Face to Face with Rebecca Pun, JP, Commissioner for Innovation and Technology

To promote the development of innovation and technology, the Innovation and Technology Commission (ITC) was set up on July 1, 2000, with the mission to spearhead Hong Kong's drive to become a world-class, knowledge-based economy. The commission formulates and implements policies and measures to promote innovation and technology; supports applied research, technology transfer and application; promotes technological entrepreneurship; facilitates the provision of technology infrastructure and development of human resources; and promotes internationally accepted standards and conformity assessment services to underpin technological development and international trade. To achieve this, it works closely with its partners in the government, industry, business, tertiary education institutions and industrial support organisations. Rebecca Pun, the Commissioner for Innovation and Technology shares how the commission and its close partners were at the forefront of Covid-19 related initiatives and inventions as well as what is in store ahead.

THE COMMISSION

Pun joined the Commission after spending three decades with various government bureaus and departments. She has been in Administrative Service since 1987 and has served, amongst others, the Home Affairs Department, the Judiciary, the former Education and Manpower Bureau as well as the Transport and Housing Bureau prior to her existing role.

The ITC’s role is to drive Hong Kong’s mission of becoming a world class, knowledge-based economy – one where research, ideas and innovation are aplenty. “Our strategic partners include the Universities, the five Research & Development (R&D) Centres established by the government, the Hong Kong Productivity Council, the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTPC), the Cyberport, the trade and industry organizations and professional bodies,” shares Pun. Further, the ITC administered the Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF) which was established as a statutory fund in 1999 to finance applied research and development projects that contribute to innovation and technology (I&T) upgrading in the city’s manufacturing and service industries. “ITF started with four funding schemes in 1999 and has since evolved into seventeen funding schemes today to support applied R&D projects involving various technology areas, to nurture I&T talent, to promote technological entrepreneurship, to facilitate technology adoption and to foster an I&T culture in the community,” she explains.

FIGHTING THE PANDEMIC

When Pun assumed office in July 2019, her key goals were to further develop the I&T ecosystem, to drive commercialization of the outcomes of the R&D Centres, to press ahead with the establishment of the InnoHK Research Clusters, as well as to promote re-industrialisation and technology adoption by various sectors in the society. Six months after joining, the pandemic unfolded. With it, came the increased responsibility to mobilise the I&T sector’s efforts towards combatting the virus. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in Hong Kong in late January 2020, the combat against COVID-19 has taken centre stage of the government’s work,” shares Pun. And indeed, since early 2020, the ITC has been heavily involved in doing their bit to help.

In February 2020, the Logistics and Supply Chain MultiTech R&D Centre (LSCM), one of the ITC’s R&D Centres, created the first prototype of the home quarantine electronic wristband in less than a week’s time. This urgent request from the government was to help it implement compulsory quarantine measures to minimise the risk of imported cases brought by inbound travellers. “In the subsequent months, a number of enhanced versions were developed. LSCM has also collaborated with the government, university and local tech start-ups to develop the “StayHomeSafe” mobile app system to work together with the electronic wristbands. So far, the electronic wristbands have been used by around 560,000 confinees,” shares Pun.

To deal with the short supply of disposable masks, another R&D Centre of the ITC, the HK Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, was commissioned in February 2020 to coordinate the production of “CuMask+” - a mask that can be reused sixty times (and is hence, more environment-friendly) and meets the ASTM F2100 Level 1 standard. “The production process was full of challenges in view of the scarcity of suitable raw materials (many of which had export controls) and closure of factories at the time. We managed to produce over ten million CuMasks for free distribution to the public in phases between June and September 2020,” recalls Pun. “It should be stressed that the above technologies have embedded the R&D results relating to lots of projects funded by the ITF carried out by the R&D Centres previously. They could not have been realised in such a short time without the investment in I&T throughout the years,” she adds.

To give another example, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, one of the ITC’s university partners, developed an Antimicrobial Polymer coating which can be sprayed on material surfaces to kill bacteria and viruses with an effective period of up to ninety days. “This was made possible due to the achievements of a number of R&D projects supported by the ITF,” shares Pun. “This achievement has been transformed into an innovative product and commercialised, which has been widely used in schools, residential care homes for the elderly, childcare centres, commercial premises etc.,” she adds.

