Q: Why is Hong Kong particularly suitable as a place to launch a business? A: The city helps innovators through its independent legal system, fast internet network and container ports As a child, entrepreneur Rex Sham Pui-sum was among the minority of his peers who ate dinner with family every night, but one topic of conversation never entered the mealtime chats. While academic results, future careers and the stock market were common talking points at the table, politics was not on the menu, recalls Sham, founder of Insight Robotics, a Hong Kong-based start-up that develops software for robots to monitor and detect wildfires. "When I was growing up, I was lucky that my parents were civil servants so they could come back home in time for dinner," says the 30-year-old tech founder. "Throughout the 15 years that we dined together, we never talked about politics." It has only been in the months since the start of last year's Occupy protests for greater democracy that political debate has been pushed onto the agenda at the city's dinner tables, Sham says. "After the Occupy Central movement we talked about [politics], it's really good that the whole society starts to know that politics is a part of our lives." He points to the lack of debate around political issues as a major factor in the generational divide between parents and their children that became evident during the civil disobedience movement. By not having a habit of sharing ideas freely, both sides had become entrenched in their views, he says. "I think that the conversation is getting better now. If we didn't have the Occupy Central event, I don't think parents and their sons and daughters would ever talk about politics." Sham views this as a positive outcome as it forces people to understand that while politics can seem remote, the reality is that it does affect everyone's daily lives. He sees Hong Kong's sky-high housing prices as the root of this communication problem as parents work long hours to meet mortgage or rental payments so they have little time to interact with their children and understand their needs. The Chinese University graduate says it was rare among his friends for parents to have the time to do something as simple as eat dinner with their children, let alone dedicate time to their children's mental well-being. "It makes the family be separated, divided, and the parents don't know what the young people are thinking about … because they never had a chance to talk about the problems and when they started to have the discussion it became a war," Sham says, referring to the polarisation of opinion during the Occupy campaign. One of the most recognised young innovators in Hong Kong these days, Sham led Insight Robotics to win Entrepreneur of the Year at the IBM SmartCamp Global Finals in Las Vegas in February. Established in 2009, the firm has expanded from producing robots and software for detecting fires in rural areas to software for drones to check for disease or insect infestations in plantations. The company employs more than 50 people in Hong Kong, mainland China and Malaysia. Its fire-detecting robots have been installed by 10 forestry and government agencies in five provinces and seven cities on the mainland. Sham cites soaring property prices as a direct factor driving young people to take part in radical pro-democracy protests, as students with little prospect of upward mobility stand up against a system they believe keeps home ownership out of their reach. Young people feel trapped after graduation by low wages, which have remained at around HK$15,000 a month for the past decade, he notes, while property prices have more than doubled in the same period. After paying for rent, food, transport, and other expenses, young Hongkongers have little left to save for the future, unlike their compatriots on the mainland where the cost of living is lower, Sham explains. He understands the frustrations of the young people who took part in last year's road blockades and recalls spending one evening listening to forums held at the Admiralty protest site. "I think that the younger generation is more pessimistic at this moment, especially when you see that in the Occupy Central event most of them are in their early 20s," Sham says. "They are so scared that when they come out of school what can they do? If the wages are still HK$8,000 then how can I survive here?" Fear and insecurity over the cost of living permeate many areas of life for young people, Sham says, adding that couples are putting off tying the knot as they are unable to afford a home of their own. "If you get married will you stay in the same tiny little apartment with your parents? How can you squeeze one more person into a 400 sq ft apartment?" Looking for solutions to move towards a better future, Sham feels young people are misguided in laying the issues of stagnant salaries and rising property prices at the door of politicians, as these problems have been driven by business. "Getting a better life can [be gained in] a lot of ways and trying at the political side is trying to go the difficult way. I don't say this is impossible, but you're trying the difficult way to find a better life," he cautions. He suggests that rather than relying on the government to take action to rebalance wealth, individuals should collaborate on ideas to create jobs and strengthen the local economy. Speaking from personal experience, he sees entrepreneurship as one way for Hong Kong's young people to set their own path in a city that is well positioned to support new businesses. "There is actually a way of starting your life by creating your own rules if you are willing to have a start-up and you can set your wages according to reasonable business criteria," he explains. The city's strong points, such as its independent legal system, fast internet network and container ports, make Hong Kong an ideal place to start a business, Sham says, but they have largely been ignored over the past 20 years. Instead of playing with the stock market, he hopes Hong Kong's investors can help create new local industries by investing in students with good ideas through crowd funding platforms or more traditional methods. However, young people who opt to start their own business may face resistance from their parents who see jobs with multinationals as a badge of honour, Sham admits. A study released last month by the Chinese University Centre for Entrepreneurship and Google found 43 per cent of budding entrepreneurs considered social and cultural norms when deciding to launch a start-up. A lack of investment was also cited by the report as a factor holding back Hong Kong's start-ups. Like many traditional Hong Kong parents, Sham's mother and father placed an emphasis on a secure career and encouraged him to follow them into the civil service. He resisted the pressure and stuck to his plans to start his own business against mounting debts from his first two failed ventures. "At first they said 'You go find a good job, go be a civil servant.' Especially when I had a HK$200,000 debt, my mum was very concerned. She wanted to tie me up at home and find me a job," he remembers. Sham hopes the growth of Insight Robotics and similar tech companies led by other young Hong Kong entrepreneurs can serve as an example and inspiration for young people who feel disenfranchised and disillusioned. "I want to show everyone in Hong Kong starting a tech company in Hong Kong can succeed. If we can be the first one that can break through those barriers then I think there will be a lot of young people following, I think that will be the biggest change in Hong Kong." Success story behind fire-detecting robots Rex Sham Pui-sum set himself a failure budget of HK$300,000 of debt. If he owed more, he would give up plans to become an entrepreneur and get a stable job. Sham reasoned he could repay this sum within three years with a salary at a multinational company and that failure was not something to be scared of. He fell HK$200,000 into debt when his second start-up failed. "You should always know failure is 99 per cent; it's only one per cent that can succeed," he says. "[But] you can try again. It extends beyond business. Even if you're chasing a girl, failure is common." He studied computer science at Chinese University, which he sees as a hotbed for aspiring entrepreneurs. Sham founded his third company, Insight Robotics, in 2009 alongside Kevin Chan Kar-ho. It creates robots which can detect forest fires within a 5km radius. Software developed by the firm analyses the information gathered by cameras inside the robots to pinpoint fires before they spread, and alert firefighters. "When fire starts it is a fire incident, but if you let it grow it becomes a disaster," he says. The robots went on sale in late 2013, with 70 robots sold to 10 mainland cities in the first year. Sham estimates the market for forest fire detection in China alone is worth 50 billion yuan (HK$63 billion) over the next 10 years. Insight Robotics is now working with the data it has collected to minimise false alarms, while maintaining the cameras' sensitivity. Sham is passionate about the environmental benefits of the fire detection system the company has developed as forest fires contribute 20 to 30 per cent of global carbon emissions each year. Insect and disease-detecting drones for plantations are the company's latest venture, which Sham says will reduce the need to create new farmland from forests.