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Global Innovation Incubator: Hong Kong fosters innovation across a broad range of industries

The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced that it will launch the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, the latest high-profile research institution to set up a centre in the city. Slated to open in mid-2016, the centre will tap the “unique resources and other opportunities in Hong Kong and the neighbouring Pearl River Delta (PRD),” according to the university.

Conceived as a collaborative space, the facility will convene MIT students, faculty and researchers to work on various entrepreneurial and research projects alongside Hong Kong-based students and faculty, MIT alumni, entrepreneurs and businesses. By combining resources and talent, MIT said, the Innovation Node seeks to help students learn how to move ideas more rapidly from lab to market.

MIT President L Rafael Reif said the initiative deepens the university’s activities in Hong Kong, and the entire PRD. “In creating this node in Hong Kong,” he said, “MIT is committing to advancing our engagement with the region in a mutually beneficial way.”

Speed of Manufacturing

Charles Sodini, the Clarence J LeBel Professor in Electrical Engineering, who will also serve as Faculty Director for the node, said that in addition to the presence of strong research universities, a major reason why MIT chose Hong Kong is because of its ready access to a unique manufacturing infrastructure that encourages rapid prototyping and scale-up.

He noted that Hong Kong’s Central district is only about an hour’s commute of the Chinese mainland border town of Shenzhen, home to many scientists and engineers, as well as to fast, low-volume manufacturing.

“Manufacturers in Shenzhen have mastered the ability to take a prototype device to unit quantities of hundreds overnight,” said Mr Sodini. “This unparalleled speed of small-quantity manufacturing is unique to Shenzhen.”

MIT students will gain hands-on lessons in designing and manufacturing for commercialisation, Mr Sodini continued. “Giving our students access and experience with this capability educates them in how to move more quickly from idea to product.”

Through the node, students will also be linked to opportunities in Greater PRD network cities – including Hong Kong – that serve as innovation hubs and economic drivers for the region.

Medical Research Breakthrough

Donor Lau Ming Wai (left) and Karolinska Institutet Vice-Chancellor Anders Hamsten formalise funding for a ground-breaking medical research centre in Hong Kong

Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, one of the world’s leading medical universities, is setting up a research base in Hong Kong to focus on three major areas of disease. One of its objectives is to use stem cell technology to rebuild damaged tissue – focusing, for example, on spinal injuries – as well as finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease and repairing damaged livers using stem cell transplants.

The centre is made possible by a donation of US$50 million from Hong Kong businessman Lau Ming Wai, Chairman and CEO of Chinese Estates Holdings Ltd and Vice Chairman of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre. It is one of the largest private donations received by the institute.

The Ming Wai Lau Center for Regenerative Medicine will comprise two nodes, one in Stockholm and one in Hong Kong, allowing scientists from Hong Kong, the mainland, and around the world to collaborate in an independent research environment under the auspices of Karolinska Institutet.

Professor Anders Hamsten, Vice-Chancellor of Karolinska Institutet, said the donation provides “unprecedented opportunities to do ground-breaking research in (several) extremely important disease areas. The new centre will provide our university with a pathway to critically important knowledge and bring us closer to key partners.”

Connection Strengthened

Hong Kong and MIT more tightly joined from left Fung Group Chairman and MIT alumni Victor Fung, MIT President L Rafael Reif, and MIT Professor Charles Sodini

Many MIT-based start-ups, in fact, already travel to Hong Kong and the PRD region to prototype and produce devices, according to MIT Provost Martin Schmidt. “Having a connection to this region will strengthen this access and open opportunities to develop new enterprises in the region,” he said.

Fung Group Chairman Victor Fung, who is among several Hong Kong alumnus serving on MIT’s local advisory group, said the new model for Hong Kong-PRD partnership is one that collaborates far higher up the supply chain, and at the early stages of innovation where ideas for products or services are conceived, prototyped and iterated.

“With this node, MIT is bringing its cutting-edge learning and research programmes to global innovation’s new frontier,” said Mr Fung. “This is an exciting and highly significant development.”

Further building on the partnership, the organisers also plan to create a “makerspace” in the Hong Kong node – a facility equipped with advanced tools and materials for invention and prototyping. MIT is building a makerspace on its Cambridge campus, which will be linked to that in Hong Kong.

The idea is to facilitate a way for MIT and Hong Kong students to collaborate physically or virtually – through advanced telecommunication services – to drive ideas toward commercialisation. For instance, medical devices, sensors or robotics could be prototyped on the MIT campus or at the node, tested in the Boston or Hong Kong centres, and have small quantities manufactured in Shenzhen.

Low-carbon Collaboration

In other recent high-level collaborations, Scotland’s Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) has set up a permanent base at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon officially opens ECCI’s new base at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park

The Team Scotland Centre will be led by ECCI and is funded by the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University, BRE Scotland and Scottish Development International. It will share and develop best practices with the Hong Kong Government, academic and business partners for the future of low-carbon technologies in Hong Kong.

Areas of focus include sustainable construction, air quality, energy efficiency and smarter cities. ECCI will serve as a conduit for Scottish organisations seeking to create local partnerships and introduce products and services to Hong Kong businesses.

Launched in July 2015, the centre builds on an earlier memorandum of understanding between the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation and Scottish Development International to develop closer partnerships to address the key challenges of climate change and a lower carbon economy.

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, Principal, the University of Edinburgh, said the centre sets a strong example for collaborative working relationships between educational institutions and business on a global scale. “The new carbon innovation centre in Hong Kong will help foster productive working practices between policy, community and business leaders in order to support and deliver workable solutions for a low-carbon future,” he said.

New Ideas, Smart Cities

In June 2014, French multinational Thales Group opened an innovation hub in Hong Kong for the creation of new ideas for “smart cities,” working specifically in the transport and security domains.

Dr Eden Woon, Vice-President for Institutional Advancement of HKUST, and Dr Jean-Luc Lambla, Vice-President of International Chief Technical Officer of Thales Group, seal their innovation alliance

In transportation, the innovation hub will support projects in the areas of urban transport data analysis, decision support and the optimisation of operations. In the area of security, it will principally focus on intelligent surveillance systems. The teams will work on fusing real-time and historical video data with information from monitoring systems, to enhance the effectiveness of security operations.

Thales has also formed an alliance with the city’s Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) to encourage innovation in the development of future products, through the collaboration of students and engineers.

Dr Eden Woon, Vice-President for Institutional Advancement at HKUST, said this strategic partnership would help Hong Kong and the region to become a science and technology hub in the foreseeable future. “Together, we can translate breakthroughs into novel technologies and solutions, groom talent and create employment opportunities.”