To foster more anti-pandemic innovations, the ITC also launched a special call under the Public Sector Trial Scheme in March-April 2020 to support product development and application of technologies for the prevention and control of the epidemic. “A total of 332 applications were received. After assessment, a total of sixty-three projects were approved with total funding of over $102 million. The sixty-three approved projects came from local universities, R&D Centres, local public research institutes and technology companies,” shares Pun. “They cover COVID-19 virus detection or diagnosis methods, face masks and other protective equipment, disinfection equipment and products, body temperature checking devices, virus transmission tracking devices etc. So far, trials of forty projects in the public sector have been completed (paving the way for future commercialisation), while the trial of the others is ongoing,” she adds.

Fighting the pandemic also meant the need for a surplus of testing centres and qualified individuals running them. The Hong Kong Accreditation Service (HKAS) under the ITC operates three voluntary accreditation schemes including the Hong Kong Laboratory Accreditation Scheme (HOKLAS) for laboratories. “To help combat the COVID-19 pandemic, HKAS quickly developed and launched accreditation services for COVID-19 nucleic acid tests in April 2020. At present, among the twenty-nine private laboratories recognised by the Department of Health to conduct COVID-19 nucleic acid tests, eighteen have been accredited by HKAS for the COVID-19 tests, while another seven applications for accreditation are under processing,” shares Pun.

In May 2020, the ITC launched the Distance Business (D-Biz) Programme under the Anti-Epidemic Fund to support enterprises in adopting information technology (IT) solutions to continue their business and services during the epidemic. After assessments of the applications received, funding agreements have been signed with over 25,740 applicants, representing a funding commitment of about $1.7 billion. The most popular IT solutions are online business, digital customer experience enhancement, online customer services and engagement. “Through the D-Biz Programme, we have propelled the digital transformation of many enterprises, in particular, the SMEs,” shares Pun.

Looking back at the government’s work in tackling the pandemic, Pun believes technology should and will be a permanent feature in our lives. “The pandemic has brought about a “new normal” of how people live, work and interact with others, and technology will be indispensable in reshaping the urban life,” she explains. “In order to nurture I&T talents since an early age, and to promote care for the society, we launched the first City I&T Grand Challenge in December 2020 with the theme “Innovating for Hong Kong’s New Normal”. All sectors of the community were invited to put forward I&T solutions focusing on two issues, namely environmental sustainability and social connectivity, to tackle problems facing the city and people in their daily lives under the epidemic. We believe everyone has the potential to be an innovator to shape the future,” she adds.

HONG KONG'S I&T INDUSTRY

Despite most of 2020 and 2021 being dedicated to fighting the pandemic, Pun believes the city’s I&T sector is still thriving in general. “Hong Kong’s I&T industry is flourishing at the moment. The number of start-ups rose from about 1,070 in 2014 to about 3,800 this year. We have also witnessed the birth of twelve unicorns (which refers to a startup with a valuation of over US $1 billion) in Hong Kong,” she shares. “The number of employees in the I&T sector grew from around 35,500 in 2014 to around 44,600 in 2019. Venture capital investment in Hong Kong also substantially increased from around $1.2 billion in 2014 to around $10 billion in 2020,” she adds.

The city’s I&T industry has fared well internationally too, with some commendable achievements at the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva 2021. “The Hong Kong delegation (comprising teams from universities, R&D centres, start-ups, government departments and secondary schools) won fourteen gold medals with congratulations of the jury, fourty-seven gold medals, sixty-two silver medals and thirteen bronze medals, totalling a record high of 136 awards,” shares Pun. “This reflects a fervent I&T atmosphere in HK and exemplifies HK’s strong I&T capabilities. We organized the Chief Executive’s Reception for the Awardees in May 2021 to commend Hong Kong’s I&T talents for their inventions winning worldwide acclaim,” she adds.

