Tomas Osvald: Hong Kong has become a hotbed for innovative entrepreneurs

When we met, Tomas was right after the operation of his right arm. Snowboarding took its toll. From the first moment, however, you can see that he always likes trying new things and gaining new experiences. Just as the one in Hong Kong where he had a chance to participate in creating the “gate” to the country´s startup environment – StartmeupHK initiative. And now he brings the experience back to Slovakia. Tomas Osvald.

 

You have stayed in Hong Kong (HK) for quite a time. Can you share your background and how did you get there?

Back in 2012, I worked in Russia for a pharmaceutical company helping them to expand their business activities into EU. After this successful mission and being encouraged by this international experience I had a strong appetite to go abroad again and help out to other companies or to participate in an offshore startup-hub.

And in 2013, I got an opportunity to apply for a yearly contract through AIESEC to join Invest Hong Kong – an investment promotion agency of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – on the pilot year for StartmeupHK.

How much time did you spend in HK?

I spent more than one year in Hong Kong. I may say it was an incredible journey throughout the entire year. I worked with amazing people, met literally all stakeholders within the startup community and the ecosystem itself. I had a chance to meet local VC leaders, angel investors, through university leaders up to successful startup entrepreneurs.

If you had to compare living in there and here, what would you say?

Well, every single place I have visited in my life has got something special, some sort of spice that makes the atmosphere of living in a particular place unique and original.  The beauty of living in Hong Kong is in the fact that you can enjoy modern and fast paced environment where all the hype is present or, on the other hand, you can explore the HK’s nature surroundings, go for a hike with stunning views or enjoy many other cultural activities in this vibrant city. If I could describe Hong Kong in one sentence, it´s the place where the East meets the West.

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Startmeup.hk

You were in HK right at the time when startmeup.hk was launched and you were part of that. What StartmeupHK is and what did the beginnings look like?

StartmeupHK is an initiative driven by InvestHK which aims to strengthen the Hong Kong startup ecosystem and to promote Hong Kong globally as a leading Asian innovation and entrepreneurship hub.

At the time I joined InvestHK Hong Kong was not that much known globally as a startup destination even though there was a lot going on in there. The community in HK was quite fragmented and the entire ecosystem was just shaping at that time. Nonetheless, it had all the right ingredients to become one of the most innovative economies and startup hubs in the world. All it needed was just a little push and that’s where the mission of StartmeupHK had begun.

What were your main responsibilities and duties?

As a Project Executive I was part of various tasks related to the initiative. I was responsible for business model development and planning, strategy as well as marketing tasks. We were part of a planning team of the global startup competition, preparing StartmeupHK Venture forum for 800+ people as well as developing relationships with the community. Me and my colleagues were, for example, attending various startup events and meeting all the startup stakeholders and community on a regular basis. We were creating startmeup.hk website in cooperation with an external agency and publishing the content. Our mission was to plug-in to the community, listen to the people and help to put together like-minded people in order to reach desired synergies that may help to support the „buzz“.

What did the team look like?

At the time StartmeupHK was kicked off in May 2013, there were a couple of people working intensively on the project.  The core team consisted of Associate Director General – Charles NG, the best mentor I could have had, CMO Karen Winton, currently managing director of NEST VC at London, and two youngsters – me and my Canadian colleague Natalie 🙂  Of course, we were not the only people working on StartmeupHK itself at InvestHK. Separated parts of the initiative were supported and coordinated both by Innovation and Communication Technology and the Marketing department of InvestHK.

Nowadays, there is a full time dedicated team specialized and focused only on StartmeupHK as its importance and place within the ecosystem has grown rapidly over the last two years.

What does the community around StartmeupHK look like? 

InvestHK works closely with various startup stakeholders such as co-working spaces, universities, accelerators, Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, Cyberport, VC’s, community and event organizers, entrepreneurial clubs and associations and many other subjects involved in startup environment.

What other activities, except for publishing articles, are in the portfolio of Startmeup.hk? 

StartmeupHK website acts as a one-stop shop for both local and foreign startup entrepreneurs. It provides the visitor with all relevant information about the HK startup environment.

Very important part of the initiative is the StartmeupHK Festival which InvestHK organizes to stimulate and foster the development of innovation and entrepreneurship in HK. It consists of a flagship “the StartmeupHK Venture Forum” and a series of core events. The idea behind StartmeupHK festival is to join the community and bring unique event formats that enlighten the bursting growth of HK startup ecosystem to the world. In 2016, for example, there were events such as FF16, LAUNCH Consumer IoT Summit or HealthTech Asia. 2016 brought over 5000 overseas and local stakeholders passionate in the entrepreneurship and innovation topic together in over 25 events during the 2016 StartmeupHK Festival. The festival ends up with StartmeupHK Venture forum which is a large event full of inspiring and well known speakers ( i.e Elon Musk-2016, Tim Draper & Jon Medved- 2013 and many others).

Back in 2013, another part of the StartmeupHK initiative was the global competition which aimed to attract foreign startups to establish their business in HK and use HK as a gateaway to SE Asia.

What did the competition look like and how successful it was?

The main objective of the competition was to develop awareness about HK as a perfect destination for startups seeking to expand into SE Asia. We were using targeted social media campaigns as well as international network of InvestHK branch offices around the globe to promote the competition. We were trying to reach out to overseas startups and make them apply for the competition where they could have won an incentive prizes worth over 200k USD. As we had quite tight timeline we were afraid how many startups would apply, around 70 applicants had been expected. It turned out we were wrong as we received over 380 applications. It was a confirmation that we were on the very right track.

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Hong Kong startups

What does the startup ecosystem in Hong Kong look like?

