Fan­ning the of in­no­va­tion

The dif­fif­fi­cul­ties of startup com­pa­nies in Hong Kong are well-knownn but many are eas­ing their plight by seek­ing strong ties across the bound­ary with the Chi­nese main­land. Wang Yuke re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - HONG KONG - Contact the writer at jenny@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

To­wards the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, one of the first big chal­lenges con­fronting Rex Sham was how to start a for­est fire with­out get­ting ar­rested. Sham wanted a ca­reer in the au­to­matic risk de­tec­tion man­age­ment mar­ket — a rel­a­tively young and sparsely-doc­u­mented in­dus­try in 2009. The only thing he could find on the sub­ject on­line were study re­ports by the World Bank, NASA and jour­nals pub­lished by Stanford Univer­sity.

Sham and his part­ner fol­lowed what has be­come con­ven­tional wis­dom among Hong Kong en­trepreneurs and es­tab­lished strong links with the Chi­nese main­land. The duo spent two years hand­pick­ing ex­perts from the main­land to help the com­pany de­velop and ex­pand.

Still, be­ing able to find par­tic­i­pants will­ing to be ex­per­i­mented on wasn’t easy. Build­ing a fire de­tec­tion sys­tem of­fer­ing prac­ti­cal value meant the ap­pa­ra­tus had to be field tested in a real-life sce­nario. And then Guang­dong Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion stepped up, show­ing an in­ter­est in col­lab­o­rat­ing. A swathe of about 250 acres of forested land was ear­marked for a field test.

The whole­hearted sup­port pro­vided by the main­land au­thor­i­ties was piv­otal in launch­ing In­sight Ro­bot­ics — a forestry­fo­cused risk man­age­ment com­pany — says Sham, now the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s CEO.

Sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship

Such col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween Hong Kong and main­land China have, time and again, brought to­gether tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tutes who have used their re­spec­tive strengths, play­ing com­ple­men­tary roles in the tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment field.

Hong Kong en­joys a free flow of in­for­ma­tion in a multi-lin­gual set­ting and close contact with the West. Lo­cal de­vel­op­ers are read­ily able to keep up to date on new de­vel­op­ments, and come up with new ideas that ap­peal to the global mar­ket, said Frank Tong Fuk-kay, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Hong Kong Ap­plied Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Re­search In­sti­tute (ASTRI).

At the in­ter­me­di­ate and fi­nal stages of de­vel­op­ment, the main­land can fur­nish a large pool of en­gi­neer­ing tal­ent, trained at top main­land uni­ver­si­ties, who can bring the in­no­va­tions to mar­ket.

That’s just the be­gin­ning, as far as Tong is con­cerned. To his knowl­edge, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has played a key role in pro­vid­ing sup­port for in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing re­search grants and tech­ni­cal sup­port. That way, de­vel­op­ers can give full expansion to their imag­i­na­tions and they don’t have to shell out the en­tire cost from their pock­ets.

That’s the foun­da­tion of the cur­rent con­ven­tional wis­dom. In­sight Ro­bot­ics was the first com­pany to use a com­bi­na­tion of ther­mal imag­ing tech­nol­ogy and advanced im­age anal­y­sis sys­tem to en­sure early and ac­cu­rate wild­fire de­tec­tion in low vis­i­bil­ity ar­eas.

An­a­lysts cap­tured and recorded data, phase by phase from the point of ig­ni­tion. They ob­served how the fire de­vel­oped and spread to the thresh­old of be­com­ing a rag­ing in­ferno. Pro­gram­mers ap­plied math­e­mat­i­cal mod­el­ing to the real-time data, on the heat gen­er­a­tion, the color of the flames, size of the fire, and the con­tent of emis­sions. From this in­for­ma­tion the en­gi­neer­ing team was able to es­tab­lish an al­go­rithm so that the sys­tem could dis­tin­guish real fires from false pos­i­tives cre­ated by pass­ing cars and air­plane.

