What It Takes To Incubate Unicorn Startups In Hong Kong

By Jamie Nonis

Eighteen unicorn startups have emerged from Hong Kong to date, and Albert Wong, the CEO of Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks, is one of the leading figures powering the country’s current technological revolution

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Cover  Albert Wong, CEO of Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corporation. (Photo: HKSTP)

If you want to create something that’s never been done before, hire a contrarian.

“In the past, Hong Kong hadn’t really embraced tech innovation as a key society and government policy,” says Albert Wong, CEO of Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP).

“In the 1990s and 2000s, it was believed that high-tech is risky and low-tech could bring you fast money. So this was the mindset in Hong Kong for the longest time,” he adds.

The call came in 2013 when Wong, who had spent most of his life outside of Hong Kong working for MNCs in the United States, was approached by a headhunter looking for someone to head HKSTP.

“My first response was, ‘You must be joking’,” says the straight-shooting CEO over a video call from Hong Kong.

“We were one of the Four Little Dragons in the old days and then we kind of lost that as the focus shifted more to logistics, tourism and financial services. Tech has never been part of that and I felt that Hong Kong had been lagging behind in tech innovation for a long time. So I really love this opportunity to play a role in the Science Park, which is an important part of the whole innovation technology push,” says Wong.

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HKSTP Golden Egg. (Photo: HKSTP)
Above  HKSTP Golden Egg. (Photo: HKSTP)

Armed with healthy scepticism, Wong has, for the last many years been busily building a robust ecosystem to power the current wave of Hong Kong’s technological revolution at the helm of HKSTP.

“For Hong Kong to be successful in the race for technology development, we need to go into deep tech,” he says.

Already, three Hong Kong universities have ranked Top 50 in the world. “So if you want to do some deep tech R&D, Hong Kong is the place,” he says.

But Wong is quick to stress the distinction between research and development. “I’m talking about not just research, but research and development. Because doing research is one thing, but making it commercial, making it a product, making it an investable business, is a totally different thing. And our job in the Science Park is not to compete with universities but to help bring these ideas into fruition,” he explains.

To date, a total of 18 unicorns have emerged from Hong Kong, with three incubated within the Science Park itself. Leading the pack is SenseTime, which is often cited as the world’s most valuable AI vision startup that rose to decacorn status and IPO-ed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) in December 2021.

There’s also SmartMore, which specialises in computer vision technology that achieved unicorn status within 18 months from founding, as well as logistics company Lalamove, another decacorn with a footprint in more than 20 cities across Greater China, Asia, Latin America and India.

See also: Aqumon's Kelvin Lei On Building The Next Fintech Unicorn

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Above  Wong has been CEO of HKSTP since 2016. (Photo: HKSTP)

The spectacular success of these decacorns, unicorns and centaurs have no doubt fuelled a growing appetite to invest in local innovation and technology startups within the park.

According to figures from HKSTP, there were over 220 investment cases within Science Park which altogether raised HK$68 billion (about US$8.6 billion) over the past four years.

And as part of its strategic initiative to connect high-growth tech startups with investors, HKSTP’s own direct investment arm—HKSTP Venture Fund (also known as HKSTP Corporate Venture Fund)—boasts over HK$600 million in assets under management, where every HK$1 invested by HKSTP draws an external investment of HK$16 to support local startups at different stages of funding. The Venture Fund has so far invested in 23 such ventures, with the total amount of funding attracted by park companies continuing to accelerate in recent years.

Which are the companies attracting the most investments today?

“The most important trends are related to deep tech, AI, robotics, fintech and biomedical diagnostics,” Wong observes. “We are putting a lot of our resources into diagnostics; things like next-generation screening and early cancer detection. In fact, there are two to three unicorns in the biomedical field inside our Science Park that are not listed in the official figure of 18 as they prefer to keep a low profile.”

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For Hong Kong to be successful in the race for technology development, we need to go into deep tech
Albert Wong

Biomedical technology has been one of the fastest-growing clusters in the Science Park over the last five years, with the number of such companies increasing threefold from 50 to over 150, making Hong Kong Asia’s largest, and the world’s second-largest, fundraising hub for biotech.

Another area drawing big interest and investment is, of course, the metaverse.

“We’re doing a lot of virtual validation for companies before they build anything. Our version of the metaverse is a virtual platform to validate ideas and problems, and then tweak the digital twin before it’s built physically. This has been developing like crazy and we’ve been putting a lot of resources into it,” he shares.

With technology, we’re always on the precipice of the future and on the 20th anniversary of the HKSTP, the realm of possibilities appears endless.

But Hong Kong, says Wong, is not the destination of tech innovation.

“It is the spark, the gateway, and our job is to ensure we provide all the resources for people and companies to spark the innovation here and expand to the region and to the world.”

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