These wins as well as the city’s conducive environment to innovation sets it up on the right path to become a solid knowledge-based economy. “In fact, HK has sixteen State Key Laboratories, six local branches of Chinese National Engineering Research Centres and twenty-two Joint Laboratories with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Hong Kong is blessed with a wealth of talents, with five world top-100 universities and many scholars and experts winning top international and national research awards,” explains Pun. “Hong Kong has a solid foundation to develop into a global research collaboration hub. As a flagship project, the first two InnoHK Research Clusters (i.e. “Health@InnoHK” focusing on healthcare technologies and “AIR@InnoHK” focusing on Artificial intelligence and robotics technologies) have already attracted world-class universities and research institutes to collaborate with local universities in setting up twenty-eight research laboratories at the Hong Kong Science Park. These laboratories and talents can help Hong Kong scale new heights in I&T development. In the coming years, we will endeavour to help the laboratories to translate their research deliverables into products for commercialisation purpose as appropriate,” she adds.

Healthcare technology is an area of strength for the city, one where Pun believes it enjoys clear advantages. “Hong Kong has a solid foundation in biotechnology research and an ecosystem that is gradually improving. Over the years, ITF has supported over 630 projects on biotechnology researches, including many of its first in the world, such as artificial “mini-hearts”, internally motorised minimally invasive robot surgeon, non-invasive prenatal diagnostic techniques etc,” she shares. “The research results of some projects have been commercialised successfully. With the implementation of a new listing regime since April 2018 to allow the listing of pre-revenue biotechnology companies in Hong Kong, Hong Kong is now Asia’s largest and the world’s second largest fund-raising hub for biotechnology. Hong Kong is the first in the world where clinical data is recognised by the National Medical Products Administration, Food and Drug Administration of the United States, and European Medicines Agency,” she adds.

THE ITC AND THE GREATER BAY AREA (GBA)

Beyond local goals and milestones, the ITC also has a role to play in national missions and initiatives. “For the first time, the National 14th Five-year Plan clearly states the support for Hong Kong’s development into an international I&T hub and has included the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Loop as one of the four major platforms of cooperation in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (GBA). Hong Kong’s participation in national I&T missions will also be enhanced,” shares Pun. “This demonstrates the great importance the central government attaches to and its support for Hong Kong’s I&T. Hong Kong’s I&T development is entering a golden era,” she adds.

In terms of projects within the GBA, Pun already has several lined up. “We are taking forward the development of the 87-hectare Hong Kong-Shenzhen I&T Park (HSITP) in the Lok Ma Chau Loop in full swing with a view to completing eight buildings in Batch 1 in phases from 2024 to 2027,” she shares. “The vision of the HSITP is to become the world’s knowledge hub and I&T centre and will focus on the development of six technology areas, namely healthcare technologies, big data and artificial intelligence, robotics, new materials, microelectronics and financial technology. Upon its full development, the HSITP will provide a maximum GFA of 1.2 million sq. m, which will be about three times the scale of the current Hong Kong Science Park,” she adds.

Another initiative is related to “One Zone, Two Parks.” “Hong Kong and Shenzhen are jointly taking forward the development of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong I&T Co-operation Zone, comprising the HSITP and the Shenzhen I&T Zone, to establish the “One Zone, Two Parks,” shares Pun. “As an important step, we are assisting the HKSTPC to kick start the establishment of the Shenzhen branch of the Science Park, thus facilitating I&T enterprises that are interested in starting business in GBA to first establish presence in the Shenzhen branch next year,” she adds.

Pun believes Hong Kong is well positioned to leverage its strengths to serve the needs of the country. “We will continue to develop a more comprehensive I&T ecosystem, so as to enable re-industrialisation to take root in the city as well as complement I&T development in Shenzhen and the GBA. This will make I&T a new impetus to the city’s economy,” she explains. “Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our research capabilities; as well as to promote collaboration among our R&D Centres, Universities and Industries. We will provide comprehensive platforms for incubating I&T start-ups, encourage more young talents to turn their innovations into real-world solutions, and strive to find commercialization and application developments of our technologies in the Mainland, particularly the GBA, ASEAN countries and beyond. In parallel, we will continue to work closely with various sectors to promote technology adoption and digital transformation to help them scale new heights,” she adds. 

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