Each wild­fire de­tec­tion unit main­tains a con­stant 360 de­gree scan. Each unit is equipped with advanced ther­mal imag­ing sen­sors ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing wildfi within min­utes, record­ing changes in tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity and dis­tri­bu­tion of air­borne gases. Ther­mal imag­ing cam­eras de­tect in­frared emis­sions which are used to cal­cu­late the ac­tual tem­per­a­ture of the fire. The higher the in­frared emis­sion, the hotter the fire. The wire­less sen­sor alert a cen­tral com­mand, a robotic ve­hi­cle estab­lishes the pre­cise location of the blaze and fire­fight­ers are dis­patched.

Start­ing a fire

All this would en­tail im­mense chal­lenges for a fledg­ling com­pany. The forestry de­part­ment how­ever, helped ar­range an­other on-site trial of the sys­tem, shortly af­ter the re­searchers un­veiled their pro­to­type. The sec­ond trial was run along­side a planned fire drill in Zengcheng, or­ches­trated by the Guang­dong fire de­part­ment, to test fire­fight­ing tech­niques in­volv­ing air­craft and ground-based crews.

More than 600 fire­fight­ers from a dozen cities across the prov­ince were de­ployed to fight the fire, ap­ply­ing stan­dard prac­tices of the cities where each team worked. “That’s valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence for us. We gained a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of fire­fight­ers’ rou­tines and var­ied stan­dards in terms of for­est fire man­age­ment. It helped us with pro­to­type ad­vance­ment since we would take those fac­tors into con­sid­er­a­tion,” ac­knowl­edged Sham.

The trial went ahead. The forestry of­fi­cials liked what they saw and ar­ranged to in­crease the R&D fund­ing for In­sight Ro­bot­ics. The in­no­va­tive sys­tem also caught the at­ten­tion of the National De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion which sub­se­quently granted ad­di­tional funds worth 500 mil­lion yuan ($73.76 mil­lion) to sup­port the re­search of the fire warn­ing sys­tem.

The con­cept of fire early de­tec­tion sys­tem spread across the coun­try quickly, with many ma­jor cities plan­ning an open bid to select the most re­li­able de­tec­tion sys­tem. In a bid­ding hosted by Ji­nan, Shan­dong prov­ince, In­sight Ro­bot­ics won the ten­der af­ter demon­strat­ing it can de­tect mi­nor flames within a five-mile ra­dius that no other eight bid­ders man­aged to do. Be­sides, their equip­ment was the cheap­est. The Com­puter Vi­sion Wild­fire De­tec­tion Sys­tem has been used by more than 10 forestry and lo­cal gov­ern­ment agen­cies in five prov­inces and seven cities across the main­land.

Hav­ing made its mark on the Chi­nese main­land and built up its cred­i­bil­ity, it soon gained much at­ten­tion from an­gel in­vestors in Hong Kong. It drew $2 mil­lion of an­gel in­vest­ment and ven­ture cap­i­tal com­bined. With­out the co­op­er­a­tion with main­land au­thor­i­ties and com­pa­nies, says Sham, the young startup would have had a hard time at­tract­ing in­vest­ment from Hong Kong com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­ual in­vestors who are in­clined to play it safe.

“It’s much eas­ier for re­searchers and en­trepreneurs to get R&D fund­ing in main­land. It all comes down to the top-down ap­proach in fund­ing al­lo­ca­tion adopted by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment,” said Tong.

All set to go 5G

He high­lighted that ASTRI just be­gan to co­op­er­ate with 21Vianet, a ma­jor car­rier-neu­tral in­ter­net data cen­ter ser­vice provider on the main­land, to con­duct R&D and field tri­als in a 5G test bed, aiming to launch the next gen­er­a­tion mo­bile net­work.

21Vianet has agreed to let ASTRI use its high speed wire­less tech­nol­ogy in Hong Kong free of charge to con­duct field tri­als from now to March 2019. The test phase will take Hong Kong a step closer to­ward build­ing an in­fra­struc­ture for the 5G mo­bile net­work to be in place by around 2022, said Tong. The 5G net­work prom­ises pro­cess­ing speeds 100 times faster than the ex­ist­ing 4G net­work. The tech­nol­ogy is con­sid­ered a crit­i­cal com­po­nent in the evo­lu­tion of Hong Kong’s smart city ini­tia­tive. Tong ac­knowl­edged that the Chi­nese main­land is at the fore­front of de­vel­op­ing 5G tech­nolo­gies. Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of 21Vianet, Andrew Lee, also re­marked dur­ing the Me­moran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing sign­ing cer­e­mony that ASTRI has a strong team on mo­bile wire­less tech­nolo­gies and sound patent port­fo­lio in 5G wire­less tech­nolo­gies.

