Compared to some of its neighbors, Hong Kong plays a relatively small role in healthcare R&D and entrepreneurship. Yet it offers some advantages that may help attract new ventures in the coming years.
Many of the advantages were on display at the HealthTechO2O conference in Hong Kong on February 1. Organized by InvestHK — an initiative of the Hong Kong government to attract foreign direct investment — the conference included both local and international speakers with a strong belief in Hong Kong’s healthcare innovation potential. Many emphasized the benefits of Hong Kong’s advanced healthcare informatics infrastructure, strategic location as a gateway to mainland China, and concentration of finance and technology institutions with a stated interest in healthcare collaborations.
Dr. NT Cheung, Chief Medical Informatics Officer at the Hong Kong Hospital Authority (HA), which manages the city’s public health system, traced the HA’s history as an early adopter of high-end healthcare informatics technologies. The authority now provides extensive longitudinal datasets that are useful for medical research and population health management. He also spoke about the HA’s efforts to develop new mobile apps for patient engagement and clinical workflow management, as well as systems to permit better sharing of electronic medical records between providers.
Others spoke about Hong Kong’s potential to support healthcare R&D. Henry Yau, Managing Director of The University of Hong Kong Clinical Trials Centre, argued that the territory has great infrastructure to support clinical trials, particularly those geared towards testing treatments in Asian populations. Raymond Wong, Head of Investment at Hong Kong Science and Technology Park (HKSTP), said that biomedical technology was one of HKSTP’s fastest-growing areas of activity. Both emphasized Hong Kong’s potential as a springboard to China, which faces ongoing challenges related to regulatory capacity, IP protections, academic integrity, and other factors that are important for incubating R&D.
Some highlighted opportunities for collaboration between healthcare and financial services firms in Hong Kong. Some global insurers, for example, are actively exploring partnerships with healthcare technology startups in the city. Scarlett Chen, Director of Strategic Investments at Prudential Asia, spoke on one of the panels about Prudential’s partnership with Prenetics, a Hong Kong-based DNA testing company with offices across Asia, to offer genetic analysis services alongside their insurance products. As more companies seek to leverage new technologies to access Asia’s rapidly growing insurance markets, we may see many more deals of this nature in 2018.
Hong Kong could also incubate other innovations at the intersection of healthcare, finance, and technology. Several speakers, including a co-founder of the recently launched Hong Kong Blockchain Centre, talked about opportunities to develop blockchain-based healthcare technologies in the city. Between sessions, however, several attendees said that the Hong Kong government is not moving as quickly as Singapore in creating the right policy frameworks to explore these kinds of possibilities.
As a regional healthcare innovation hub, Singapore beats Hong Kong in other respects too. Singapore has more events, stronger trade groups, and a deep government commitment to R&D. More multinational pharmaceutical and medical technology companies have their regional offices in Singapore. More healthcare technology startups also prefer Singapore as their regional base. The result is a thriving healthcare innovation community that provides ample access to funding, ideas, and strategic partnership opportunities.
For companies seeking to access mainland China, however, Hong Kong still offers the dual advantage of geographic and cultural proximity. It’s well connected to most Chinese cities, and it sits right next to Shenzhen, one of China’s leading hubs for electronics manufacturing and technology. New infrastructure projects, including high-speed rail links with the mainland and a massive technology park on the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, promise to further improve ties with the mainland.
To be sure, some entrepreneurs and researchers will choose to skip Hong Kong altogether and locate on the Chinese mainland instead. Others will set up shop in Singapore, Melbourne, Taipei, Tokyo, or one of the other healthcare innovation hubs coming up in Asia or Australia. As more countries throughout the region work to encourage health care research and entrepreneurship, transnational R&D and entrepreneurship networks will also arise around the region.
Will Greene is a writer and strategy consultant focused on Asia’s emerging R&D ecosystems. You can find him on LinkedIn.