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Hong Kong Budget 2018-2019

Leave no Hongkonger behind in tech training, industry urges ahead of budget address

More funding, better products, and wider education keys for city to become an innovation hub, sector insiders say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 February, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 February, 2018, 9:18am

Hongkongers of every stripe need to gain technological know-how through comprehensive training if the city is to evolve into an innovation hub, industry insiders have urged.

The call came as Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po was preparing to deliver his annual budget address on Wednesday and expected to announce measures boosting the sector’s development.

The initiatives would align with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s vision of turning Hong Kong into an innovation and technology centre, especially in biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), and financial technology (fintech).

Apart from dishing out money to the sector, officials were expected to offer a holistic policy engaging all corners of society and encouraging them to embrace the tech era.

Industry insiders have urged that the policy entail retraining programmes for Hongkongers to upgrade their tech skills and knowledge, a commitment to nurturing talent at all levels, a postdoctoral fellowship to facilitate employment, special funding for the development of specific technologies, and more incentives for start-ups.

Speaking exclusively to the Post, Hong Kong Biotechnology Organisation chairman Albert Yu Cheung-hoi said that, to become an innovation hub, the city needed to convert research results into effective products that people could use daily to improve their quality of life.

His non-profit group comprises academic and business leaders in the biotech industry, including Science Park CEO Albert Wong. It promotes the sector in Hong Kong.

Yu said there were “a lot of bottlenecks and barriers in the R&D supply chain” that needed to be resolved to convert scientific knowledge into products that are easily available in the market.

The chairman of biotechnology firm Hai Kang Life Corporation also argued training was insufficient for entrepreneurs and skilled personnel, despite what he described as top-notch R&D work being done at the city’s universities.

We have excellent talent but nobody teaches them how to become an entrepreneur
Albert Yu, Hong Kong Biotechnology Organisation

“In our universities, we have excellent talent but nobody teaches them how to become an entrepreneur so that they can convert their scientific research into commercial success stories,” he said.

“For biotech development, we need not only scientists but accountants as well as marketing and management executives who can broadly promote product applications.”

Yu hoped the city’s budget would provide funding for more IT-oriented education programmes for people from different sectors to upgrade themselves. He envisioned the funding also targeting small and medium-sized enterprises to hire doctoral graduates via government-subsidised fellowships.

Specifically, he suggested officials could fund for two years half the salary of every doctoral graduate a firm hired for innovation and technology, setting a fixed number of those who would be eligible.

Yu added that the Innovation and Technology Bureau should be expanded with further government investment for a special fund supporting start-ups, particularly in biotech development.

Henri Arslanian, chairman of the board of the Fintech Association of Hong Kong, said that what mattered most was “how easily and quickly” the start-ups could get access to such funding.

“Including fintech in the government’s budget reinforces the message to the world that Hong Kong is and intends to remain a dominant player in this area.”

Miles Wen, chief executive of AI start-up Fano Labs, stressed that the city needed to do more to retain technology talent, especially because the US and mainland China were ready to spend to hire the best.

What’s holding Hong Kong back from becoming a smarter city?

Over the border, for instance, the Shenzhen Overseas High Level Talent Project – also known as the Peacock Plan – offers high-calibre scientists, experts and scholars based overseas opportunities to work on the mainland, granting subsidies and allowances of up to 1.5 million yuan (US$237,000).

Some in the industry said it was more important for local officials to take an active role in directing Hong Kong’s tech industry.

“The problem is that big companies need to be more experimental in adopting new technology and give start-ups an incentive to work on new solutions and products,” said Phil Chen of Horizons Ventures, tycoon Li Ka-shing’s private investment arm.

Fear of risks and too few tech graduates stalling Hong Kong’s smart city ambitions

Chen called on the government to be daring and invest in more moonshot initiatives as well as release additional funding to academics in the city for more cutting-edge research.

Tak Lo, founder of Hong Kong-based tech firm Zeroth.ai, urged officials to focus on how the city could integrate its efforts into the mainland’s AI ambitions.

“If we could attract more mainland start-ups to come to Hong Kong as well, that would be a great way to boost the tech scene in Hong Kong,” Tak said.