Chan Yik-hei. Picture: David Wong

Chan Yik-hei, Hong Kong inventor, on having a planet named after him, going to HKUST young, and robots

The 27-year-old entrepreneur had terrible scores at school because he preferred his own experiments, especially with robots; he laments Hong Kong failure to embrace new technology and obsession with exams at school

When I was very young – maybe about six years old – I liked to take all my electronic toys to pieces and reassemble them. I would take out the motors, batteries and circuits and play around with the configuration or combine the components from different toys. Once I combined the parts of an electronic car with the circuits from my parents’ TV remote control unit to create a remote-control vehicle. They weren’t that pleased but I liked to add extra functionality.

I grew up in Tuen Mun. At primary school my scores were terrible. I preferred my own experiments to class work. I used to do my own research and my teachers just didn’t get it. My secondary school (CCC Tam Lee Lai Fun Memorial Secondary School) was much less traditional and they encouraged me to enter the Hong Kong Youth Science and Technology Innovation Competition.

At that first com­petition, my target was not winning. I didn’t care very much about the result because I could just do what I really enjoyed doing and the school helped me to buy the components I needed and use their labs and workshops. I was only interest­ed in making my invention (the first generation of his robot) work. I was very surprised when I won that competition. I am not really that competitive but I am a perfectionist.

Chan Yik-hei, with the Hong Kong New Generation Cultural Association’s Dr Jimmy Wong, after receiving his Intel International Science and Engineering Fair award, in 2005, for his robot Total Equip. Picture: Intel ISEF
When I qualified for the Intel (Inter­national Science and Engineering Fair) in Los Angeles, in 2004, it was the first time I had been outside China and I was very excited. I was not particularly worried about competing against the world’s top young scientists; I was more concerned about whether my robot would get broken because the cabin crew would not let me bring it on board as hand baggage. I won second place but I had no idea they would name a star after me.

It was about two months later when my father received a letter from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, in the USA. It informed him they had decided to name a minor planet (Asteroid, 20780 Chanyikhei) after me. When my father showed me the letter, I just threw it to one side but I did show it to my teacher at school and he was really shocked. It was only when all the reporters and TV cameras appeared at the school and wanted to inter­view me that I realised what an honour it was.

The media called me “son of the star” and the name stuck. I was invited by a publisher to write my autobiography when I was only 16 years old. In July 2006, my book, Chan Yik Hei, the Young Man Who Grabbed the Star, was published. It was a bestseller at that year’s Hong Kong Book Fair. I was recognised in the street and people called out to me – it was like being a celebrity.

My first love is robots. I really loved them when I was young and developed my first one, which incor­porated a camera system, when I was about 13 years old. When I saw R2-D2 in Star Wars, that was it. I developed Total Equip to win the award at Intel in 2004; it was the fourth version of my robot technology. It has come full circle because one of our clients acquired the (intellectual property) rights for the R2-D2 robot from Disney and asked my company to develop a working robot that hobbyists can build themselves. You can use a mobile-phone app to control the robot and use the camera to see what the robot sees.

In my generation, the exam is every­thing. Nothing else matters. I don’t think that’s a good thing. In my own business, there is so much to learn that is not covered in any syllabus.
Chan Yik-hei

After the media attention, Professor Woo Kam-tim, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), asked me to participate in a robotics research project. I also went to the USA for three months and worked as an intern at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) on the Nasa Explorer robot project.

Because of the work I did at HKUST the professors endorsed me for enrolment as an undergraduate, regardless of my final school exam results. A lot of people were really unhappy about this and there were a lot of negative comments in online forums. People said I was lucky to skip two years of school study and still get accepted by a top university. Some of them seemed pretty angry about it.

In my generation, the exam is every­thing. Nothing else matters. I don’t think that’s a good thing. In my own business, there is so much to learn that is not covered in any syllabus. In life, we have to learn from coaches and mentors, from competitions, from the internet or just from trial and error and experience. You will find that most tech­nology companies like mine find it difficult to recruit good staff locally because they have learned only the theory and have no practical skills. And the theory is changing every day.

I started Bull.B Technology, with a fellow HKUST student, after uni­versity – about six years ago. We’ve delivered about 100 apps and internal systems. There are about 25 staff – mostly engineers, designers, coders. Our strength is new technology and innovation. Our clients include Sony, PCCW, the government and FWD (an insurance company) but we are also expanding into China, Indonesia and Cambodia. The most challenging aspect of this business is that technology is changing so fast and we need to keep learning to keep the business competitive.

Hong Kong is a tough place to be commer­cially successful in high technology and it’s tough to get any investment unless you are in the finance or real-estate sectors. People are reluctant to use local technology and the govern­ment does not encourage local innovation.

Look at Hong Kong airport; the air traffic control system still doesn’t work but no one would dream of approaching a Hong Kong organisation for a solution. High-technology solutions – car autopilots, Uber, even electric bikes – are banned or resisted. We need to wake up and support the new economy and encourage big enterprises to use locally sourced solutions.