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nick giles: hong kong to become asia’s answer to silicon valley

This article first appeared in City AM on 12 November 2014.

Hong Kong has long been a magnet for those seeking business success, and this week the former UK colony is making its case to be Asia’s technology hub of choice.

A year on from the inaugural StartmeupHK Venture Forum, Hong Kong will once again welcome hundreds of international founders, investors and policymakers to make its case as the go-to destination for entrepreneurs from around the world seeking to tap into the opportunities that abound in China and south-east Asia. Having returned for the second year as the programme’s UK ambassador, the momentum is clear to see.

This week-long celebration of start-ups comprises dozens of events, mentoring sessions and the final of a major international venture competition. Organised by Invest Hong Kong, hundreds of firms – both local and international – will gather to talk up Hong Kong’s credentials as the most attractive place to start or grow a business in Asia. The twelve international winners of the Venture Programme will receive benefits worth over $500,000 (£315,000) in professional services, shared office space and mentoring.

Charles Ng, associate director-general of investment promotion at Invest Hong Kong, and the entrepreneurial inspiration behind the week, told me Hong Kong has big ambitions to build on the success of last year.

“Hong Kong is growing fast as a start-up hub and through events such as this we are aiming to spread the word about Hong Kong’s unique credentials,” he said.

Those credentials include unparalleled access to the Chinese market, a soft landing for international firms looking for an Asian base, UK common law, high literacy and education rates – not to mention the region’s obvious lifestyle attractions.

FinTech, Smart Cities and Data Analytics are particular areas of focus for Invest Hong Kong and it’s evident the region is taking inspiration from the world’s other emerging tech centres.

Ng added: “We are very aware of everything that is happening in London and other cities to promote the technology ecosystem and we are equally ambitious about creating the conditions for tech firms from around the world to flourish.”

“We are at an earlier stage but we are thinking big and aiming high.”

When I visited Hong Kong last December I was struck by the number of co-working and incubator spaces emerging all over the city to accommodate the growing band of startups. Over eighteen new centres opened in 2013 alone.

That pace has continued and one of the most hotly anticipated openings is that of Blueprint, a new business-to-business tech accelerator, created by Swire Properties and due to open in January 2015.

Swire Properties is the powerhouse behind many of Hong Kong’s property landmarks and with a total area of 20,000 square feet, the aim of Blueprint is to support entrepreneurship in Hong Kong and provide the infrastructure, networks and connectivity to encourage success.

The Blueprint accelerator will provide ten selected B2B tech start-ups with workspace, mentoring and professional support to help them test their product, acquire customers and attract investment. The twist is that Swire will not charge the start-ups a fee to enter the space, nor take equity in return.

Much like Wayra from Telefonica and Level39 in Canary Wharf, Blueprint is intended to be a shared workplace specifically for startups and entrepreneurs in the tech industry and could be an equally significant catalyst for new tech firms emerging from Hong Kong.

“We are likely the first accelerator programme in Hong Kong that has no strings attached,” says Don Taylor, office director at Swire Properties. “This project is about injecting a burst of tech-focused creativity and innovation into the business community.”

Just as in London, an increasing number of young people in Hong Kong are aiming to build their own businesses, rather than follow traditional career paths in property and finance. The desire to support this nascent start-up scene and attract international founders through investment, space and networks is clear to see.  Schemes such as Blueprint that help address the city’s high rents could be pivotal.

UK entrepreneurs have already been flocking to the region, and the number of British start-ups coming here doubled in the first half of this year compared to 2013. And for those considering a move into Asia, the message is this: Hong Kong means business and wants to welcome you with open arms.

Photo Credit: Mike Behnken – Hong Kong Sunset

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