
Albert Wong, CEO of Science Park, said: “There are already a number of successful technology start-ups in Hong Kong, such as bio-tech firm Vitargent, Insight Robotics and logistics company Lalamove. They have achieved impressive footprint in the global market place.
“One of the most important needs of start-up companies is to get sufficient funding support.”
Funding remains one of the biggest challenges for start-ups.
Ben Chan Han-pan, a member of the Legislative Council’s panel on information technology and broadcasting, said: “Hong Kong still lags behind in terms of angel funding, the money that venture capitals put into promising start-ups. The lack of government support is also an issue.”
Eric Mak, head of Sunlight Eco-tech, said one of the biggest difficulties was the risk-averse nature of government funding.
“The process of government funding is bureaucratic and against the spirit of innovation,” he said. “The process of innovation is long and painful. Start-ups always face risks, and the government doesn’t want to support anything risky.
“But that is the price to pay to create a concrete innovative technology sector.”