Supporting start-ups may not be Hong Kong’s best bet in making technology leap

Albert Cheng says our government should instead be helping established innovators – such as a Hong Kong-listed company at the heart of a new live streaming technology – reach the next level

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 7:15pm

Since the announcement of her presidential bid in April 2015, Hillary Clinton’s election campaign has often been dismissed as lacklustre, uninspiring and run-of-the-mill. It has largely paled beside Donald Trump’s flamboyant persona and screaming sound bites.

All that has changed with the National Democratic Convention at the Wells Fargo Centre in Philadelphia, the city branded the birthplace of American democracy. Political bigwigs aside, the gala features a bevy of Hollywood celebrities, including Hunger Games actress Elizabeth Banks. Reports have described as electrifying the speeches and performances in honour of Clinton. The four-day event climaxes with the former secretary of state’s acceptance speech on Thursday evening.

On the second night, Hillary addressed the cheering crowd by live satellite link from New York. She emerged on a gigantic screen to the accompanying sound of breaking glass, shattering a black-and-white montage of the 44 male US presidents who have gone before her. She told the audience: “We just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet.” That line has become an instant hit on social media. “And if there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say, I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next,” she continued.

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If there were such attentive little girls, they might well have watched their heroine in 3D virtual reality. For the first time, four 360-degree video cameras were installed in the venue to provide “gavel-to-gavel” coverage from different vantage points. This new streaming technology enables viewers to feel like they are in the crowd chanting for the nominee, while watching on the web, mobile devices or a virtual reality headset. Viewers can select their own camera positions and angles, or a curated version of the live stream.

The technology was developed by Digital Domain, which is behind many Hollywood blockbusters, including Iron Man. The company’s next venture is to blend virtual reality with sports by streaming the Olympic Games in Brazil to a worldwide audience.

Few people are aware that Digital Domain, a US company chaired by Taiwanese businessman Peter Chou, the former chief executive of HTC, is in fact listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and can be regarded as a shining example of one of our own.

Innovation and technology have been promoted as a major policy area by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. In his latest policy address, he set aside HK$2 billion for an innovation and technology venture fund to encourage increased funding from private sources in technology start-ups through a matching process.

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A working committee is to be set up to oversee the launch of the scheme next year. Private venture capital funds will then be invited to bring “smart money” into Hong Kong to boost local start-ups. The government will partner with these private angels at a ratio of 1:2 to co-invest in projects they identify. They will hopefully also bring in expertise and business networks that will better Hong Kong’s start-up ecosystem.

There is nothing wrong for the government to invest a relatively small amount of taxpayers’ money in an attempt to help Hong Kong’s technology firms leap forward. Yet, the logic of a matching fund in collaboration with venture capitalists defies common sense. If there is a good investment window, there is no reason why private investors would want to leave one third of the stakes to others. Venture capitalists are by definition opportunistic. They have their own bottom lines to take care of and cannot be blamed for pursuing their own business interests.

Instead of fumbling around trying to pick winners, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung’s efforts might be better placed by assisting Hong Kong firms, like Digital Domain, that are already on the right track to climb to the next level.

Other governments, notably those of Singapore, Shenzhen and recently Canada, have been doing it in terms of tax rebates, land concessions, wage subsidies and liberal immigration policies. It will be late, but not too late, for the SAR to follow suit.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]