With the city moving towards an information driven, knowledge-based economy, it is necessary to step up research and development (R&D) in innovation and technology to stay competitive, says Dr Cheung Nim-kwan, CEO of Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (Astri).
The government has taken the lead in setting up the Innovation and Technology Commission, Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks. It has also funded six R&D centres to help with further development of major areas, such as information and communications technology (ICT); nanotechnology; textile and clothing; logistics; automobile parts; and Chinese medicine.
As a publicly funded institution focusing on applied ICT research, Astri pays a great deal of attention on environmental friendliness and energy efficiency. For example, it has helped the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department and the Highways Department develop light emitting diode (LED) street lamps, now being tested at the science park. The LED lamps use less energy than fluorescent ones and are free of mercury.
Astri's main business is to transfer technology - through licensing, contract services, industry collaborative programmes and other means - to its customers, including manufacturers and other R&D institutions, for commercialisation. Astri carried out about 100 technology transfer projects last year.
"Technology R&D is a globally interdependent and complex system," Cheung says. "[Sometimes] to develop a new technology, we need to access the patent rights of existing technology, so that we can further exploit, integrate, transfer and add our own knowledge to develop a new patented technology. It will then be bought and used in the development of other technologies across the world."
Cheung says the mainland recovered from the global financial crisis much faster than technology leaders, such as the United States, Europe and Japan. A large amount of capital has been directed towards the technology industry on the mainland, and the demand for infrastructure in the sector is strong. As a result, more technology patents are being registered there.
Hong Kong is in an advantageous position to collaborate with mainland institutions, Cheung says. Astri has been working closely with mainland organisations, such as Tsinghua University and Peking University, and is involved in three joint laboratories on the mainland. In 2008, Astri also set up a research institute in Shenzhen.
"Hong Kong is more mature in technology R&D and intellectual property protection. We can provide the knowledge and the talent to satisfy the needs of the mainland," Cheung says.
He says that even though Hong Kong universities have been nurturing technology professionals, there is still a shortage of experienced talent here.
"Local universities usually focus on basic research," Cheung says. "We are working closely with universities and encouraging them to emphasise more on applied technology. We have also taken an active role in fostering local talent and bringing in foreign talent."
Supported by the government's internship programme, which provides opportunities for university graduates to acquire research and industrial experience, Astri recruited 47 science and engineering students as R&D interns last year. Those whose work was deemed outstanding were offered engineering positions before their one-year internships concluded. Astri plans to take on 60 interns this year.
The institute is also looking for professionals to fill more than 30 vacancies, mainly in engineering, in different areas, ranging from mechanical engineering to image/video processing and ASIC design.
Paths in R&D
- The technical path starts with being an associate engineer, then an engineer, senior engineer, and principal engineer, before chief scientist/researcher and, finally, a fellow.
- The management path begins with the role of deputy manager, then manager, director/senior manager and R&D director, before vice-president and then group director.
- Training includes regular seminars, sponsored participation in work-related training and opportunities for overseas visits.