Klook. WeLab. Airwallex. SenseTime. Lalamove. GogoVan. Animoca Brands. These are some of Hong Kong’s home-grown unicorns – companies that reach a valuation of US$1 billion without being listed on the stock market. For 10 years, tech entrepreneur Karena Belin has been nurturing tech start-ups and scale-ups through WHub, a start-up platform and ecosystem accelerator, and AngelHub, Hong Kong’s first and still only licensed equity tech investment platform.
“We put makers and doers in the center and help connect them with all the resources they need to grow and thrive,” she says. “In 2013, we said, there’s actually no reason why Hong Kong, with all the ingredients it has, not to rank in the top tier of tech innovation ecosystems globally, same as we do in financial services.” So, after a 14-year career with The Procter & Gamble Company (PG), Belin took a sabbatical and together with software engineer and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) alumnus Karen Contet began building an ecosystem to put Hong Kong on the map as a tech and more specifically fintech center.
Their latest achievement was being the appointed event organizer of the eighth edition of Hong Kong FinTech Week, “FinTech Redefined.”, from October 30 to November 5, with over 30,000 participants from more than 110 economies. Co-organized by the FSTB (Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau), InvestHK, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) and the Insurance Authority (IA), the honorable Chief Executive of Hong Kong S.A.R. John Lee Ka-chiu and the Financial Secretary Paul Chan both welcomed participants. Regulators made a range of announcements from cross-boundary transactions through the use of e-CNY, enhanced efficiencies and lower cost for retail investors through the Integrated Fund Platform (IFP) to looking into the tokenization of real world assets and the completion of phase 1 of HKMA’s e-HKD pilot program.
Here, Belin shares with AmCham e-Magazine her thoughts on the future of Web 3 and the importance of Fintech Week in shaping Hong Kong’s emerging tech start-up ecosystem.
“You could think about Hong Kong as actually one of the places where you can still live the American dream.”
A conversation with Karena Belin
The future of Web3
We say the first iteration of the Internet, Web 1.0, was about “reading”. People were able to go online and read information. The second iteration, coined Web 2.0, was about “reading” and “writing”. Internet users could start contributing, obviously amplified by smart phones and social media. The third iteration, what we call Web3, is blockchain-based, and not only allows users to “read” and “write”, but now even to “own” your content and data. (For specialists, Web 3.0 has a different connotation, the concept of a linked or semantic web).
Web3 is enabled through blockchain technology. The key evolution here is that blockchain technology makes it possible to mimic property rights that we know from the physical world also online. To give you an example: Take this cup. This is my cup. I own it. Nothing special, there might be 20,000 of them. Now imagine I get this cup signed by Taylor Swift. Its value will increase tremendously, and it is now unique as it holds Taylor’s signature. It became non-fungible and as I own it, I can start capturing its value: I can sell it, I can start renting it to a museum, and so on.
This is a real game changer. Before on the internet, data was easily copied. For the first time, we have the opportunity to create unique digital assets, so called NFTs – non-fungible tokens – that carry a unique digital identity and that can be traded between owners on the blockchain. These NFTs contain extremely trustworthy documentation of their history and origin, as blockchain technologies allow the origin of all items to be traceable. NFTs are a sub-sector of Web3 that is key to this next generation of the internet. It allows all users of the internet to change from “being the product” to “becoming the owner.”
Let’s have a closer look.
Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) founder Bill Gates welcomed the advent of Web 2.0, as it was about making the Internet accessible to everyone. Everybody could “write” and “contribute”. He coined the phrase, content is king.[i] Everyone could have their own internet presence and start monetizing their own website. But after the proliferation of content, those who had the possibility to steer and control access to it had all the power. In 2013 Jonathan Perelman re-phrased it this way: “Content is King, but distribution is the Queen and she wears the f*** pants”. So, the likes of Google, the Facebooks, the Amazons, took over all monetization power. The users themselves, who spent their time, creativity and execution capabilities on the internet, were sold back their own content. You may have heard: “If the product is for free – you are the product”. Now in Web3, you are able to capture and own all your contributions and decide if and how you want to monetize them.
Blockchain allows information that should not be free, not to be free. NFTs turn your content into a digital asset that you as the creator own. With an embedded smart contract that allows you as the original creator to set a tax on all the future trades done on this NFT – which will be paid back to your creator’s wallet. Smart contracts are digital agreements that are automatically executed when certain conditions are met. They are sometimes compared to vending machines in that one inserts a coin and a product comes out, thus the vending machine contains an implicit contract to exchange one item (one coin) for another (one Snickers Bar). This, for example, allows artists, creators, and rights holders to continue to benefit from the long-term appreciation of their artwork or creation.
So going from reading, and reading-writing, to now owning, creates a more equal, or equalized Internet. It brings the foundation of our modern economies and democracies onto the internet; there’s a direct linkage between financial wealth and the enforcement of law and property rights for individuals. So it’s really about, in the broader sense, economic development.
When we talk about blockchain, we also very quickly talk about crypto currencies or crypto, in short, digital money stored on the blockchain, most prominently Bitcoin and Eth, running on the Ethereum blockchain. Again, think about the possibility to have non-fungible dollar notes and coins in the digital world. This again makes it possible to mimic what we know from our traditional financial models (also called TradFi) in the digital world.
