Breakthrough will allow doctors to test for up to 300 diseases simultaneously while producing results within hours In a nondescript commercial building off an ordinary side street in the eastern district of the city, a team of scientists are working to ensure some extraordinary research can be turned into commercial use. Hai Kang Life, the brainchild of Terence Lau Lok-ting and his master's thesis adviser professor Albert Yu cheung-hoi, has been pioneering human diagnostic DNA technology for eight years. The pair founded the research and development based biotechnology company in 1999 with a focus on developing human diagnostic DNA chips to fill a gap in the market made all the more pertinent as emerging infectious diseases began taking their toll in recent years. The silicon wafer-sized chip the scientists at the company have been labouring over is expected to alter the landscape of medical science forever. Known as lab-on-a-chip, it will allow doctors to test for a multitude of diseases simultaneously while producing more accurate results that are available within a few hours. 'The chip will be able to detect up to 300 diseases at one time together with a reader machine that can read the results in hours. In the past, many of the tests for more complex diseases would have been sent overseas and patients would have to wait days or even up to a week for results,' said Dr Lau, the company's chief operating officer. Clinical trials for this revolutionary technology are expected to begin early next year. There is just one other similar diagnostic chip on the market in the United States, but it is used only for research and is unavailable for the routine commercial diagnostic market because of its technical complexities and high costs. Each chip costs US$3,000. In comparison, the type Dr Lau is trying to produce is expected to be marketed to the mass market for HK$300 to HK$400. Hai Kang Life is somewhat of an anomaly. Few biotechnology companies in Asia have ventured into the research and development domain because of the soaring risks and huge expenditures, so many choose to carve out their business in trading medical equipment. Despite being a scientist at heart, Dr Lau realised early on that other revenue streams needed to be nurtured if the business was to survive, so diagnostic testing services were extended to the areas of veterinary and food from the start due to the shorter turnaround time. Hai Kang Life's range of veterinary diagnostic kits address almost every major infectious disease on the planet from bird flu to foot and mouth and classical swine fever and has squarely put the company on the map. Most customers are in Southeast Asia, Japan and the mainland, although plans are under way to broaden the distribution network in North America. Meanwhile, more than 50 DNA-based tests have similarly been developed for the food and beverage industry. The exhaustive menu of diagnostic kits is used regularly by many hotels, restaurants and supermarkets in Asia to ensure food safety. Such tests can analyse an entire spectrum of elements from allergies to genetically modified foods and specific DNA sequences. The company's Hong Kong laboratories also offer customised quality surveillance certification and food testing programmes. Finding qualified people, whether it be scientists or sales and marketers, has proved to be Dr Lau's greatest problem. 'The ideal person should be one who understands both science and business but there is no such combination of skills out there. Those with biotechnology experience usually come from an academic background and have little commercial knowledge, while sales and marketing people won't know biotechnology,' he explained. To overcome this problem, Dr Lau hones in on the training, nurturing business staff with science knowledge and instilling commercial skills into scientists. Steered by his 'just do it' ethos, the company has come a long way, forging numerous partnerships with similar organisations around the world and breaking new ground in unusual markets that span the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. Next year, the company will further expand its wholly-owned subsidiary in Beijing to take on research and development capabilities to capture China's budding opportunities. Dr Lau's passion for biotechnology - a subject he studied throughout his academic career from undergraduate through to PhD - first began in the biology classroom of his secondary school. 'I was seduced by biology and was fascinated by how things could be so complicated yet so mysterious and all the mechanisms so precise. To me, life form was a complete mystery and it gave me so much inspiration,' he said. Biotechnology has since become entrenched in Dr Lau's life with little separation between work and play. He travels frequently to the farms of Thailand and Indonesia, the lecture halls of Europe and North America and the boardrooms of companies in Japan and the mainland to meet partners and distributors and to deliver presentations. He was desperate to work in the sector following graduation but research and development based opportunities were a rarity, so he settled for a marketing job with Nestle to learn the mechanisms of business. 'The job taught me all about business management which became very useful when I started my own company later.' Where people have a tendency to follow the crowd, Dr Lau, a nonconformist, sniffs out opportunities in between the crevices. 'The US and Japanese markets are saturated with players. That's why we chose to focus on Asia and be a first mover in the relatively young market. We believe there is great potential in the future.' Ten things I know 1 Have a clear mind and a global vision Look beyond the current market situation and figure out clearly what the future market looks like. This is particularly important for the biotechnology sector where there is no track record for much of the work we are doing, so a good global vision is crucial. 2 Understand your customers Many people fall into the trap of becoming too product-driven and end up forgetting about the end-user. You must always ensure your products are user-friendly and cost effective. 3 Intellectual property management Although this has yet to fully develop in Hong Kong, it is a crucial component for the biotechnology industry. We spend a lot of resources constantly reviewing and monitoring progress in the market and making sure our patents are not copied. 4 Be willing to learn Only new technology can keep you at the forefront of business. It is important to communicate and learn from others, read up and attend conferences, give presentations and be challenged by people who might offer new ideas. 5 Be energetic and stay motivated Running your own business is extremely tiresome. You need to have enough energy to deal with problems that come at you every day and from every angle. You need to be self-motivated and persevere despite the difficulties. 6 Be competent and have an open mind Be self-confident in your abilities to introduce new products and services to clients, but don't become so blinkered that you only go by what you think is right. Draw on the knowledge of others too. 7 Training for both staff and clients Products can't be properly used by clients unless you teach and support them. Staff won't be fully equipped to do their job competently unless you train them in every aspect of the business. 8 Patience and commitment Be patient when things don't work out. Don't let frustration get in the way of success. Discuss with others what is at stake and persevere. Commitment is crucial. The staff need it in order to see a project through and a leader requires it so direction will not get lost. 9 High integrity Intellectual property is vital to any technology company which is why we only appoint people with a high sense of integrity to take charge of major projects. We review staff constantly before assigning them an important task. 10 Willing to face challenges You must confront problems head on. Admit errors and correct them straight away. The problem won't go away by itself.