The potential of North Asia for Southeast Asian startups is well-known. The Chinese market and Guangdong‑Hong Kong‑Macao Greater Bay Area offer exciting potential, but there are always risks and barriers to entry. Large markets have incumbents and the language and cultural is difficult to overcome sometimes.

That’s where an organization such as HKSTP comes into the picture. The Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) has been around for over 20 years to build up the country’s position as an innovation and technology hub. HKSTP has since then supported 14 unicorns and runs Hong Kong’s leading R&D hub with over 13,000 research professionals with over 1,400 technology companies focused on healthtech, AI and robotics, fintech and smart city technologies.

They are currently unveiling a new market discovery programme targeted at Southeast Asian enterprises and talent seeking valuable innovation ecosystem experiences. Called the Market Discovery Programme, it helps global tech ventures expand into China and broader Asian markets with Hong Kong as the base.

We had a chance to speak to Albert Wong, CEO of HKSTP about the potential for Southeast Asian startups and technology businesses to enter the market. We also looked at the talent situation and how Hong Kong is keen to bring qualified talent into the market.

What is the upside for Southeast Asian companies to expand to Hong Kong?

Hong Kong offers unique advantages for technology companies, focusing on Research, Innofacturing, and Finance (R-I-F). Our goal is to facilitate breakthroughs in applied R&D (from “zero to one”) and transform R&D outcomes for industry development (from “one to n”) to support the success of Park companies.

When it comes to research and development (R&D), Hong Kong has top-notch universities, with five local institutions ranking in the top 50 globally. The city excels in AI and biotechnology, exemplified by InnoHK—an I&T platform in Science Park with 28 laboratories dedicated to health technology, AI, and robotics. These laboratories are the result of collaborations between over 30 universities and research institutions from 11 economies, including prestigious institutions like Imperial College London, Peking University, and Columbia University.

For Innofacturing, we recognize the need to commercialize scientific research through production lines. HKSTP has repositioned its Industrial Estates as “INNOPARK,” promoting Hong Kong’s industry development through smart manufacturing and technology. Purpose-designed infrastructure such as the Advanced Manufacturing Centre (AMC), Data Technology Hub (DT Hub), and MARS Centre have been completed in recent years, enabling enterprises to upgrade and transform, fostering innovation, design, and manufacturing within Hong Kong. Additionally, we are constructing a Microelectronics Centre (MEC) in Yuen Long INNOPARK, which will provide advanced production facilities for related industries and is expected to open in 2024.

Regarding finance, Hong Kong serves as an international financial centre and an ideal place for businesses to raise capital. Our advantages include taxation, legal systems, intellectual property protection, and other financing benefits. In 2018, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) introduced Chapter 18A to allow pre-profit biotech companies to list in Hong Kong, resulting in the successful listing of over 50 companies. Hong Kong also stands as the world’s second-largest biotech financing platform, making it an attractive destination for companies seeking funding.

Hong Kong’s unique “One country, two systems” framework, which ensures stability and support from the Central government, makes it an ideal location for expanding businesses into China. The Greater Bay Area (GBA), with its 87 million population and USD 1.7 trillion GDP, presents a massive market opportunity. The GBA plays a pivotal role in China’s development plans, aiming to become an international innovation hub, a green transformation benchmark, a model for coordinated supply chain development, and a platform for high-level openness.

Technology knows no boundaries, and we believe technology companies from any location would be interested in exploring the vast GBA market. Similarly, Malaysia is a significant market, and many Chinese and Hong Kong technology companies are eager to expand their businesses into Southeast Asia as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship where we aim to help Malaysian companies explore the Chinese market while bringing Chinese and Hong Kong companies to Malaysia. This way, technology finds a home for practical applications and commercialization.

What support can businesses and talent expect from HKSTP if they expand to Hong Kong?

We are excited to announce that Hong Kong has returned to the international stage as the pandemic comes under control and society returns to normal. We are open for business and eagerly welcome business opportunities, particularly from Malaysia.

At HKSTP, we offer comprehensive support to technology companies at various stages, from the initial idea to IPO listing. Our dedicated personnel guide and provide training to transform ideas into practical solutions. We have state-of-the-art communal laboratories focusing on biomedical and sensor technology, as well as a virtual lab called STP Platform. Startups within our network benefit from specialized labs staffed with technical experts who cater to their specific needs.

HKSTP has successfully assisted Park companies in driving investments and creating value. Over the past five years, Park companies have raised HK$80.6 billion in investment, with last year alone seeing a five-fold increase from HK$7 billion to HK$39.2 billion. The HKSTP Venture Fund has reached HK$1 billion and has attracted co-investment from private funds, with leverage of 1:18 of private capital. 

