How the Greater Bay Area will cement Hong Kong's status as a hub for health care research

How the Greater Bay Area will cement Hong Kong's status as a hub for health care research

Video interview   

•  Significant progress has already been made towards developing R&D talent, infrastructure and financing in the city
•  The GBA’s size and booming economy open up opportunities for Hong Kong to expand the scope of its efforts

In October, the Hong Kong government proposed that the city could lead the development of a health technology hub to leverage the market potential of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (GBA).

In her 2021 policy address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the establishment of the InnoLife Healthtech Hub at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park. The hub will focus on health care research and complement existing research and development (R&D) investments and facilities.

The move was not only a huge shot in the arm for Hong Kong’s fast-growing health care sector, but also confirmed Hong Kong’s value as a vital connection point between China and the world. It also serves as an affirmation of the efforts and investments that have been made to develop the city into a global hub for health care R&D.

Nancy Ip, vice-president for research and development and Morningside professor of life science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, describes the potential of the GBA as a “golden opportunity” for health care research.

“Hong Kong has clear strengths in research and internationalisation,” she says. “We have been collaborating with scientists from top institutions around the world for years. This kind of collaboration is key to establishing Hong Kong as the innovation and technology hub in the GBA.”

Building on existing strengths

For those currently working in health care R&D, the newly announced initiative is a testament to Hong Kong’s strengths in this area.

“We have this relatively small city where we have a number of universities ranked relatively high in the world,” says Dennis Lo, the Li Ka Shing professor of medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

“We have two very well-established medical schools – the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and CUHK. And then we have the Hospital Authority, which actually looks after 90 per cent of the population here. So I think all that is synergistic to helping us to [become] a biomedical research hub.”

Ip points to three key areas that highlight Hong Kong’s potential: talent, infrastructure and finance. “I think for R&D, all these need to be in place,” she says.

In the first area, Hong Kong has already made significant headway in training and attracting talent. Last year, Lam’s policy address included a proposal to launch a five‑year global STEM professorship scheme at an estimated cost of HK$2 billion (US$257 million). Its objective is to attract outstanding overseas scientific researchers and their teams, and help them to set up laboratories and research projects in Hong Kong.

As for infrastructure, Ip says: “All scientific discoveries are really made by talented students, talented staff [and] talented scientists. But they need the infrastructure to make it possible.

“By infrastructure, I mean the entire environment, not just research infrastructure. We have the Hong Kong Science Park and Hong Kong Cyberport, and they are components of this overall infrastructure. We have five local universities within the top 100 universities in the world, so that component is already there.”

Regarding the finance component, Tony Mok, co-founder of biotech company Sanomics, applies a simple analogy.

“As a plant, you need your soil, and you need your nutrition. So the soil is the local talents, with different universities providing a lot of the people who have innovative ideas and technical know-how,” he says. “Nutrition is the resources. All research needs financial support, and Hong Kong is a great place for such [support].”

Ip says the Hong Kong government has been extremely supportive of R&D. “When I returned to Hong Kong in 1993, the Research Grants Council was just established. The funding support was extremely important for us to get research going.”

But it is not just a matter of public money – easier access to private funding also goes a long way. “Now, it’s easier to persuade venture capitalists to fund a Hong Kong company than it would be, say, 25 years ago,” Lo says.

GBA opening new doors for R&D.

The next phase of evolution for health care research, though, is the huge opportunity brought forward by the GBA.

The GBA offers a much larger base population of over 86 million, which Lo says is crucial not only for clinical trials, but also for the commercialisation of new tests and treatments.

“Previously, you only had Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million people, and there was a limit to how big a company [could] be,” Lo adds. “But now if you have the Greater Bay Area, then it’s a different order of magnitude.”

For entrepreneurial researchers such as Mok, there is also the potential that Hong Kong’s role in the GBA can offer to companies looking to scale up commercial operations across Asia-Pacific and global markets – particularly when it comes to the city’s role as a connection point between the mainland and the rest of the world.

Ultimately, Mok sees the GBA as essential to boosting Hong Kong’s health care R&D capacity. “If the government sees technology as a major way to take Hong Kong forward, I think we have a great future,” he says.

“We have great resources in terms of local talents. We are geographically located in the GBA, [which] is booming. So if we strategically put our resources in the right place, I see a great future for Hong Kong.”

“Previously, you only had Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million people, and there was a limit to how big a company [could] be,” Lo adds. “But now if you have the Greater Bay Area, then it’s a different order of magnitude.”

The inaugural Asia Summit on Global Health (ASGH) will be held as an in-person and online event on November 24 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The summit will examine global trends on health innovation and investment, explore areas of global collaboration in health, and showcase new business opportunities and partnerships for investors and project owners.