Startup Impact Summit draws Hong Kong unicorns, investors and world-class innovators

Pain of fundraising, benefits of Hong Kong, changes in crypto, benefit of clear regulation, John Chi’s cat and why consensus is death

Brandishing more numbers on Hong Kong’s startup sector, Karena Belin, Co-founder & CEO of WHub and AngelHub gave opening remarks at the Startup Impact Summit, an event hosted by WHub designed to showcase impact and how to make an impact. It took place on the final day of the week-long StartmeupHK Festival, organised by Invest Hong Kong (InvestHK).

Ms. Belin said that Hong Kong is number one in the world for drone technology, is the world’s leading AI accelerator, is home to the world’s highest value AI company and is number two in the world for number of unicorns per capita. Hong Kong has six unicorns, which is set to rise to eight during the course of 2019.

Stephen Phillips, Director-General of Investment Promotion at InvestHK, concurred with Ms. Belin. Commenting on the substance of the day’s event, he said: “Having an impact is what really counts,” said Mr. Phillips, who added that big corporates in Hong Kong are “embracing technology like never before.” 

Unicorns on stage

Business heads of unicorns TNG Fintech Group, Lalamove and WeLab then took the stage. Alex Kong, Founder and Chairman, TNG Fintech Group, talked about how TNG is helping to provide financial services to domestic helpers and others without a bank account in Hong Kong. “We help shorten the queues in Central, making it easier for domestic helpers to send remittances. 

His tip for startups was that when looking for funding, “don’t be greedy, don’t go for well-known investors. Focus on friends and family for funding. Go with what you have and what’s in front of you.”

WeLab Head of Strategy Jessica Lam, said her experience of fundraising was that Asians tend to be less good at giving feedback on investment pitches, making it header to know why a pitch as failed and how to improve it for next time. She said that WeLab is currently expanding its mobile lending platform into multiple markets. She stressed the need to be cognizant of the regulation in various jurisdictions. “For regulation, Hong Kong is very good,” she said. “It’s clear what you do and what you don’t do.”

On fundraising, Blake Larson, Managing Director at Lalamove, lamented: “I never wanted to go into sales, then I had to fund raise!” He talked about how he had been turned down many, many times. His fundraising tip was to find an investor with similar values. “That’s key,” he said.

Mr. Larson gave advice too on scaling up a business. “It’s important to be ready internally to expand,” he said, referring to the need to be structured correctly beforehand. “After we split off our China business, it was able to really scale-up.” Much of Lalamove’s business is now in China.

Sustainable investment

Pierre Rousseau, Senior Strategic Advisor for Sustainable Business at BNP Paribas, talked about how globalisation is changing. Some industries are no longer global, he said. “Energy used to be a global business. Now it’s more local,” he said, adding that people can generate solar power with panels on their roofs. All areas of industry are using such technology. He said the business opportunities to be had from sustainability amounted to US$12 trillion globally and US$5 trillion in Asia alone.

Moving one to what BNP Paribas looks for when investing in this year, he said: “When funding, we need to see impact.” He cited traceability, credibility, transparency, ESG, client data, risk management assessment (including systemic risks about climate change, social issues and water quality), reporting to clients, reporting to regulators, carbon trading, scenario forecasting, sectoral expertise data and so on.

He said, “we need to be quicker thinkers. We need to look forward – what’s in the past has gone.” With regard to transparency, he added that it’s no longer possible “to do anything with a black box; there’s a need to be able to explain everything.” 

Greater Bay Area potential

Dr. Bernard Chan, Under Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Government of Hong Kong, gave an address on behalf of the government. He stressed the support the government is giving to startups in terms of funding and infrastructure. He talked also about the Greater Bay Area, which he said accounted for more than 12% of China’s GDP, yet attracted more than 20% of China’s foreign direct investment. In short, he said, the growth potential there is huge.

In a panel discussion on impact investing, health and AI, Co-founder and CEO of Prenetics Danny Yeung said how the company is now moving its DNA testing into China. He noted that “around80-90% of cancer and cardiovascular diseases can be prevented,” adding that Prenetics will soon be able to offer tests on 500 categories of health information from one saliva sample. For a cost of US$200-300, the test result will last a lifetime, he said.

Crypto and fintech in the U.S.

Moving on to the subject of cryptocurrencies, an asset class that has performed miserably over the past year, Lauren Giles, Partner, Alston & Bird, said the SEC is taking a softer approach, allowing for “a more mature discussion about blockchain.” This includes crypto applications going beyond straightforward consumer purchases. “People will ask: is blockchain the right solution?” she said. “The initial surge of interest is being replaced by a more mature evaluation of whether blockchain solutions are right for the particular business application.”

Ms. Giles said the Fiserv acquisition of First Data Corporation, announced on 16th January 2019, for US$22 billion is very significant for the industry, although it’s too early to say what it means. “It may be great for innovation,” she said, “or it may create a fintech behemoth for the next 1-2 years.”

It’s a topic that would have been closely watched by John Patrick Mullin, Managing Director of Research and Business Development at trade.io. He said: “‘Cryptocurrency’ as a term has held back crypto. We are seeing far more innovative uses in the U.S. that go away from ‘currency’”. These include food safety tracking, supply chains, records of rare goods – for example, conflict-free diamonds and rare cars.

In a livestream from Silicon Valley, Tom Chi, Founding Member of Google X, said it’s important to “maximise the rate of learning by minimising the time to try ideas.” He added that the “teams that succeed are the ones that learn the fastest.” His point was that it’s best not to spend too much time testing prototypes – it’s better to learn quickly and move on. The cat sitting on his lap then hopped off.

Consensus is death and how you won’t die if your startup fails

The Startup Impact Summit wrapped up with a fireside chat with Jason Calacanis, who readily admitted that he made a fortune from investing in Uber. In his bright and breezy style, he had plenty to say on a range of subjects from why you won’t die if you fail with a startup to learning to play guitar like Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits).

I like people with skills. The skill to have the ability to independently learn – and be motivated to learn – new skills.” He warned against consensus decisions over those of a single individual. “Consensus is death,” he said, warning also not to get preoccupied by the size of the market.

His areas of interest are generally very difficult ones: education, construction and housing, and media and the news business. When selecting startups to invest in, he said: “I want the founder to tell me how it’s going to work and why it’s important.”

Finally, he commented that the U.S. believes in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, human rights, etc. “And we want to respect the changes going on there,” he said. “There’s a need to build some bridges. We have to have a discussion about human rights. It’s sensitive, but it’s very important to people in the West.”

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