HKUST 25th Anniversary

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Hong Kong ‘can copy Israel’s innovation and start-up model’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 11:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 10:40am

At a time when Hong Kong is being increasingly compared to Israel, with questions being asked as to whether Hong Kong can emulate the success of Israel’s technology innovation and start-up environment, the simple answer is yes, according to one of the world’s leading scientists. “Hong Kong people are well-educated, clever and resourceful. It is in your hands,” professor Dan  Shechtman, the 2011 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, told a capacity audience at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Under the theme of “Technological Entrepreneurship – A Key to World Peace and Prosperity”, Shechtman explained how fostering a strong start-up culture, science education and supportive policies can help developing countries to economic growth and prosperity. He highlighted several key factors every society needs to support and encourage entrepreneurship. These include a good basic education for all, comprehensive engineering and science education, support for entrepreneurship, a free market economy, government policy and – crucially – no corruption. “Corruption kills entrepreneurship,” says Shechtman, whose presentation is the latest in the series of UC RUSAL President’s Forum and HKUST Distinguished Speakers Series marking the university’s 25th anniversary.

The five-year joint project collaboration between UC RUSAL, a leading, global producer of aluminium, includes not only the President’s Forum series, but also an exchange, award and scholarship programme for university students in Hong Kong and Russia. The partnership is designed to strengthen scientific and educational ties between the two.

Shechtman believes that for start-ups to prosper, entrepreneurial spirit and knowledge must be embedded in the community and success acknowledged and celebrated. “As a technological university, HKUST is the ideal place to groom the next generation of entrepreneurs in Hong Kong,” he notes, adding that engineers and scientists make good candidates for entrepreneurship.

The professor is also a strong advocate of introducing children to the concepts of science and technology from an early age. “Children should start learning about the natural world as early as kindergarten,” says Shechtman, who became interested in science when shown a magnifying glass as a very young boy. “The key is to make it fun for them,’’ adds the Tel Aviv-born professor who in the 1980s discovered the quasi-periodic crystal, creating a revolution in the understanding of the structure of matter.

Making the comparison between Israel and Hong Kong in an interview with Education Post, Shechtman says their population is about the same size and both rely heavily on the ingenuity of people. Recently, Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung led a delegation to Israel to learn more about the country’s innovation and hi-tech environment.

“Thirty years ago there were only a handful of start-up companies in Israel, and only one venture capital investor, ‘’ says Shechtman, who explained that the change was brought about with the launch of a course titled “Technological Entrepreneurship”, structured to teach students the core principles of starting a company.  Set up by Shechtman in the mid-1980s, the programme now has more than 10,000 graduates, many of whom have become successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. The programme is based around speakers, ranging from well-known entrepreneurs who serve as role models, to recent entrants in the field who share current challenges and opportunities entrepreneurs face. Importantly, speakers talk about their failures and how they overcame various challenges.

“Israel’s technology base grew from virtually nothing to become known as the ‘start-up nation’,” says Shechtman. He adds that the key to success for every entrepreneur is not to be afraid of failure. “Entrepreneurs must learn that failure is okay. The important thing is, you gain experience from the failure, and start again fast,’’ advises the professor, who has first-hand experience of overcoming his own professional challenges.

For many years following his discovery of the quasi-periodic crystal some members of the scientific community treated the finding with scepticism. The chorus of cynicism was led by professor Linus Pauling, whom Shechtman has described on numerous occasions as arguably “the greatest chemist of the 20th century”’. Finally, however, Shechtman’s breakthrough finding was equivocally substantiated, and in 2011 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery. “Whatever we choose to do in life we should strive to become experts, but we should also remain humble. One person cannot know everything,” Shechtman told Education Post.