By Weihan Tang
On a rainy August afternoon, I sat down with AmCham’s Innovation & Technology committee to talk about start-ups, and how they stay sane during COVID-19. I had Jen Flowers (HSBC), Ming Lai Cheung (PMI), and Todd Bryan (Velotech Strategy) on the line over Zoom, with Gregory Franc De Ferriere (Logitech) unfortunately away on holiday. Our quartet of uniquely qualified committee leaders have been hard at work despite the pandemic, in organising a series of “Hong Kong Start-ups meet Multinationals” that kicked off earlier this year.
This series of events pits start-ups in a shark tank like pitch format. Each month has a unique theme ranging from healthcare to entertainment. Start-ups introduce their services/products, strategies, and objectives to a panel of judges that has seen the likes of Google, Visa, and Scholastic. The winner receives a complimentary membership with the Chamber.
|The previous winners of the “HK Start-ups Meet MNCs” events are:|
|Session 1: Reap|
|Session 2: Kno|
|Session 3: Remo|
|Session 4: Motif|
|Session 5: Belun|
But it’s not just about the bragging rights the winner can flaunt. Each start-up that is selected will receive exposure opportunities that are crucially sought after. “You’re never going to find an easier avenue to access the people in your vertical anywhere else in Hong Kong” says Todd. It is an initiative that seems to foster a great community of people, something sorely needed in times like these.
The financial support from the Hong Kong government for start-ups is in fact very solid. According to the Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung, US$12.8 billion has been injected into R&D in the I&T sector alone in the past 3 years. Hong Kong lies at a strategic geographical location that is very easily leveraged by entrepreneurs for resources and investment, and so building upon this culture of innovation was a no brainer for the committee.
But we are all aware of the impact the pandemic has had. Avoiding public transportation rush hours, tech issues when working from home, your favorite Margarita bar closing at 8pm instead of midnight.
Though it is also important to note that some start-up sectors such as e-commerce and digital entertainment have experienced positive returns, the trend when drawing upon experiences during the SARs pandemic is usually unfavorable.
From 2003-2005, according to CB Insights, funding was on average 28% lower for Asia based private companies as compared to 2002. Additionally, it is now tougher for some start-ups to make that in person connection which in some cases can be more important than securing hard cash.
You have got to think from the Chamber’s standpoint: what do our current members need right now.– Jen Flowers
That is where this committee and its events come in, and the origins of this series was much like that of a start-up.
“We (Greg and Todd) met at a bar,” says Todd, “got out some cocktail napkins and started drawing stuff on them and came up with a plan over some beers”. After, Jen added her idea for it to be a competition and within a few short weeks, they had a full roadmap for events. Jen also added, “you have got to think from the Chamber’s standpoint: what do our current members need right now.”
Many members of the Chamber have expressed interest in supporting Hong Kong as a center for innovation and growth despite a temporary drought in physical events. Major annual start-up focused events such as RISE had to be postponed, but it is these events where start-ups really thrive, being able to showcase their solutions, and to connect with peers, investors, and larger businesses. The light-hearted competition of this “Hong Kong Start-ups meet Multinationals” series has proven to be an amazing platform in lieu of these larger events, as well as an entertaining and educational watch for the audience streaming from the comfort of their homes.
It is a two-way interaction too, with established multi-national businesses also benefiting. “We are not trying to be Invest Hong Kong,” said Jen. “These events are small and targeted, and we are saying how can large corporations be inspired and disrupted by start-ups that they might not be able to navigate to.”
The guest judges come from senior executive positions, and so this is an invaluable experience for them to see innovation in the making, and business agility is very in demand. When asked what the most memorable or rewarding part of spearheading this initiative was, it was clear the consensus between the three of them was helping to facilitate connections between likeminded people.
It is super inspiring to hear from people pursuing what they believe in, who have that courage to go for it.– Ming Lai Cheung
Hong Kong as a diminutive city barely visible on some maps, impressively has 8 unicorns call it home thus far, which are privately owned start-ups that have reached the billion US dollar mark in value.
It is important for a ‘fail forward’ culture to develop.– Todd Bryan
Nevertheless, there have been a few aspects of the start-up ecosystem that have been identified by the Innovation & Tech committee as lacking.
“It is important for a ‘fail forward’ culture to develop,” says Todd, “as a significant percentage of entrepreneurs and students think parents would feel negatively about them starting their own business.” Mistakes serve as the cornerstones to success after all. Tech adoption in both the government and private sectors is relatively slow too and Jen mentions that she often only hears about grants and office space offers months after they have been accessible. These suggestions are all part of the annual policy submissions the Chamber makes to the Hong Kong Chief Executive based upon members’ needs and views.
I think it is easy to agree that championing Hong Kong’s very own front runners for innovation is crucial in finding the silver linings in this unprecedented period. This series of events that the I&T committee has put together puts the spotlight on Unicorns such as WeLab, Lalamove who were guest speakers, and really any start-up who makes a submission to present will also benefit from support and connections.
For Jen, Todd, and Ming Lai, how the pandemic has affected their daily lives has had silver linings too. Social distancing has made them appreciate outdoor spots such as the more secluded hiking routes, temples, and beaches that they would not have considered visiting under normal circumstances. Trying something new, whether it be a new trail, advanced enterprise solutions, or adopting new smart city tech will all have an impact in creating a Hong Kong that is looking to come out of any tough times stronger than when it started.