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How Hong Kong design incubator has helped start-ups turn ideas into viable businesses

Two-year incubation programme run by Hong Kong Design Centre has helped more than 200 start-ups in its 11 years, and this year added a fashion-focused incubator. We’re investing in the city’s future, its executive director says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 6:29pm

When Hong Kong couple Roy Lo and Coby Or got married several years ago, they created an augmented reality (AR) feature for their wedding invitations to better connect with their guests. Recipients could point their phone at the invitation cards and an augmented reality image would appear on the screen.

“Invitations went out, people loved it and wanted us to do it for them,” says Lo. “We wondered if it was a business opportunity.”

Both had full-time jobs at the time, but Or was convinced they were on to something. They founded Creote Studio and began marketing their AR services at wedding expos. Working with bridal shops and photographers, they also partnered with hotels to include AR invitations in wedding packages. “It was an encouraging start,” says Lo, “especially as a two-person team.”

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As the AR and virtual reality industry took off, a variety of projects rolled in but the fledgling company struggled to take flight. “We were still working at home and there were a lot of distractions,” recalls Lo.

Everything changed when they joined the non-profit Hong Kong Design Centre’s Design Incubation Programme (DIP). Lasting two years, it provides subsidised office space, financial help, business centre support, training, mentorship and networking opportunities.

“It created an area focused on the business. Having a proper office also gave clients confidence. DIP backing is like an endorsement we’re in a position to deliver the work,” Lo says.

They won an industry award in 2015 from Qualcomm and three more in 2016, including the HSBC Youth Business Award. Now about to graduate from the incubator, Lo says: “Creote is doing well. We’re doubling revenue each year. If we’re not yet taking off, we’re at least ready to catch a taxi to the airport.”

Innovation is also the goal of architects and builders XLMS, another beneficiary of the Hong Kong government-funded DIP, whose vision is “to be leaders in designing new environments for the new economy”.

Originally from Australia, XLMS founding director Ian Hau and partner Leslie Au Yeung chose Hong Kong for its proximity to Southeast Asia’s developing economies, and China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, Beijing’s global trade development strategy.

DIP backing is like an endorsement we’re in a position to deliver the work
Roy Lo, Creote Studio

“As factories move out of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these spaces require re-use in new areas,” Hau says. “With government policy pushing the region and young people to pursue new ventures, especially in the innovation and cultural industry, factories are moving out and Silicon Valley is moving in. We’re seeing a combination of culture, technology and entrepreneurship come together across the regions.”

As builders, they also make use of the Pearl River Delta’s vast manufacturing resources.

“There’s an efficiency to the design-and-build approach we offer,” says Hau. “We integrate consultancy and design and deliver construction while maintaining design integrity.”

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XLMS is reaping rewards from its involvement with the DIP, because despite being relative outsiders from Australia, it has now got government endorsement and exposure in Hong Kong.

“We benefit through relationships with various Hong Kong trade councils. And we’ve been across the border to Zhuhai’s Hengqin to see new regional development,” Hau says.

He adds: “There’s now a huge emphasis on innovation, and it’s going to require government agencies and NGOs to step up. The HKDC and DIP could be scaled up to meet this demand.”

That’s already happening. The DIP, launched in 2006 and managed by the Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC) since 2012, has grown by 50 per cent this year. In August it expanded with the launch of a Fashion Incubation Programme in Kowloon Bay, an industrial district in Hong Kong where the DIP also operates. (The DIP also works out of premises in Wong Chuk Hang, an industrial district in the south of Hong Kong Island that’s become a creative arts hub.)

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Fashion label Cynthia&Xiao, with bases in Hong Kong and Beijing, is among the fashion incubator’s first beneficiaries.

“Hong Kong is great for getting started, setting up a company and doing export,” says the fashion label’s Hong Kong designer Cynthia Mak. “Most of our retail is in China. Hong Kong has great support for emerging designers from groups like FIP but, as a market, China is more responsive.”

Mak adds: “There’s lots of Chinese designers right now, and lots of media and shops focusing on this. It’s the moment for Chinese design to shine.”

HKDC executive director Edmund Lee says: “We should do more to help Hong Kong designers work in markets across the border. The next step is to go deeper and start curating programmes together.”

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He sees supporting design as in investment in Hong Kong’s future.

“Design goes way beyond just aesthetics. It’s about how we solve problems and develop offerings for people. We promote design with a big ‘D’. This means creative leadership, design thinking, and how we actually use design to create value,” says Lee.

“The centre’s mission is to constantly remind our community what great, intelligent designs can achieve, and to lead the way for our next generation of designers, decision makers and entrepreneurs.”