The Next Big Thing

The woman behind Hong Kong's big push to drive technological innovation

Fanny Law wants a cultural shift in the city to get young people to consider science as a career instead of the traditional emphasis on banking and finance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 7:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 11:21am

Hong Kong’s investors and young people need to be more open to opportunities in science to help boost the sector in the city, according to the chairperson of Hong Kong Science and Technology Park (HKSTP).

Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, who chairs the statutory body charged with supporting innovation in Hong Kong, said there must be a cultural shift in the city to promote investment in technology start-ups.

“In Hong Kong, we do have issues of culture, because traditionally our investors, businesses, have thrived very well on financial services and also property,” Law said, “They bring in huge profits and even more quickly, so the incentive to invest in science and technology is probably not there.”

Another hurdle is that although children in Hong Kong perform well in science and maths against their international peers, parents still favour careers in investment banking over a research lab, according to Law.

“We have to work in parallel, we cannot just try to talk parents into allowing their children to go into science without at the same time letting them see very clearly what the career path is,” Law said of the government’s responsibility to guide the growth of a vibrant science industry in the city.

Law speaks from experience on the dearth of science-related careers in Hong Kong as there were few opportunities when she graduated with a science degree.

A former Hong Kong government administrative officer across multiple policy areas, Law served as director of Leung Chun-ying’s election campaign to become chief executive of Hong Kong and worked as head of the chief executive’s office. She is a member of the Executive Council and a Hong Kong deputy to China’s parliament, the National People's Congress.

Established in May 2001, HKSTP was designed to promote science and technology innovation in Hong Kong to boost economic growth.

It is home to international companies including Philips, and is the base for a start-up incubation programme targeting firms producing technology designed for an ageing population or innovations to promote a smart city.

One of its recent successes has been a company called Vitargent, whose technology uses fish embryos to test for toxic substances in everything from cosmetics to milk. Vitargent recently landed an investment from California-based venture capital firm WI Harper Group.

The HKSTP had faced criticism in its early years that it was a white elephant, and Law noted that the park had not fulfilled its potential.

She said the government has a role to play to ensure a coherent and sustained support for science and technology from all levels, as was recommended by Tien Chang-Lin, a former University of California Berkeley chancellor who proposed the establishment of the park in 1999.

But to date, this factor and a second element Tien identified, the support from across the community, industry and academia, have not been fully achieved.

“I think these are the two key factors that were missing over the past 14 years, hence we did not achieve as much impact as we would have liked to see,” said Law, who took up the chairperson role in July.

Law said university research departments can promote innovation in Hong Kong by shifting the reward focus from the number of papers published to transforming research work into businesses.

“We just need enthusiastic scientists or science students who are ready to take the research product of their professors and keep working on them,” Law said.

Teams from HKSTP are working with universities to discover projects that could work as start-ups and have so far found four potential companies to work with, Law added.

Law believes a fear of failure associated with start-ups will lessen as the public sees the success of home-grown science and technology companies.

“It’s not as if we are starting from scratch, all we need to do is connect the dots, the stars are already there twinkling and twinkling, but in order to be more visible we need a milky way,” Law said.