He adds that the main­land places a pre­mium on ed­u­ca­tion in en­gi­neer­ing and there­fore has pro­duced a wealth of en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sion­als. Main­land uni­ver­si­ties can sup­ply en­gi­neer­ing spe­cial­ists for Hong Kong R&D cen­ters as well as star­tups, help­ing to ad­dress tech­ni­cal prob­lems that they may en­counter dur­ing tech­nol­ogy trans­fer. “Ev­ery year al­most half of the univer­sity grad­u­ates from the main­land are en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents, around 125,000, whereas Hong Kong has only 3,000.”

Cross-bor­der in­ter­ac­tion will result in more main­land-based com­pa­nies man­ag­ing to set up branches over­seas and also in­crease the pen­e­tra­tion of in­ter­na­tional en­ter­prises in Chi­nese mar­ket. How­ever, be­fore that, we need to clear up some hur­dles, ar­gues Hor­ris Tse, co-founder and strat­egy di­rec­tor of We Mine, a 2-year-old startup spe­cial­iz­ing in help­ing in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies break into Chi­nese mar­ket and vice versa.

The two sides lack uni­form frame­works and reg­u­la­tions when it comes to start­ing up busi­nesses, said Tse. His own ex­pe­ri­ence tells him that reg­is­ter­ing and open­ing a com­pany in Hong Kong takes three to five days, while it’d take a for­eign cap­i­tal en­ter­prise 45 days to three months to get through all pro­ce­dures be­fore set­tling in the main­land.

Tse said he had a cus­tomer, a for­eign com­pany selling whole­some food and nutrients, striv­ing to open a store in main­land. The com­pany was con­fronted with the com­pli­cated health food registry reg­u­la­tions and lengthy pro­ce­dures. “Al­though the foods it sells meet in­ter­na­tional and Hong Kong stan­dards, some of them are in­suf­fi­ciently qual­ifi ac­cord­ing to the main­land frame­work. The com­pany had to ap­ply for a National Healthy Food In­dex Num­ber for each prod­uct from scratch, which takes be­tween half a year and one year and costs from hun­dreds of thou­sands to a mil­lion yuan.

All the trou­ble­some fac­tors dampen for­eign busi­ness own­ers’ con­fi­dence and pas­sion for ex­pand­ing their busi­ness to the main­land mar­ket, ar­gued Tse, say­ing that it’s im­per­a­tive to es­tab­lish a set of uni­form frame­works or reg­u­la­tions ap­pli­ca­ble to both sides.

Charles Ng, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor­gen­eral of In­vest HK, is up­beat about the prospect of cross­bor­der part­ner­ship in in­no­va­tion in­dus­try. “Shen­zhen and Dong­guan (two neigh­bor cities of Hong Kong) are equipped with fast-pro­to­typ­ing tech­niques and are ca­pa­ble of mass pro­duc­ing. Hong Kong has an un­ri­valed in­ter­na­tional air­port that en­sures mas­sive amount of pro­to­types or prod­ucts to be de­liv­ered to any for­eign coun­try within 48 hours,” said Ng, ex­pect­ing more busi­nesses to spring up and flour­ish here as well as in the Chi­nese main­land. He painted a rosier pic­ture, “The open­ing of Guangzhou-Shen­zhen-Hong Kong Ex­press Rail Link will not only connect the two sides closer but also open a window for more busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

That’s ( join­ing a fire drill or­ga­nized by au­thor­i­ties in a main­land city) valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence for us. We gained a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of fire­fight­ers’ rou­tines and var­ied stan­dards in terms of for­est fire man­age­ment. It helped us with pro­to­type ad­vance­ment since we would take those fac­tors into con­sid­er­a­tion. Rex Sham, CEO of forestry-fo­cused risk man­age­ment com­pany head­quar­tered in Hong Kong, In­sight Ro­bot­ics

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