Tech for good: how Hong Kong’s innovative tech community rose to challenge amid Covid-19 crisis
Crises are the times when people come together best, and the current Covid-19 pandemic has seen communities, companies and institutions cooperate like never before, with everyone pitching in with what they have.
The tech industry has risen to the challenge of this unprecedented global outbreak with admirable rapidity – identifying its strengths and skills while working with partners from the private and government sectors.
Hong Kong has shown to the world its characteristic vigilance and resilience in how it has contained the Covid-19 outbreak despite being a densely populated city of more than 7 million. SCMP / Felix Wong
Technology has long been used to provide innovative solutions to social issues, and industry members from Hong Kong have been able to quickly provide answers to some of the most pressing problems created by the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, Covid-19.
Among the most immediate issues people have been facing is a shortage of necessities. Mindful of the risk of airborne contagion – and with the 2003 Sars outbreak still vivid in the minds of many – Hongkongers rushed to stock up on items such as medical face masks.
Simon Wong, chief project development officer of Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, led a team to identify a site to build a cleanroom for face mask production and complete work on building the facility in four weeks amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: SCMP
“With the current epidemic outbreak, we have seen the urgency and huge demand in society for the supply of face masks,” Simon Wong, chief project development officer of Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), says.
However, this widespread need has led to shortages and, given the exacting nature of their production, made restocking difficult. Face masks and other vital medical equipment must be produced in “clean rooms” – facilities free of dust and other contaminants.
Facilities require exacting standards
“The environment for producing medical-grade face masks must be clean and comply with the strict standards set by the target markets – which can be achieved using an ISO 8 clean room, with a maximum limit of 100,000 particles in a cubic foot of air,” H.L. Yiu, HKSTP’s head of reindustrialisation, says
Finding facilities that offer the space and logistical requirements needed to build a suitable clean room in Hong Kong is difficult.
However, HKSTP, with the resources and expertise available through its Advanced Manufacturing initiative, was able to quickly create a new, purpose-built clean room at Tai Po Industrial Estate.
H.L. Yiu, HKSTP’s head of reindustrialisation, has a vision of Hong Kong returning to its manufacturing heyday with products that are locally innovated, designed and made. Photo: SCMP
“We identified an immediately available site of about 8,000 square feet [740 square metres] to build a clean room facility to support the mass production of face masks,” Wong says.
In only four weeks, Wong and his team were able to identify the site and complete work on the advanced clean room production facility – a remarkable feat because it was achieved in such challenging circumstances.
Work overcomes lockdown hurdles
The widespread lockdown imposed by the Chinese government to halt the spread of the coronavirus meant HKSTP and its partners faced a shortage of labour and materials to complete the project within a short time.
However, it was able to call on the support and knowledge of its partners and colleagues within Hong Kong’s tech industry.
In spite of compromised international transport caused by the coronavirus pandemic, HKSTP was able to source all the materials needed to convert an 8,000-square-foot [740 square metres] space it owns into a clean room for face mask production.
“We were able to gather all kinds of technical expertise and resources from within HKSTP’s information and technology community,” Wong says.
Move to Hong Kong’s advanced manufacturing future
The new clean room project represents the kind of vision in which HKSTP has been investing for almost two decades – a hi-tech return to Hong Kong’s manufacturing heyday where “something can be innovated, designed, and made in Hong Kong”, Yiu says.
HKSTP has been nurturing technology companies for the past 18 years, he says.
“We are now seeing many of them really having products that are ready to go on sale, and some plan to manufacture them in Hong Kong.”
HKSTP is the city’s flagship incubator and accelerator of startups and innovative companies, and strives to help turn great ideas into reality. Photo: Frank Chan
The Covid-19 outbreak has led to a huge global shortage of face masks, which has emphasised that Hong Kong cannot thrive unless it has its own robust manufacturing base.
Start-up’s tech monitors quarantine
The quick response of HKSTP to help tackle the shortage of face masks is not the only Hong Kong-based solution to the Covid-19 crisis.
Compathnion Technology is a start-up incubatee at Hong Kong Science Park. It has researched the possibilities of using an app to monitor people undergoing 14-day quarantine.
The company has been working with the Hong Kong government to create a system that will “ensure people under home quarantine follow the rules while not affecting their everyday lives”, Arthur Chan, CEO and lead data scientist of Compathnion, a SagaDigits subsidiary, says.
Arthur Chan, CEO of Hong Kong-based company Compathnion Technology, saw an opportunity for his company to play a part in containing the coronavirus spread when the government announced the quarantine policy in February. Photo: SCMP
“Compathnion has been thinking how to give back to the community for a long while,” he says. “During this crisis we have been thinking how we can deploy our technology in this application to help the government or the society.
“In February we read the news about the quarantine policy and we figured out our existing solution would be a perfect match for this purpose.”
The resulting app is called StayHomeSafe and, when paired with an electronic wristband, the system can detect if a user is meeting their quarantine order. The system relies on geo-fencing, where the app’s algorithm samples signals from an indoor environment to create a signature of the surroundings.
Compathnion’s location-tracking app, StayHomeSafe, uses geo-fencing and artificial intelligence to ensure that those wearing the electronic quarantine wristband stay in the designated area. Photo: SCMP
Chan says the technology needs artificial intelligence (AI) to determine the location of the user’s mobile phone and of the user in relation to it, without collecting any personal data. AI helps process the vast amounts of anonymous data and start unpredictability of human behaviour to filter the conduct of each person in indoor confinement.
The location-tracking technology has been rolled out swiftly in Hong Kong, since the middle of March, after a presentation was made to the government at the beginning of the month.
Nothing ‘impossible’ with collaboration
Yiu says the achievement of completing the clean room project despite the huge challenges demonstrates exactly what HKSTP is capable of doing.
“We are trying to connect the community – to pull together resources and help them to work together,” he says. “The reason for this collaboration is to accelerate their development.”
“Once the intense demand for face masks is over, the facility can be used for manufacturing electronics or medical devices,” Yiu says.
The clean room built by HKSTP at the Tai Po Industrial Estate is equipped with the air shower to ensure anyone entering the facility is free of contaminants that can compromise the hygiene standards inside. Photo: Frank Chan
Although the Covid-19 crisis has turned the lives of people upside down around the world, it has also inspired the tech industry to rise to the challenge and band together to innovate and make the world a better place.
It is this kind of response that inspires Wong and his team to create solutions to problems, including the global pandemic.
He firmly believes technology can improve people’s daily lives and that Hongkongers will be in the vanguard of innovation.
“We believe that, with the Hong Kong spirit, we can make things that seem impossible possible,” Wong says.