But in addition to allowing traditional banks or platforms to deal with digital money, blockchain makes it possible to go one more step further: To capitalize on the power of a fully decentralised system to create a financial system without intermediaries, so-called DeFi. Some say this is the end of centralized institutions, while others, like Nemil Damal, product manager at Coinbase, say that DeFi will do to banks what the internet did to newspapers.
DeFi is broadly distinguished from traditional finance or TradFi in key aspects: the lack of intermediary involvement; greater accessibility; its non-custodial nature; and open and transparent systems.
Just because an entity deals with crypto currencies, does not make it a part of DeFi. Most cryptocurrency exchanges, like Binance, Coinbase, Kraken and previously FTX were centralized institutions otherwise known as CeFi. Within these exchanges, tokens were moved around between clients on a centralized blockchain, depending on their on-exchange activity.
In contrast to DeFi, CeFi clients do not actually have possession of the tokens they have on an exchange. These are held in large, centralized wallets held by the exchange. It’s similar to a bank. Hence, the financial industry asks for the same regulations and customer protection as in the non-crypto world for all such centralized platforms and institutions. In contrast, there is a debate in the DeFi world, that there is no need for such central power, since it is a self-regulated community.
We are truly passionate about advancing our tech and innovation ecosystem. When we became the appointed event organizer of Hong Kong FinTech Week, we took over this industry-wide event clearly with a vision on showcasing the Tech in FinTech. With this, the objective was to take use cases, how these technologies are applied in different industries, such as gaming, entertainment, art, to highlight the power of each of the respective technologies: Blockchain, AI and other New Frontier technologies. And with this, we wanted to inspire the finance industry at large. That’s why we were very proud of the theme “FinTech Redefined.”. We want people to see how technology is redefining and will continue to redefine financial services.
Hong Kong FinTech Week has always been an industry shaping event. Co-organized by the FSTB and our local regulators, it is an opportunity to make important announcements and to discuss the areas of future interventions. For example, last year in 2022, the HKMA and SFC declared their intentions on driving regulatory clarity in the area of virtual asset activities, tokenization and digital currency. And in the past 12 months, we have seen virtual asset trading platforms being regulated, green bonds tokenized and the first phase of the HKMA’s e-HKD pilot program.
And this is happening when other geographies, such as Singapore, regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) turning more restrictive. This puts Hong Kong really on the map.
I think one of the biggest opportunities for Hong Kong is helping to change people’s perceptions about Hong Kong’s potential as a thriving tech and innovation hub. It’s still very small, but I think that’s where driving visibility is important. Over the past 10 years, we have given birth to between 15 to 20 unicorns (privately held companies valued over US$1 billion). SenseTime Group Inc. (0020.HK) developed, at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), became one of the leading AI companies globally. Web3 and gaming unicorn Animoca Brands is one of the top five Web3 players globally.
These are companies that are shaping their industries on the global level. Even the founder of Shenzhen-based drone maker DJI, Frank Wong developed his flight motor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) before he set up his company in Shenzhen. We are only 7 million people, and if you take the ratio of unicorns per capita we’re probably one of the highest-ranking globally. As we know, it’s a hub, with all the business connections and the money and rule of law and great infrastructure.
On the talent side, yes, I would love to see even more tech talent coming to Hong Kong, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re really passionate about organizing conferences because they give us the opportunity to bring much more visibility to the opportunities that we have here, and to attract more tech companies but also more talent. The more successful tech companies you have, the more talent will come, and the more successful the companies will become.
Jokingly, I very often say Hong Kong is not perfect. If it was, it would not be such a well-kept secret. Jokes aside, you can see how quickly and big and successfully you can scale companies here. That’s the reason why people come and are doing it. You could think about it as actually one of the places where you can still live the American dream. That’s how Hong Kong was made, right? It was really through entrepreneurship.
Read more in AngelHub’s white papers, here: https://angelhub.io/whitepapers/
Karena Belin is the co-founder and CEO of WHub (whub.io), Hong Kong’s largest start-up platform, and co-founder and COO/CFO/RO of AngelHub (angelhub.io), Hong Kong’s first and only investment platform licensed by the SFC for professional investors and growth tech companies scaling up in Asia. She has been deeply immersed in Hong Kong’s start-up scene since 2013, after taking a sabbatical from Procter & Gamble, where she worked in Frankfurt, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong for 14 years. She has a double diploma from the University of Manheim and an MBA from the ESSEC Business School in Paris. She is a member of the Board of the German Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong, founding board member of Web3 Harbour, Member of the Startup Committee of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) of the HKSAR, Ambassador of the StartupAsiaBerlin initiative from the German Senate in Berlin, member of the Organising Committee of the Hong Kong Innopreneur Awards of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries (FHKI), member of the Advisory Committee of Hong Kong Baptist University, member of the Board of Managers of Hong Kong International School and member of the HKTDC Belt and Road & Greater Bay Area Committee.
[i] “Content is King” Essay by Bill Gates 1996,” https://medium.com/@HeathEvans/content-is-king-essay-by-bill-gates-1996-df74552f80d9