Setting Sail in the Tech Blue OceanCindy Chow strives to expand the startup ecosphere
Turning up in a coral dress, Cindy Chow was the very picture of charm and high spirits. She kicked off the interview by offering her take on top performers in the HKDSE opting to pursue studies for a career in the classic professions such as medicine and law.
‘No doubt our community needs professionals like doctors and lawyers. But we also need others to come up with innovative solutions to make our lives better. I hope our next generation will have more diverse options for their career development.’
2015 saw the launch of the $1 billion Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund initiated by Jack Ma, Alibaba Group’s Executive Chairman, to boost the local startup scene. Cindy previously served as the Group’s Senior Director of International Finance, overseeing financial management and corporate planning. As a firm believer in the Fund’s mission, she then became its Executive Director and has invested over US$30 million in 17 startup projects.
Under the auspices of the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, no time limit is imposed on the projects. Nor will Alibaba recoup the investment returns, which will continue to be deployed by the Fund to nurture the local startup ecology.
Though a charity in effect, the Fund is operated as a purely financial investment like any other venture capital fund. ‘In Jack’s opinion, it is necessary to run this non-profit-making fund like a business to ensure its sustainable development.’
As the Fund’s investment manager, Gobi Partners is responsible for screening investment projects and making investment decisions. The independent venture capital firm has been chosen because of the two partners’ close connections with Hong Kong.
‘We share the same vision and want to do something for Hong Kong,’ Cindy said. ‘Connection to Hong Kong’ being the primary criterion for project selection, the range of investment covers the Internet of Things, Fintech, e-commerce, clean energy, sharing economy, and digital health care, etc.
In 2017, the Fund teamed up with Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) to organize the startup contest ‘Jumpstarter’. Among the 600-plus entries received, the majority fell into the categories of e-commerce, Smart City and AI/Big Data. The 24 finalists competed to be in the final three at the end of November.
Each winner was awarded up to US$1 million in investment commitment from the Fund. En-trak, one of the awardees, came up with a smart system integrating data on water, electricity, and gas consumption for clients to facilitate energy saving at source.
Cindy is a graduate of CUHK’s Faculty of Business Administration and a member of United College. For the startup contest, she sent out sponsorship invitations to her classmates from the Faculty and United College. ‘Some of them may have been out of touch for years but, after just a phone call, they were happy to pass the news to the senior management in their companies.’ Jumpstarter eventually secured support from many sponsors. What she valued most, however, was not the sponsorship amount.
‘Once the company sponsors are on board, they will pay attention to the contestants’ business nature, connecting the startups with potential clients. That was how En-trak won investors’ endorsement at the contest and completed its pre-series A funding round at the end of July led by Alibaba and CLP Innovation Ventures.’
On the tortuous path of starting a business, resolving capital flow problems but overlooking market research and sales channels can land a new venture in trouble. For this reason, the Fund team has organized various activities to help budding entrepreneurs. One of these is ‘Venture Hours’ which offers participants 20 minutes of face time for each meeting.
‘The human touch is so important. We will find out from the participants what their problems are and provide them with practical advice for their startup plans.’ Starting this year, ‘Venture Hours’ features a quarterly meeting in which a distinguished entrepreneur is invited to talk about venture and business strategies. Dr. Allan Zeman shared his Lan Kwai Fong experience in the inaugural event.
Last year PricewaterhouseCoopers released its Global Artificial Intelligence Study, predicting that in 2030, AI will contribute to 14% of global GDP growth, surpassing the combined GDP of China and India in 2017. In May 2018, Alibaba, SenseTime, and HKSTP jointly established an AI laboratory in Hong Kong.
‘With Alibaba as a lead investor, SenseTime became the first unicorn in HKSTP. SenseTime’s co-founder Prof. Sean Tang of CUHK's Department of Information Engineering once told Joseph Tsai, Alibaba’s Executive Vice Chairman, that business support was indispensable to the commercialization of research and development (R&D) technologies. Subsequently the AI Lab was launched.’
Under the plan to be implemented this September, capital, R&D, and operational support will be provided for around 10 successful startup applicants. Alibaba will offer the startups technical support such as GPU-equipped computer resources, HKSTP will allocate free office spaces, while SenseTime will provide a deep-learning platform. Startups with great potential will even benefit from the guidance of top AI scientists, entrepreneurs and professors.
‘Technology and innovation are the driving force for the sustainable and diversified development of society. If we can—like the companies in Silicon Valley—reinvest our returns in the local venture ecosphere, this will bring about a virtuous cycle.’
Accountants often give the impression that they prefer to play it safe and go by the book. However, Cindy tends to be adventurous and to seize every opportunity that comes her way. Given her recent promotion in the company she’s then working for, her decision to join Alibaba in 2007 took many by surprise.
‘Back then Alibaba was not yet a household name in Hong Kong. But I loved experimenting and I had high hopes for the Chinese market and innovation and technology. So I changed jobs.’ For Cindy, apart from her battle-ready work experience, the undergraduate studies and General Education at CUHK have become the advantages that stand her in good stead in her adventures.
‘Professional knowledge aside, General Education at the University has honed my independent-thinking and problem-solving skills. Back then, I took classes in the methodology of thinking, logic, sociology, etc. With more and more experience, I have come to realize what a great help General Education has been in my personal growth, family life and career, giving me understanding of and wisdom in life.’
In addition to nurturing startups, Cindy is dedicated to giving back to society with her experience and professional expertise. Not only does she advise the Government on policies related to innovation, technology and re-industrialization, she also offers guidance to the Youth Arch Foundation.
How does she manage the tensions between work and family? She responded lightheartedly, ‘Work-life balance is achievable. I cherish the quality time with my family. But, whenever I have free time at home, I also handle work-related matters. As the saying among those who work in Alibaba goes, “Have fun at work. Be earnest in life.” That’s the idea.’
Reported by Jenny Lau, ISO
Photos by Eric Sin