How big business helps foster Hong Kong's start-up culture

They might seem unlikely bedfellows, but start-ups are finding it productive to join forces with corporates

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 4:49pm

It is everything a budding entrepreneur could wish for: prime office space, senior executives as mentors and access to potential clients and investors.

A growing number of Hong Kong blue-chip companies are offering all that, for free, in packages called accelerators - short-term, intensive programmes that help start-ups improve their business models and introduce them to professional investors.

Since the whole point of start-ups is to disrupt traditional business models, for big businesses to give them a leg-up is akin to Goliath helping David with target practice: it does not seem to be in their best interest.

Yet, multinationals outside Hong Kong, from Nike to Royal Dutch Shell, have been running accelerators or in-house incubators for years. Only now are the local Goliaths beginning to buy into the idea that supporting start-ups is good business, however unlikely it sounds.

DBS, Southeast Asia's biggest bank, has recently launched an accelerator focusing on financial technology products. It supplies a 5,000 sq ft co-working space in Wan Chai and has assigned its own staff as mentors to 10 participants. Companies such as Tofupay (a service that aims to make online transactions cheaper and easier for merchants in the region) and SuperFluid (a Kenyan start-up offering a financial management app and analytics platform that helps businesses mine consumer data) are among those that have been selected from more than 140 applicants in more than 30 countries.

It is a way to get the AIA name out there, tell people we are not a stodgy insurance company
Sim Preston, AIA

Through the programme, the Singapore bank hopes to find new ideas on how technology can improve financial services and how to become more creative and quicker on its feet. It owns no stake in the companies and has no exclusive right to use their products.

Still, David Lynch, the bank's head of technology and operations for Hong Kong and the mainland, says it's either this or DBS will become irrelevant and replaceable.

Barriers to entry have become lower, he says, as we see internet companies such as Alibaba and Tencent breaking into the mainland's fiercely regulated banking market.

"This new wave of competition is coming from nimble, innovative, cloud- and mobile-first start-ups as well as the large technology players largely unencumbered by policy and regulation. We can passively observe and risk seeing large parts of our business lost to these new entrants. We have chosen instead to actively participate in the creation of a new financial technology ecosystem that will ultimately help us to deliver better service to our customers," he says.

A growing body of research reminds corporate behemoths that they should watch out for those little upstarts, including the oft-cited findings by Richard Foster at the Yale School of Management that, on average, 75 per cent of S&P 500 companies will be replaced by new companies by 2027.

Another company that wants to learn from start-ups is AIA, the Hong Kong-based life insurer. Sim Preston, chief operations officer, says running an accelerator for start-ups that make hi-tech health products is part of efforts to transform the company's image after it split from AIG in 2009.

"It is a way to get the AIA name out there, tell people we are not a stodgy insurance company," he says.

It also hopes to encourage its 21,000 employees across Asia to become more creative and to be willing to take more risks when suggesting new ideas. Like DBS, AIA has no claim on the companies that have taken part in its accelerator since March 2015.

The benefits may seem nebulous but Preston says there can be tangible paybacks.

One graduate of AIA's first accelerator programme is Simple Wearables, a Hong Kong-based health tech company co-founded by Angelo Umali and Edwin Li. The pair have created prototypes for a discreet, brooch-like alert device that can detect when wearers, mainly the elderly, have taken a fall, and notify family members or emergency contacts.

Preston says such a device can help people live healthier lives and AIA will have first-mover advantage in offering those products to its policyholders. "By using these products, we will end up paying out for fewer claims and can charge lower premiums. In the long run, that's better for our bottom line," he says.

All start-ups have a chicken-and-egg situation of finding their first customers. If you have no customers, nobody is willing to sign you up. Having a multinational vouch for you gives you credibility.
Angelo Umali, Simple Wearables

AIA has yet to place an order with Simple Wearables, but Umali says getting the stamp of approval from a large company is the most valuable thing he's got out of the programme.

