Hugh Chow likes to say that he can help pretty much anyone. Bankers, firemen, the elderly and CPAs – he can help you all. It’s not a bad opening line, but the best part of it is that as Chief Executive Officer of the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI) he can actually follow through.
“I can ask, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ and we can give them a solution with the technology we have. It’s not something you just dream up and write a paper that goes in an academic journal. Pretty much everything we do here you eventually see on the street, in businesses or everyday life,” says the sprightly Chow, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and has been at the helm of ASTRI for two years.
ASTRI was set up by the Hong Kong government in 2000 to enhance the city’s competitiveness in technology-based industries by subsidizing applied research. “ASTRI helps industry, whether it’s the private or public sector, to use innovation and technology to increase efficiency, to make everyone’s life safer, enhance the quality of life and to make Hong Kong more competitive,” says Chow. It has since built a rich portfolio of intellectual properties and nurtured a large number of talented researchers for various industries and sectors.
Within an hour of being with Chow, it is clear his grand passions are technology and taking on challenges. It was his love of tech – microchips in particular – that guided his decision to study electrical engineering at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “When I was at HKU, only the smartest of the smart could get into electrical engineering. I was driven to join them,” says Chow.
From there, he went on to do a postgraduate, also in electrical engineering, at the University of Colorado in the United States in 1991. Because there wasn’t much tech happening in Hong Kong, he left for Canada where he joined a start-up, ATI Technologies Inc., which specialized in the development of computer graphics processing units and chipsets. The company grew from 30 members of staff, when he joined, to 3,000 in seven years.
IPO front row
In November 1993, ATI listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. “It was a front row seat on what an initial public offering (IPO) looks like. It was exciting and inspiring,” says Chow.
At the age of 30, and inspired by his experience at ATI, he co-founded a chip company, ViXS Systems Inc., in 2001. He led the expansion of ViXS into the U.S., Europe and Asia, and established eight research and development (R&D) centres worldwide, including one at the Hong Kong Science Park in 2007. As can be imagined, running his own company was stressful with constant attention to business decisions, market development, supply chain management, people management and more. He took up running in order to carve out some quiet space in the day, a chance to think, and also to keep fit. In 2013, it was mission accomplished – he took the company public.
“My personality is not one that settles. I’d rather try the impossible and die trying than regret that I didn’t try.”
There are a number of points in Chow’s career where another person might have thought of sitting back, perhaps taking it easy or considering an early retirement, but Chow looks ahead to the next thing. “My personality is not one that settles. I’d rather try the impossible and die trying than regret that I didn’t try,” says the keen marathon runner.
In late 2016, he co-founded Pool Global Partners Inc., a venture capital investment firm specializing in artificial intelligence, big data and digital health, where he served as the managing partner. On a trip to China to discuss a joint venture, he stopped by in Hong Kong where Carrie Lam, then chief secretary for administration, was hosting a Belt and Road event. He was invited to join the Canadian delegation where a recruiter approached him and told him about the position at ASTRI, the largest government-owned research centre in Hong Kong. The timing was perfect. “I’ve done a start-up myself, I’ve got IPOs under my belt, I’ve done engineering management, and if there is a bucket list for being a public company CEO I’ve done that too. So serving the public is interesting,” says Chow.
Serving the public
While perhaps not many members of the public know about ASTRI, many of the products and services they consume on a daily basis have ASTRI technologies embedded. For example, at one of the largest global banks, local customers interact with a customer service chatbot developed by ASTRI that can deal with the peculiar language scenario in Hong Kong – it knows Cantonese, Putonghua and English. Major telecommunications companies, Internet service providers and network manufacturers use chips and software designed by ASTRI; and the touch-glass on top of an iconic smartphone brand is perfect because ASTRI defect-detection technology is part of the quality assurance process.
ASTRI is unlike most companies – it is neither a university body, a government agency or a commercial enterprise. It could be seen as sitting in the goldilocks position between all three. Coming from the private sector, Chow says it took a little getting used to.
ASTRI doesn’t have the autonomy enjoyed in a university environment, but is secure in knowing that its research makes an impact in society. It’s not a government set-up and doesn’t have guaranteed pensions so-called iron bowl job security, but it has plenty of flexibility in terms of what it does through innovation and technology. It’s not in the private sector – so its mission is not profit-driven, but its work covers a variety of exciting projects, rather than just doing the one thing that makes money, over and over.
“A lot of people look at us and think we must be some kind of incubator. I say we are here to serve industry, to serve the community, to serve society. We have more of a serving mandate than a start-up mandate. We help our clients by solving pain points and helping them to commercialize,” says Chow.
Hugh Chow co-founded his first company, ViXS Systems Inc. in 2001 at the age of 30, which went public 12 years later. He then founded Pool Global Partners Inc. in 2016 and then joined ASTRI in January 2018.
