From applied research to commercialization: CityUE companies make their mark
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Three companies which attracted significant external investors last year are BonVision Technology (Hong Kong) Ltd and Warren Health Technologies Ltd, both CityUE affiliated companies, and e.Energy Technology Ltd, a CityUE associated company.
BonVision: merging AI with e-commerce
Another major shareholder in the company is C E I Contract Manufacturing Technology, a subsidiary of Singapore Technologies. The other two major shareholders are CityUE and Dr Chun.
In addition to the artificial intelligence (AI) work in which AOTL specialized, BonVision has another main line of business: e-commerce. Expediting this focus are the partnerships First Shanghai has formed with BroadVision Inc, a leading portal infrastructure company, and Sun Microsystems Inc, a leading provider of the industrial strength hardware, software and services that power the Internet. Under the partnerships, BonVision will become an application services provider (ASP) operator and distributor of BroadVision, and will join Sun Microsystems' iForce community. "It's basically a marketing relationship-if Sun Microsystems has a marketing event, a seminar, or an exhibition, we will join them. If someone's interested in using Sun's hardware, they may also be interested in using our services," Dr Chun explained.
BonVision's main work is twofold: customer application, or enterprise solution (designing and building software from customized software development); and system integration (putting together different components in hardware and software). "We already have a specialization in IT, so we're merging that with e-commerce applications," Dr Chun said.
From hospital rosters to product configuration
The projects BonVision is currently undertaking include using optimisation scheduling AI to plan factory production lines for a contract manufacturer. In this type of company the production lines are dynamic, arranged to produce an item one week, and a different one the following week. "What they need is some way to decide what they should produce, how many, which line and where-they have several factories," Dr Chun explained.
Hong Kong's Hospital Authority has also taken advantage of BonVision's expertise by using their software to manage ward rosters in the 44 hospitals it administers. "It's being used by more than 300 people, each with slightly different requirements-which makes for a very complicated system!" Dr Chun laughed.
In merging with e-commerce, Dr Chun is looking at developing software for product configuration. "The market trend is towards mass customization, and what we are trying to do is replicate knowledge previously held by salespersons into a website, so there is a knowledge base that knows which configuration works with another," explained Dr Chun. The technical know-how to put that kind of product configuration knowledge into a computer is not yet readily available, but the team at BonVision has this expertise.
Another area Dr Chun will focus on is workflow management, primarily for B2B exchanges. "Currently such exchanges are very superficial; basically, you find buyers and sellers, then you send and e-mail, and then you do business." More sophisticated B2B exchanges require a deeper knowledge of the organizations involved. "What that means is that you actually take care of your back office operation as well. That means many more processes to go through, using a lot of AI," Dr Chun said.
Offering a unique service
Dr Chun believes BonVision is unique in both Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of AI because so far not many companies have had the opportunity to work on projects like these. All BonVision's developers, the technical staff, are graduates of CityU. As for what the future holds, he is confident that their partnership with First Shanghai will result in many opportunities. "First Shanghai has investments in China's mainland in furniture factories, childcare products, insurance-a large portfolio of old economy companies they want to bring into the Internet world."
In Shanghai, BonVision is building an e-logistic B2B portal for import-export companies. Following the soft launch, they are already handling 10-15% of all export business in Shanghai. Another B2C portal is being developed in Beijing for Goodbaby.com, which has cornered 70-80% of the baby goods market.
BonVision's CityU connection is vital to the success of the company, Dr Chun stressed. "A lot of what we're doing requires advanced technology that we can't just buy off the shelf, and that's where CityU comes in. It's a good combination-all the technology comes from CityU and our technical staff are trained there, so there's a consistency that gives the company a good image."
e.Energy turns on the lights
Co-founded by Chair Professor of Electronic Engineering, Professor Ron Hui, Associate Professor Dr Henry Chung, in the Department of Electronic Engineering, and CityUE, e.Energy Technology Ltd provides a wide range of consultancy services, designs and manufactures electronic products, and upgrades products for the electrical and electronic industry, both local and international.
Electronic ballast breakthrough The initial focus of the company is the development of electronic ballasts for lighting systems, a research topic Professor Hui and Dr Chung have been working on for several years. "Our initial research was very basic and we had to achieve a certain fundamental breakthrough before we could developa stable and reliable product," Professor Hui said.
Electronic ballasts control lighting systems, be they fluorescent lamps or high-intensity discharge lamps. In the last four years, Professor Hui and Dr Chung have developed a compact fluorescent lamp system which is dimmable, a unique product which can be controlled with ordinary household dimmers. "In the existing market, compact fluorescent lamps can only be dimmed down to 20-30% of their maximum intensity, at which point the lamp starts flickering. We have a unique invention, for which we've filed a patent, which dims the light intensity down to 5%," Professor Hui explained.
Given the significant energy saving that would result from installing these lamps, it is understandable that a group of investors, with a range of relevant backgrounds including the legal profession, a venture capitalist, a marketing company, and a building and construction company, have put HK$8 million (and free legal service for the next three to five years) into the company. "The investors realize that our product doesn't change with the seasons; a lighting system will be used forever," Professor Hui said. And a major property company has also expressed interest in the product, a prototype of which was sent for safety and regulatory tests in April.
