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Published: 00:31, February 01, 2023 | Updated: 10:02, February 01, 2023
Emergence of a life sciences ecosystem in HK
By Bill Condon
Published:00:31, February 01, 2023 Updated:10:02, February 01, 2023 By Bill Condon

Against a bleak backdrop of recent economic contraction, rising inflation, rising interest rates and falling property prices, the recent reopening of the borders with the Chinese mainland is a very welcome step forward. Relaxed travel measures will stimulate the local economy, underpin growth and partially counter the effects from ongoing global economic and geopolitical turmoil. 

As we move toward herd immunity it becomes more important than ever for vaccination rates to be maintained, particularly for those most vulnerable. All residents and visitors must remain vigilant and maintain proper hygiene standards. Failure to do so will simply increase risk of infection and place further unnecessary pressure on the already stressed health service whose dedicated professionals provide us with one of the highest standards of healthcare in the developed world. As a result, the life expectancy of residents has increased. 

Throughout the pandemic years, technological development has had a significant influence on most aspects of our daily lives, offering us new ways of living and working. The acceleration and speed of the digital transformation has provided alternative solutions to help reduce organizational and operational pain points while creating greater efficiencies as we move into the new normal.

From the perspective of Hong Kong, a particularly exciting example of the progress made over recent years lies in the area of life sciences. Government foresight paved the route toward the creation of this dynamic life sciences ecosystem. Modifications to the stock exchange regulations in 2018 enabled companies at all stages of development, from startups to small and medium-sized enterprises to multinationals, to access Hong Kong’s highly regarded and liquid capital market from December 2020. As a result, there was an influx of biotech, healthcare, new-economy and high-growth companies and we are Asia-Pacific’s premier exchange for initial public offerings and number two globally, after New York’s Nasdaq.

Early-stage capital and easy access to an increasing number of world-class contract research organizations underpin a commitment to valuable research and development which is necessary to support commercialization, and this plays a vital role in the provision of high-quality medical care. Confidence in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s financial and regulatory framework and robust investor appetite has also increasingly influenced many Chinese mainland healthcare and biotech companies to choose to list here. 

Key to positioning Hong Kong as a global research collaboration hub is our unique role within the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, an area covering nine municipalities in Guangdong province alongside the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, with an estimated population of 100 million people by the end of the decade and only a five-hour flight from almost half of the world’s population.

One of the central pillars is InnoHK comprising research clusters located in the Hong Kong Science Park. To date 28 world-class universities and research institutes have been selected to conduct collaborative research programs. Converting innovation into commercial reality however also requires a sophisticated ecosystem and a robust and proven regulatory regime which are attributes upon which Hong Kong has built its international reputation. It is very encouraging to note that the first two InnoHK clusters have been established focusing on healthcare-related technologies and artificial intelligence and robotics technologies. 

Another vital constituent in becoming a global research hub is the visionary Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park, a cross-border collaboration project under development at the Lok Ma Chau Loop on the Shenzhen border. This is an ambitious project covering 87 hectares and upon completion in 2027, it will provide a gross floor area of 1.2 million square meters. The vision is to attract world-class companies, research and higher education institutions from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and overseas, leveraging manufacturing and supply chain capabilities within the Greater Bay Area, while attracting top-tier local and overseas talent. The park is also designed to support cultural and creative industries with the space and lifestyle facilities to match the lofty ambition of this exciting project. Key to its success will be the government’s ability to enlist the support and participation of leading internationally anchored institutions and corporations.

One of the challenges facing Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s government is how best to reverse the outflow of talent which resulted from previously strict COVID-19 policies, and counter the resulting damage to Hong Kong’s reputation and image overseas. 

The chief executive has highlighted a number of initiatives which included introducing measures to incentivize companies of strategic importance to set up operations here. These include commonly used tax and land incentives to provide a competitive advantage. There is also a promotional campaign underway in leading universities that promotes career prospects and lifestyle on offer to graduates, many of whom are locals studying abroad. A number of visa-related incentives have also been introduced including the Top Talent Pass Scheme that can provide a two-year visa to high achievers without a job offered and a quota of 10,000 for new graduates who do not meet existing work experience requirements. 

In an increasing competitive marketplace, it remains to be seen how effective these initiatives will prove to be, although it is encouraging to note the strong desire and willingness of the government to swiftly introduce measures to redress the situation. However, it is also important to address the employment problems facing many businesses in less strategic or high value sectors, many of whom are still suffering as a result of the severity of the previously strict pandemic measures and border closures.

In light of the economic woes facing many Western economies and relatively little opportunity for growth on the scale of, for example, the Greater Bay Area or indeed strong growth forecasts in other Asian economies, it seems reasonable to assume that the tide will gradually turn and Hong Kong will once again be an exciting and attractive option.

The author is a member of the Global Advisory Board, MilleniumAssociates AG.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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