"All start-ups have a chicken-and-egg situation of finding their first customers. If you have no customers, nobody is willing to sign you up. Having a multinational vouch for you gives you credibility," says Umali, who studied electrical engineering at UCLA and Stanford. He is busy preparing Simple Wearables' first shipment to a large private hospital in the Philippines.

AIA is inviting applicants for its second, 12-week accelerator, which begins on November 16.

Both the DBS and AIA accelerators are co-organised with Nest, a local venture capital firm that is aggressively expanding a "Powered by Nest" accelerator franchise - one sponsored and supported by KPMG, InvestHK, Amazon and Microsoft.

Nest, co-founded by Simon Squibb, does not disclose the size of its portfolio but it is an investor and an incubator in dozens of start-ups around the world (it acquired a stake in Simple Wearables before the AIA accelerator kicked off).

Its latest venture is a new accelerator for smart city solutions with Infiniti, the Nissan-owned luxury carmaker that moved its global headquarters to Hong Kong in 2012. Dane Fisher, managing director for Asia and Oceania at Infiniti, says its accelerator is aimed at driving change among the staff and integrating new ideas into its existing business. "It's not return on investment that we are after, just inspiration," he says.

Successful applicants will get to use an open-plan office for free above Infiniti's showroom in Hopewell Centre in Wan Chai.

Together with Swire Properties' Blueprint, a co-working space and accelerator programme based in Taikoo Place, these private sector initiatives are complementing efforts by public bodies to make Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world to rent office space, a more viable launch pad for new businesses.

Michelle Buultjens, head of brand strategy and communications at Blueprint, says that space happens to be Swire Properties' biggest asset.

It has turned two floors of Cornwall House into a factory for technology start-ups. The first floor is a subsidised co-working space that charges just HK$1,000 to HK$2,000 per person per month in rent. Any technology start-up can apply to become a tenant. The second floor is for its accelerator. Launched in January, it is now inviting applicants for the third intake of its six-month programme. Ten successful start-ups will get to use the office for free and receive advice and other support from different arms of the Swire empire.

Blueprint was given a two-year budget of HK$20 million and may be extended beyond February 2017, when Cornwall House is slated for redevelopment.

Swire Properties, while stressing the need to learn from the start-ups and to be able to make use of new technology ahead of its rivals, is also doing this to make Taikoo Place more diversified and attractive to traditional tenants.

There was no start-up scene in the area before Blueprint came along, says Buultjens, and some of Swire's tenants are very keen to work with fast-growing technology companies. Among them is Bird & Bird, a global technology-focused law firm based in Taikoo Place that is now offering free advice to the accelerator participants.

One beneficiary is Richard Hanson, 31, co-founder of Hiring Screen. The Hong Kong company, which has developed software to screen job applicants, has found - as Simple Wearables did with AIA - that the Swire brand is very helpful to a start-up. "The Swire endorsement really impresses potential investors and customers," he says.

Hiring Screen aims to raise US$800,000 for a 20 per cent stake by early September and eight investors have already signed up.

But not everyone is convinced that these "no strings attached" accelerators are good for the backers and the start-ups.

Sceptics include Frederick "Fritz" Demopoulos, founder of Queen's Road Capital, which has invested in Chinese start-ups for more than a decade. He says the top incubators or accelerators in the world help start-ups gain traction because they have invested in them and want to make money.

"One of the benefits of an accelerator is that it puts pressure on the entrepreneur. But if the backer owns no equity stake, then how much pressure can you apply?"

Similarly, when the big company has nothing to lose, it will be difficult to convince staff members - often not used to looking beyond the immediate objectives of their own departments - to truly get involved in the projects, he says.

He also doesn't see an urgent need for more accelerators, when young companies are still enjoying unprecedented access to capital after rounds of quantitative easing.

"Everyone's a venture capitalist these days. Everyone is looking for something to invest in," Demopoulos says.

Today, a company with a great product will be snapped up by investors or clients, whether they are in an accelerator or not.

"There are probably more accelerators than grade-A entrepreneurs at the moment," he says.