On to a winner
But perhaps the clearest indication that e.Energy is on to a winner with its dimmable ballasts is the invitation Professor Hui and Dr Chung received last year to give a presentation at the Philips Electronics Research Centre in Aachen, Germany. "What we're doing is closely related to their business, so they've asked us to keep them up-to-date with our activities," Dr Chung said.
While it may seem surprising that Philips, with all its resources, hasn't got there first, Professor Hui put e.Energy's success down to the right combination of expertise. "I started doing research on electronic ballasts in the 90s, then when I came to CityU I met Henry, who's an expert in electronic design and control." Then Research Fellow Dr Wei Yan, whose PhD supervisor at the University of Toronto was one of the leading experts in the use of plasma physics in lighting systems, joined the team and creative sparks began to fly. "The three of us interacted really well and our combined expertise triggered new ideas."
Although e.Energy has a list of products, it will focus initially on only tw the dimmable compact fluorescent lamp, which they predict will replace incandescent light bulbs, and the dimmable electronic ballast for tubular lamps, which has a similar design and purpose. They've chosen these two because of an interest-free loan of HK$1.5 million they received to develop the control chip from the government's Innovation and Technology Fund.
Professor Hui expects their first product to be ready for production within a year and on the market by 2002. However, he pointed out, the major motivation for forming e.Energy was to create jobs for their research staff and graduate students. "Our main concern in moving from basic research to applied research to commercialization is to create jobs. We now have people in Hong Kong who can develop real high technology and we believe the market for our product will be very positive, which means we can ensure our research staff and research graduates will have secure jobs."
Warren Health Technologies: introducing online diet control
In 1995, a unique computer project was initiated by CityU's Division of Computer Studies (DCO) in collaboration with Hong Kong's United Christian Hospital. A team of doctors and dieticians joined students and lecturers from DCO to design and develop a diabetes management system for monitoring the diet conditions of diabetic patients. "The project started after we read an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about a Diabetes Complication Control Trial (DCCT) in North America," explained Mr Ivan Li, Senior Lecturer in DCO and member of the Warren Health team, "The study covered 20 years and concluded that diabetes patients' complications can be controlled much better if they follow a strict regimen of diet and exercise that is closely monitored."
Unfortunately, however, the study also concluded that the cost of monitoring patients would be prohibitively high because of the need to use medical personnel to supervise diet and exercise. "The fact that monitoring plays a major role in diet control is what gave us the incentive to develop an automated monitoring system," said Dr Joseph Chan, Principal Lecturer in DCO.
Diet and diabetes
With the growing popularity of the western diet, it has become evident over the last 10 to 15 years that Hong Kong locals and Chinese people in general are increasingly vulnerable to diabetes mellitus (DM). Today, statistics show that 10% of the total Hong Kong population suffers from DM, compared with 5% in Guangzhou and 2.5% in the Pearl River Delta. In China as a whole, the figure is below 1%. "It's easy to draw a correlation between standard of living and a surplus diet consumption," Dr Chan said.
In 1995, the team came up with the idea of giving electronic dictionaries, programmed with flash cards, to DM patients. This would allow them to enter information on their exercise and diet regimen, which they could then upload via a telephone line into a hospital computer. With support from Hong Kong's Hospital Authority, the Industrial Technology Centre and CityU, a trial study was begun in 1996.
Monitoring diet through WAP technology
In 1998, Mr Li, Dr Chan and their colleague Mr Kenny Ma, a Lecturer in DCO, founded Health Tech Development Ltd, an affiliated company with CityUE. With the trial project an undoubted success-the blood sugar level of the DM patients who participated in the study stabilized by around 13%-the diet management system proved to be feasible and cost-effective. The team then came up with the idea of putting their Diet-Pal system on a different platform by utilizing WAP technology and the Internet to provide a better service. "In June last year we negotiated with an Internet content provider, a listed company which was interested in using the system for their clients," Dr Chan explained.
The system has been slightly modified to also target normal weight- and health-conscious individuals. Basically, clients use the system by inputting to the Health Tech server, through their WAP phone or the Internet, what they've eaten during the day and what exercise they've done. Calorie consumption is then calculated on an intake minus exercise basis, and the client knows whether he/she has had too few or too many calories, and what nutrients have been consumed during the day.
Another use clients can make of Diet-Pal is to make their own selection from the 18 different categories and sub-categories of food. The system will do an analysis of what they have chosen and provide a feedback on the number of calories, and nutrient components like fat, protein and carbohydrate, in each item. "The client has more control and can plan ahead and decide what else to eat," he said.
Around September 2000, a venture capitalist company, Warren Technology Group, expressed interest in the system, and eventually bought 70% of Health Technology shares. The new company was renamed Warren Health Technologies Ltd (WHT), and negotiations were begun for a listed company to purchase part of WHT.
Today, WHT looks forward to entering the potentially huge mainland China market. Several hospitals in Hong Kong have also expressed interest in using the system. And overseas interest has already been sparked: three hospitals in Rhode Island, US, are considering using the database for the members of ethnic groups in the state.