Hong Kong’s Transformation into a Global Hub of Innovation

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Professor Rocky S Tuan

By Professor Rocky S Tuan • Vice Chancellor and President, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Long known as the city where East meets West, Hong Kong is now making a name for itself as an international centre of science and technology. Professor Rocky S Tuan, vice-chancellor and president of The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), describes how his university is helping to make this transformation a reality.

China has a long history of innovation in fields such as medicine, astronomy and mathematics that dates back well before similar achievements were made in other parts of the world. That tradition of scientific and technological inquiry continues to this day, and with an interesting, added feature. Hong Kong, as China’s most international city, is now playing a leading role in the country’s rise to renewed prominence as a centre of innovation.

Until recently, Hong Kong’s economy had depended on a small number of industries such as trade, finance and tourism. Recognising the risks of depending on just a few industries, Hong Kong has been actively diversifying into innovation & technology (I&T) to promote economic development and strengthen its competitiveness on the world stage.

As vice chancellor and president of CUHK, I am delighted to see the Hong Kong government throw its support behind our city’s drive to become a global I&T hub. The Hong Kong Government has committed to doubling the research funding budget over the next few years and multiple new initiatives focused on I&T have been launched.

These include funding of HK$10 billion for establishing two I&T research clusters — one focusing on healthcare technologies and the other on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics technologies. Both are areas in which we at CUHK have established expertise and strength. It is hoped that through these new I&T clusters, Hong Kong will attract world-class scientific research institutions and technology enterprises to join forces with local universities and scientific research institutions to conduct more midstream and downstream R&D projects, as well as train technology talent.

Additionally, the government has committed to doubling the funding for three schemes under Hong Kong’s I&T Fund to promote technology transfer. It has also earmarked HK$20 billion for the Research Endowment Fund of the Research Grants Council, HK$190 million annual recurrent expenditure for the introduction of new regular Fellowship Schemes and the launch of a new Research Matching Grant Scheme.

Other government initiatives include support for the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation to develop research-related infrastructure and facilities for its tenants and incubatees, as well as a Technology Talent Admission Scheme to attract technology talent to Hong Kong.

These very encouraging initiatives will go far towards transforming our city into a centre of innovation. Even more reassuring, President Xi Jinping has pledged his support for Hong Kong’s transformation into a global I&T hub. In May 2018, under the direction of President Xi, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology announced new policies that will for the first time enable universities and research institutions in Hong Kong to compete directly for national research funding.

Opportunities are also opening up for Hong Kong based companies and researchers in the Greater Bay Area, the region of southern China that encompasses nine municipalities in Guangdong along with Macao and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government will be a key player in this national strategy that supports China’s development blueprint for driving innovation. These and other incentives are paving the way for a new wave of research opportunities among Hong Kong’s universities, four of which ranked in the top 100 of the 2019 QS World University Rankings®.

CUHK has an important role to play in Hong Kong’s continuing evolution into a diversified, knowledge-based economy. Our reputation for ground-breaking research is already well established, as evidenced by some of the distinguished scholars and researchers in our midst. They include Professor Chen-ning Yang, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Professor Shingtung Yau, Fields Medallist, Professor Andrew Yao, Turing Award Winner, and the late Professor Sir Charles K Kao, known as the ‘Father of Fibre Optics’, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Moreover, CUHK has been named the most innovative university in Hong Kong for three consecutive years since 2016 in Reuters’ ranking of Asia Pacific’s Most Innovative Universities. Currently, the university has over 900 granted patents in different jurisdictions worldwide, some of which have been licensed and are being brought to market for the benefit of society. In 2017-18, CUHK received 185 granted patents and filed 327 patent applications for inventions developed in medical technology, biotechnology, information technology, telecommunications, and materials science.

We also collaborate with worldwide centres of excellence and industrial partners, adding strength to our capability in advancing research and inventing new technologies. Our recently established Entrepreneurship and Innovation Hub in Shenzhen also helps start-ups by our students, alumni and faculty gain access to markets in China.

CUHK has further committed to embarking on new scientific research and strengthening interdisciplinary research. In our Five-Year Strategic Plan, we outlined our major research priorities in areas that include translational biomedicine, and information and automation technology, and notable research achievements have been made in medical robotics, AIassisted cancer diagnosis, biotechnology and regenerative medicine.

There are also research areas in which I have a personal interest. For example, at the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (iTERM), we are integrating multiple disciplines in biomedical sciences, engineering, and clinical medicine for the development of neuromusculoskeletal tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. My laboratory is studying how stem cells may be applied to restore function to tissues that have been compromised as a result of injury, trauma, disease or ageing. We are hard at work to develop a three dimensional joint-on-a-chip that replicates a human joint using a microbioreactor platform.

Other teams at CUHK are engaged in cuttingedge research in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, as well as brain and mind research applying genetic and genomic techniques to study behaviour and language acquisition. In the field of genomics, one of the most promising discoveries was made in prenatal diagnosis by a team led by Professor Dennis Lo, Director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences. He found the presence of cell-free foetal DNA in maternal plasma and pioneered a non-invasive DNA blood test for Down syndrome that has already benefited millions of women worldwide. Professor Lo is also exploring the use of a similar approach for screening early cancers. As a result of his work, Professor Lo has earned numerous honours, including the King Faisal International Prize in Medicine in 2014 and the Future Science Prize in 2016.

In the AI field, Professor Xiaoou Sean Tang from our Department of Information Engineering founded SenseTime, the world’s most highly valued AI start-up, to focus on computer vision and deep learning technologies. Entrusted by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology to build an open innovation platform for nextgeneration AI, his company has developed ground-breaking technologies for use in face and image recognition for smart cities, smartphones, finance and robotics. In 2018, SenseTime raised a record US$600 million in funding and has a current estimated market value of more than US$4.5 billion.

I am highly enthusiastic about all of these innovations that have come from our teams of talented researchers. Through their efforts, and the support of the Hong Kong government, we can look forward to many more scientific and technological advances that will not only benefit Hong Kong and mainland China but also the world at large.

Professor Rocky S Tuan is vice chancellor and president of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is concurrently Lee Quo Wei and Lee Yick Hoi Lun Professor of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at the University. Prior to joining CUHK in 2016 as a distinguished visiting professor and the founding director of the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, he held several appointments at the University of Pittsburgh, including distinguished professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering in the School of Medicine. He is also founding director of the Center for Military Medicine Research and associate director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Tuan is an internationally-renowned biomedical scientist specialising in musculoskeletal biology and tissue regeneration, whose work covers both basic science and engineering, as well as translational and clinical applications. His significant contributions have been recognised by the Marshall Urist Award for Excellence in Tissue Regeneration Research of the Orthopaedic Research Society in 2004, the Carnegie Science Award in Life Sciences, and the Clemson Award of the Society for Biomaterials in 2016. Professor Tuan was elected fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and of the China Association of Inventions for his ground-breaking work.