Catalyst vital for industry upgrade

Updated: 2013-02-02 06:44

By Nicholas Brooke (HK Edition)

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Though hope may spring eternal, it often leads to nought when a clear course of action is absent. And while the hope of transforming Hong Kong into a regional high-tech hub remains tenable, the ecosystem that allows such an aspiration to be realized continues to lack a fundamental component - investment. This weakest link must be addressed promptly and without vacillation or the alternative may well be a seriously hard brush with reality.

While past administrations have demonstrated their commitment to advancing the innovation and technology industry through various schemes, including the Applied Research Fund, and achieved modest successes, it's time to reassess such commitment and devise a well-constructed program that promotes angel investment and venture capitalism in a more meaningful manner. Hong Kong's abysmal record on R&D investment, specifically as a percentage of GDP, which stood at just 0.33 percent from the private sector and 0.43 percent from the public sector in 2010, clearly suggests that better support from both sides is in order.

One solution that would unite the two parties together for a common purpose is dollar-for-dollar co-investment. Such a scheme could, on the one hand, jump start private investment, while on the other, allow investors to invest in more companies and thereby diversify their portfolios and mitigate risk. Co-investment would also directly tackle the serious discrepancy between investments in the financial and technology sectors, as venture capitalists have generally been focused on the former, lured by the appeal of relatively lower risk and shorter investment horizons. An early-stage co-investment fund (ECF) assisting start-ups would be aimed at angel investors, with the onus placed on the investors to first qualify potential investments. A venture capitalist investment fund (VIF) would, as the name suggests, target venture capitalists and can be created to encourage their involvement in recruiting investment candidates as well. Co-investments of such nature are not without precedent as the US, UK, Israel and Singapore are some of the countries that have similar schemes in place.

Although the primary goal of ECF and VIF would be to nurture innovation and technology development, sufficient income must be generated to allow for their self-perpetuation. This is where Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTPC) comes in. With its successful track record of nurturing start-ups and up-and-coming technology companies to realize their full potential, administration of the funds would not only represent a logical extension of its professional services but also ensure that seamless support is provided to investees. So as to best serve as an intermediary between the government and the investment community, HKSTPC would establish a fund management company, entrusted with vetting potential candidates, conducting due diligence and providing overall administration, along with overseeing the full term of the investments. As ECF and VIF gradually mature and a healthy ecosystem is established where all stakeholders contribute and benefit from their respective input, the schemes could be gradually wound down or replaced entirely with new programs that befit the times.

Though Hong Kong's innovation and technology industry has made some progress in recent years, it can never be too early to introduce programs that encourage long-term, sustainable growth. With the hopes and aspirations of future generations of engineers and scientists possibly lying in the balance, a progressive government that possesses the foresight to see such initiatives through is much needed. We trust that such an administration is now in place - one that relishes the opportunity to act as the catalyst for industry-wide step change.

The author is chairman of the HKSTPC.

(HK Edition 02/02/2013 page1)