November 2023 | Volume 25 No. 1
HKU’s New TEChno Honcho
How do you help ambitions become a reality? That’s the task for Mr Paul Wang Peng, head of the Techno- Entrepreneurship Core (TEC), which was conceived in late 2022 and officially launched in June.
Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area are being positioned to become a world-leading hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship. University professors, students and alumni will be a major source of that activity. However, many lack the entrepreneurial skills and support to make that happen.
Enter Mr Wang, who has done everything from founding a start-up to working with established businesses and, for the past decade, training and supporting young entrepreneurs. Now, he is focussed on building up capacity at HKU for transferring discoveries and innovations to the market.
“There are great foundations here, but they have been scattered around the forest,” he said. “Our focus at TEC is to coordinate and be a bridge that connects people and helps them build synergies.”
Mr Wang and his team are both digging those foundations deeper and building them up higher by making entrepreneurialism a more prominent facet of HKU culture and life.
Through the TEC, they are centralising current initiatives and establishing a one-stop portal to access training, mentors, networks, incubation support, feedback, and guidance on funding possibilities.
In most cases, teams are looking to establish their own start-ups rather than license discoveries to existing companies, which tends to be less impactful. This is not without challenges and Mr Wang said they aim to help HKU researchers and entrepreneurs navigate the hurdles.
Connecting and incubating
“There are two very challenging bottlenecks: one is that researchers usually lack market insights when they make their discoveries. They do interesting work, make a natural discovery, then think maybe it could be of commercial value. They don’t know if the market wants it or needs it, so many lab techs never make it to the market, or are not protected properly.
“Second, when they try to do a start-up, they do not have the right team that understands the commercialisation process and is prepared for the upcoming rough ride.”
TEC therefore is beefing up its support in these areas. A ‘start-up connector’ has been launched that unites existing programmes, such as those offered through the Centre of Development and Resources for Students, MBA and alumni offices, and student networks, to help researchers and aspiring entrepreneurs find a match. This is in addition to internship and entrepreneurial training programmes aimed at students.
HKU also has a co-incubation programme with Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, DeepTech 100, that provides up to HK$1.4 million to support promising start-ups. There is also entrepreneurship training, including one-on-one mentoring and a structured programme to take participants out of their comfort zones, uncover blind spots in their ideas, and build a sustainable business model.
To send a strong message of support for innovation, the policy on profit sharing between the University and inventors has been revised to increase the inventor’s share to 80 per cent from 33.3 per cent. A more start-up-friendly licensing practice has also been adopted.
The TEC co-organised the Techno-Entrepreneurship Camp in August 2023 for HKU members interested in research commercialisation.
The potential is there
Funding is of course another critical factor. HKU launched the Entrepreneurship Engine Fund in June 2023 with a target funding pool of HK$400 million. It aims to provide ‘patient capital’ for early-stage ventures that have promise but are still not ready to seek private investment, and to boost growth-stage HKU research-based start-ups along with partner venture funds.
HKU’s networks are also being strengthened by reaching out to alumni start-ups. For instance, the nationwide InnoValley start-up competition launched in April 2023 is a magnet for HKU-affiliated innovators and inventions from across the country and has received more than 200 applications from six cities leading up to a grand finale in December.
“We have good start-ups, but a lot are flying under the radar. We’re trying to bring them back,” Mr Wang said.
Mr Wang is a big believer in the potential that already exists within the University. He points to successes such as Archireef from the Coral Biogeochemistry Lab in the School of Biological Sciences, which attracted investment from a venture capital fund backed by Abu Dhabi’s government, and Clearbot, founded in 2019 by international students at HKU which won the JUMPSTARTER 2022 Global Pitch Competition. Both have been reported on in Forbes magazine.
“HKU has some of the top researchers and students in the world. They have genuine faith in science and the passion to make great impact. We need to give them the right tools and environments to make these things happen,” he said. “We want to get the whole university excited about this and unleash the potential that is already here.”
HKU has some of the top researchers and students in the world. They have genuine faith in science and the passion to make great impact. We need to give them the right tools and environments to make these things happen.
MR PAUL WANG PENG