A couple of years ago one of its clients went public on Nasdaq. Only two years before that listing, the company consisted of two start-up entrepreneurs working in the same Science Park precinct as ASTRI. They licensed technology from ASTRI to create a 3D-display that didn’t require glasses – and the rest is history. Chow says he often gets asked whether ASTRI benefitted financially when that company went public. “The answer is no. Our motivation comes from the fact that we worked with one of the unicorns born in Hong Kong. Our reward is well defined – we don’t get to participate in some of the financial success that might distract our researchers. The research we do here, plain and simple, is world-leading, and has a great impact on society. If you’re interested in that, this is the place for you,” he says.
Indeed, the team at ASTRI – 600 of whom are researchers, making up 90 percent of the staff – are passionate about what they do. There are roughly 100 ongoing R&D projects each year, each lasting one to two years. Some clients roll out projects continuously to keep updating their technologies.
The teams are at the forefront of many new technologies. One project is the only autonomous vehicle in Hong Kong licensed by the Transport Department. It is part of the cutting-edge research that ASTRI is conducting in 5G-enabled Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology, where vehicles communicate with roadside computers and sensors to improve driving experience and road safety. ASTRI also trains banking and law enforcement professionals in cybersecurity, investigating and fighting online crimes, and safeguarding Hong Kong’s global financial centre status.
ASTRI is the largest of five research institutes set up by the government. As far as research and technology are concerned, Chow has nothing but praise for what he describes as the government’s smart, well-designed policies. “People will always draw comparisons with Shenzhen, but we’ve done a lot of things that are well-designed and suitable for Hong Kong, for example the super tax deduction and the talent development schemes,” says Chow. ASTRI works closely with universities to bring up the next generation of researchers, through schemes including internships and post-doctoral intakes.
“If that trust goes away it doesn’t matter how much technology we have in Hong Kong, we are not going to be the financial centre.”
His eyes light up as he talks about fintech and the great opportunities ASTRI has had to support Hong Kong’s position as an international financial centre. ASTRI worked with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) in 2016 to write two white papers and support the authority to adopt blockchain technology for mortgage loan applications, trade finance and identity authentication management. “For most people, property is the biggest investment you will make in your lifetime. If it is dragged out for three weeks, that’s three weeks of anxiety. But we were able to nail it down to a day or even less than that for the developers, the banks and the purchasers. It is a great way of relieving stress,” says Chow.
He admits getting slightly irritated when people suggest that Mainland China is way ahead of the fintech revolution because it is so advanced in terms of mobile payments. In his view, fintech represents something greater than mobile payments. One of the key reasons why Hong Kong is a global financial centre, he says, is because there is trust built into the system. “When we work with the HKMA, it’s more important to understand how we can use technology to enhance that trust. If that trust goes away it doesn’t matter how much technology we have in Hong Kong, we are not going to be the financial centre,” says Chow.
Here to help
Under Chow’s leadership, ASTRI has focused on five core areas of technology: fintech, communication technologies, AI and big data, Internet of Things and sensors, and semiconductor design. A key part of his work is to ensure that ASTRI experts use these technologies to come up with the best solutions that industries can apply to solve problems, enhance operations and lower costs. And, Chow says, ASTRI can support CPAs. “I’m not a CPA myself, but I can guess what support they might need,” says Chow, surmising that trust issues may well be high on the agenda.
Blockchain technology, as used by law enforcement, regulators and banks sharing cyber security intelligence, would enable CPAs to track every piece of information, for example, in accounting fraud or anti-money laundering investigations. Also, he speculates, that as CPAs likely have a lot of forms to file, an advanced system which recognizes handwriting would be well received, as would be technologies that help track big data, predict trends and look for anomalies.
Back in his Toronto days, Chow’s corner office looked out onto the air field of a regional airport. Every Friday, he remembers watching recreational planes taking off for weekend jaunts, until one day he walked over to the terminal building and signed up for flying lessons. “Flying an airplane has very little to do with flying and a lot to do about understanding regulations and how to navigate. I am instrument rated, so I can fly inside a cloud,” says Chow, a Transport Canada licensed pilot.
These days, his corner office looks out onto Tolo Harbour, with the lush hills of Ma On Shan to the right and the rolling hills of Pat Sin Leng Country Park to the left. It’s a long way from Canada and, as much as he misses Toronto, he’s grateful for the chance to return to Hong Kong and give something back to his homeland.
“I spent my first 25 years in Hong Kong and the next 25 in Canada, raising my family – my kids are Canadian. Having the opportunity to serve the place I call home doing what I do best and having a wide and deep impact on society – it’s pretty satisfying,” he says.
ASTRI’s core R&D competence in various areas are organized under five technology divisions – they form the cornerstones of the Information and Communications Technologies R&D Centre initiated by the Innovation and Technology Commission of the Hong Kong government – artificial intelligence and big data analytics; communications; cybersecurity, cryptography and trusted technologies; integrated circuits and systems; and Internet-of-Things and sensors.