If you take a look on Hong Kong, you can see that it’s a financial center, it has got one of the best economies in the world, it is being often considered as a gateway to China, it’s a city that never sleeps. And mainly, it’s a city built by entrepreneurs. Hong Kong has experienced a significant growth in the startup ecosystem. Co-working locations and incubation/accelerator programmes and innovation labs have increased from 3 to over 45 in the last 2-3 years, and they have become more specialized in verticals (such as Fintech, IoT, Smart City Technologies, etc.) and there are increasing services being offered (in the form of a co-working space, maker space, incubator, and accelerator).  Hong Kong is also home to more than 7900 large corporates with more than half of them having their regional headquarters and regional offices using the city as their command and control center. Large corporates have also started to invest resources to support and engage with the startup community. Having all the ingredients from various forms of support provided to startups, excellent universities and talents, its location and constantly growing community, HK has become a hotbed for entrepreneurs. The term growth is what HK startup ecosystem describes the best.

What are the greatest competitive advantages of Hong Kong and what does it lack?

In my opinion, the position of HK itself is a great advantage. As a starting entrepreneur in HK, you have plenty of possibilities to get support and the speed of entering the market is just incredible. Considering the fact that HK is one of the biggest financial centers in the world and FinTech is becoming a big thing there, it´s definitely the right place to be if your background is in this field. In addition to a world class ICT infrastructure, the rule of law with strong protection and enforcement of Intellectual Property rights, a low and simple tax regime, a pool of talent from leading universities and R&D facilities, Hong Kong has all the ingredients to support innovative startups with globally scalable business models to succeed. HK is also an ideal place for hardware startups as Shenzhen is just next door. You can literally test the product in days and speed up the launch.

As for weaknesses I guess it depends case by case, the same applies to Slovakia, Silicon Valley or anywhere in the world. I met few HK startups that might not have the best plan how to grow but the nice thing of being in such a vibrant ecosystem is that you can get the right support much easier.

Can you also give your opinion on venture capital infrastructure in Hong Kong?

I may say the VC infrastructure back in 2013 was quite similar to ours these days. VCs alongside with angel investors and family offices were more focused on investing into more traditional industries, SMEs and well established companies. The term “startup” and innovation companies were not being considered as a hot topic. The other thing was a low belief in local startups as there were not that many success stories. However, that changed very quickly as more and more successful startups were popping up and that fact went hand in hand with more interest from investors´ side. The most recognized firm investing in early stage startups is NEST. You can also find established offices of larger players such as Sequoia Capital or Nova Founders Capital. Silicon Valley Bank opened its office in HK as well.

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Slovakia

If you compare the Slovak startup ecosystem and the one in Hong Kong, what comes to your mind?

From my perspective, it is crucially important to create clusters within the environment and to put together like-minded people in order to help create the right synergies that may turn into something useful for the sake of pushing the ecosystem into the right direction.

I am actually surprised how many things we have in common with HK. Slovakia’s got a great potential, we have very talented people, good infrastructure and a great location as well as HK does. However, where I see Slovakia’s main gap is the less business friendly environment.  The important role of building up the sustainable environment for entrepreneurs should be supported also by the government. Even though there are some government indications of interest towards the startup industry, which is a good signal and a step forward, I believe there are still areas that Slovakia could work on in order to ease the way of starting business i.e. tax regime, lower bureaucracy, higher transparency, etc.

HK’s entrepreneurs and startupers have the right entrepreneurial spirit that drives them to push harder and further. I am not saying that Slovakia lacks people with such attitude but I am afraid we just don’t have the right conditions yet to retain such motivated people when it comes to business that can become global, not just local.

Hong Kong is a very vibrant city and everything can be accomplished in a very effective and faster way. I can see a lot of talented entrepreneurs and startups in Slovakia with a global vision but what we lack is the necessary connection with foreign hubs and hubs overseas. Nonetheless I see this is shifting in a right way.

What hints would you give to a Slovak startup when trying to approach markets in Hong Kong? 

There are several ways how to expand your activities in Hong Kong. Firstly, I would definitely recommend checking out the startmeup.hk page to get a glimpse of what the HK scene looks like and get familiar with who the local players are. Select few and based on what you want to achieve (funding, market expansion, acceleration) try to approach them with an intention to schedule a meeting. Yup, a meeting. It has gotten quite easy and affordable to go to Hong Kong, so organize a trip for a week or two. You will be surprised how many meetings you can accomplish in HK per day. Last but not least, try to approach InvestHK as it provides very helpful professional services to foreign companies seeking to expand to HK and it’s completely free of charge.

What is the first startup, project or service that comes to your mind in regards to Hong Kong?

Hah, there are too many coming to my mind in regards Hong Kong 🙂 I would say Spacious, HotelQuickly, WeLab, 9gag, 3Doodler and many more. I can’t forget to mention important part of the ecosystem which is, in my opinion, NEST.vc even though it’s not a startup.

And Slovakia?

As for Slovakia startups, I would say ESET (even though it’s a corporate, I still see it as a role model for Slovakia), Sygic, MeetnLearn, Aeromobil, Photoneo, Capturing Reality and more are coming to my mind. 🙂

Last but not least, we at SlovakSTARTUP have similar mission as StartmeupHK, what lesson can we learn? What were the mistakes you made and lessons you learnt? 

I think what we can learn from StartmeupHK is a collaborative work across various channels and the entire ecosystem. That means that if we want to put a mark on European startup map, we should work together on bringing the right people together, showcase success stories, develop international network with foreign accelerators, bring recognized mentors and that is where I see SlovakSTARTUP as the right mediator. I am convinced that English written portal about Slovak ecosystem can become a great asset as it provides a nice overview for foreign parties about what is actually going on in our part of the world.


Photos: Tomas Osvald

 

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