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May 2020   |   Volume 21 No. 2

Making It Work

Exposure to a children’s cancer centre convinced Dr Yiwu He that researchers should make it a priority to get their findings out of the laboratory and into the world. He will be championing that process as HKU’s first Chief Innovation Officer.

Dr Yiwu He’s resume includes an impressive range of high-end academic, industry and philanthropic exposure: postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, 11 years with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) where he served as Global Head and Senior Director, nine years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where he was Deputy Director for global health discovery and translational science, and three years as Senior Vice-President and Global Head of R&D at BGI, one of the world’s largest genome sequencing companies. 

But he has another quality, not easily enumerated, that he can offer in his new position as HKU’s Chief Innovation Officer: passion. 

The spark came during his postdoc at Harvard, where he focussed on cancer drug development in a hospital specialising in paediatric cancer. 

“We saw these kids facing life and death at such a young age. That’s very hard and it changed me completely to feeling that unless a research result can be developed to benefit a patient, it won’t excite me. This experience has guided my whole career,” he said. 

Dr He joined GSK to focus on drug development, then went to the Gates Foundation for the opportunity to use technology to bring vaccines and treatments for common infectious diseases to less developed regions. 

“Working at the Gates Foundation was very inspiring, with very frequent interaction with Bill Gates, travelling to different parts of the world to see children and people who were suffering from infectious diseases, and knowing that what we bring to those countries could save their lives and make them better,” he said.

At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr He (right) worked with Bill Gates (left) and he found the experience very inspiring.

Branching out 

Rapid advances in technology, however, were appealing to the scientist in him, so in 2016 Dr He moved to BGI, which develops genomic technology for more precise treatments across a range of diseases. 

Last year he had a meeting with HKU’s President Professor Xiang Zhang and saw a different opportunity as HKU’s first Chief Innovation Officer – to branch out from medicine and bring his mission of translating research to all 10 HKU faculties. He was also intrigued by the high quality of research and the opportunities to develop that further – both Dr He and Professor Zhang have a deep appreciation of how American universities successfully commercialise their research.

“In the past, HKU hasn’t paid enough attention to commercialisation, which is bad and good. Bad that it hasn’t been done, but in a way good because there is a larger reservoir of technologies and findings that haven’t been explored extensively for commercialisation,” he said.

Dr He’s job is to dig out those opportunities and foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship on campus among both academics and students. “I want people to think not only in terms of pursuing a new idea or concept for discovery, but to understand that really good research that results in products impacts the world,” he said. 

To inculcate that thinking, he will first focus on systemic changes that will make it easier for innovations to be commercialised and widely shared.

Be with the best 

He envisions, on the one hand, a vertical ecosystem that provides practical assistance, such as a network of marketers, investors, intellectual property lawyers, and industrial experts who can be accessed easily for help in getting products and start-ups off the ground. On the other hand, he wants to set up a horizontal ecosystem that will be characterised by close contact with the technology transfer offices of the world’s top universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Imperial and Oxford. 

“How do we push ourselves to become better and eventually the best? One way is to be with the best. So we want to establish an alliance with universities that are doing very well in innovation,” he said. 

Dr He is also head of HKU’s Technology Transfer Office and Knowledge Exchange Office, which have been providing support to scholars for many years and will implement these wider visions. He also leads iDendron, which provides space, training and networking for students and others in the University community to develop start-ups and commercialise their ideas. The iDendron space currently lacks core equipment and wet labs to dream big and he hopes to change that, too, in collaboration with partners such as Hong Kong Science Park. 

“There is opportunity here because HKU has world-class researchers and our leadership wants to help them develop their innovations into products that will benefit society. Commercialisation will not only create a financial return that will provide more resources to do better research, it will also support the development of career opportunities for young people and new high-tech industries, which will increase the diversity of Hong Kong’s economy,” he said.

Dr He (second from right) meeting the iDendron team.

I want people to think not only in terms of pursuing a new idea or concept for discovery, but to understand that really good research that results in products impacts the world.