Our network includes 1000+ investors and collaborators, and we have completed 290+ investment deals in the past 5 years, demonstrating our ability to drive investment and create value. With over 300 private and public sector partners, our ecosystem offers abundant business opportunities and testing grounds for startup technologies.

HKSTP is also a welcoming destination for talent. Hong Kong is a vibrant city with beautiful scenery and a diverse international community. The food scene in Hong Kong is renowned worldwide, and the city is considered one of the safest in the world. English is one of the official languages, along with Cantonese, and many Malaysians are fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Hong Kong is home to successful Malaysians, such as Michelle Yeoh, and we are eager to facilitate the exploration of career opportunities in Hong Kong for technology talents from Malaysia.

Within HKSTP, we have a thriving community of more than 1400 companies, with a working population of over 19,000. Among them, 13,000 are R&D professionals who contribute to the vibrant science park ecosystem. We have over 1,000 R&D job openings, sometimes reaching up to 2,000. Malaysian talents will find numerous opportunities to work in this dynamic environment. The Hong Kong Government has various initiatives in place to assist overseas talents in settling in Hong Kong, and at HKSTP, we can help applicants navigate these talent-related programs offered by the government.

Moreover, concerns about Hong Kong’s expensive property prices and rental costs are alleviated within HKSTP. We have Innocell, which opened in April 2021, offering affordable rental levels for collaboration spaces tailored to domestic and overseas talents. This allows occupants to experience the unique I&T culture of Work-Live-Play-Learn at the Science Park.

What is the plan to empower the region’s businesses and talent for them to expand in the HK-GBA and China region?

China’s market, with its 1.4 billion population, is highly appealing. However, it comes with distinct cultural differences, business practices, regulations, pricing, and business models. When venturing into a new market, it’s crucial to learn and adapt to these factors. 

Our role goes beyond simply providing introductions or basic information. We aim to assist talents in navigating the cultural nuances and understanding the local regulatory framework. Ultimately, tech ventures have to take ownership of their success, but we can be a valuable resource by offering introductions and leveraging our experience in Chinese business culture. Having spent many years working in multinational companies in China, I understand the challenges of doing business in a new country, and I believe having someone to provide guidance can be immensely helpful.

To achieve our objective, the Hong Kong Science Park Shenzhen Branch, expected to be completed in phases by 2023, will play a strategic role in integrating Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area (GBA). This branch, located in Futian, is a joint initiative supported by the governments of HKSAR and Shenzhen. Unlike the existing Science Park, its strategic location will facilitate the “attracting in and expanding out” approach, assisting startups and technology companies in expanding their presence and seizing business opportunities in this rapidly developing region. The branch will offer office space, laboratories, hardware support, as well as business matching and technical assistance to companies establishing themselves in the GBA.

In which industries do you see the most potential for gaining talent from Southeast Asia?

At HKSTP, we are proud to foster a dynamic I&T ecosystem. With over 1,400 park companies, we have a diverse range of industries represented, including AI, Robotics, Biomed, health tech, Smart Cities, IoT, FinTech, Green-tech, blockchain, web3.0, and more. Our commitment aligns with the Hong Kong government’s I&T blueprint, focusing on the growth of sectors such as life and health technology, AI and data science, advanced manufacturing, and new energy technology.

Currently, we have over 1,000 R&D job openings available, primarily in genomics and engineering. These positions encompass roles like coding data, data scientist, Digital IC Designer, and Software Engineer, as well as opportunities in computing, client management, marketing, business development, and various other fields. We believe that Malaysia presents an excellent opportunity to attract talented individuals, whether they are currently based in the country or in Hong Kong. This is one of the key factors that motivated our expansion into Malaysia.

Which markets are Hong Kong startups and businesses looking to expand into and what’s next for HKSTP? 

The Hong Kong Government has recently unveiled the Hong Kong I&T Development Blueprint. This blueprint sets forth specific objectives for the city’s innovation development, which include the establishment of 7,000 startups and a minimum of 100,000 I&T practitioners in Hong Kong by 2030. To accomplish this ambitious goal, HKSTP aims to attract I&T enterprises and talented individuals from around the globe.

The Hong Kong government is currently making substantial investments in Hong Kong’s I&T ecosystem, which has created a golden era for the city’s I&T industry. HKSTP is open to all and we warmly welcome enterprises and talents from Malaysia to become part of our thriving I&T ecosystem.