Last months, investors launched a start-up accelerator program that aims to bring together start-ups and corporate partners to turn the so-called Greater Bay Area (GBA) into a showcase for integrated urban mobility innovation. And while it might seem like unfortunate timing given the current political turmoil in Hong Kong, the program’s founders remain convinced that the GBA will weather the storm just fine.
The eight-week GreaterBayX accelerator program is a joint initiative by cross-border innovation advisory and investment firms Greater Bay Ventures and TGN Global. The program has the support of eight corporate partners – Asia Info, Hydata, HSBC, ITC, Microsoft, MTR, Siemens and TCL – to identify and support eight late-stage global tech start-ups focused on mobility and urban tech innovation, and bring them into the GBA.
The program comprises six weeks of preparation for a two-week roadshow in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Macau, culminating in a summit in Hong Kong discussing the results of the roadshow (including any potential deals that get landed along the way).
The program limits potential applicants to start-ups specializing in urban tech and mobility, have at least $1 million in revenue, a solid team and a product or service ready to scale into China. Tony Verb, co-founder and managing partner at GreaterBay Ventures & Advisors, said that while local start-ups can theoretically apply, the primary focus will be on companies who haven’t yet established a foothold in Greater China.
“We have a criteria system and a preference because we would like to bring new talents, new ideas, new technologies and new IP to this particular region,” Verb said.
Verb adds that the GreaterBayX program is different from typical corporate accelerator programs because of its multi-partner platform, which offers start-ups more diverse exposure.
“This is not innovation theatre – this is about business,” he said.
GreaterBayX co-director Joanna Cheung says the program focuses on a subset of urban tech that puts more emphasis on mobility-related innovations such as autonomous vehicles and urban transport.
“Advances that are very much in demand in the [GBA] would include some of the 5G application-layer type companies when it comes to cars – ADAS systems that can enable faster development into L4-L5, sensor technologies, battery technologies, etc,” she said. “We would also like to look at business solutions around different types of transportation innovation that goes beyond the commercial car – so a lot of two-wheel solutions including scooters, sharing economy-related business solutions, things like that.”
Cheung added that while the GreaterBayX program isn’t looking at 5G network technology itself, the GBA presents a great opportunity to play around with 5G-enabled solutions via the 5G trial sites deployed in the area.
“5G is more of a horizontal sector, just like blockchain or education,” she said.
Verb added that the program is deliberately focusing on mobility and urban tech because he expects it to be a hot sector investment in the coming years. “Urbanization is about to erupt over the coming decades. There are very precise reports on this.”
Another reason, he said, is that the GBA is a prime location for developing and demonstrating integrated urban mobility tech solutions. Moreover, he adds, the successes from the program would be easy to export globally.
“Urbanization is universal – we know more or less what the challenges are, and what the processes are, and they are universal whether they happen in China, North Korea, Venezuela, Africa, or Europe – it doesn’t really matter,” Verb said. “The ways you can use innovation technology are relatively universal. So from an investment thesis point of view, this is pretty much as good as it gets. It has longevity, a relatively high level of predictability, and as a consequence, we can mitigate risk.”
The Elephant in the Room
Verb acknowledged that bringing start-ups into the GBA comes with a number of challenges, perhaps the most formidable being the fact that the area comprises multiple legal systems, languages and cultures.
“There are challenges in how this integration works, but these challenges are also opportunities from a technology and innovation point of view,” he said. “If we can showcase technology and innovation that works in this region, then those solutions can be applied pretty much anywhere in the world.”
He also said that the corporate partners participating in GreaterBayX bring a lot of local resources and expertise to the mix that will help overcome any integration challenges. “We are relying on our partners’ expertise and our collective intelligence to produce results that can be replicated around the world.”
The other challenge – and the current elephant in the room – is the ongoing political protests in Hong Kong over the government’s proposed extradition amendment bill. Weeks of protests marked by frequent violence between frontline protesters and police have had a significant impact on Hong Kong’s economy, while the city’s uncertain future is reportedly rattling investor confidence. Even the city’s smart-city ambitions are under fire as protesters see smart lamp posts as ‘facial recognitions towers’ installed on Beijing’s behalf.
However, Verb said he remains resolutely unrattled, viewing the Hong Kong situation as a temporary one that will be resolved eventually in a way that won’t impact China’s overall plan to develop the GBA.
“Business will be will always be in this region, and business opportunities will always be in this region, and business opportunities will be always in Hong Kong, at least for the foreseeable decade,” he maintained. “It’s not going to change.”
Cheung agreed, adding that the GBA would generate opportunities for Hong Kong in terms of jobs, innovation and new developments, that would be will be “invigorating” for the city.
“The graphics of what’s being presented every day and what we actually see on the streets is sad, but these communication bridges will be built and the Greater Bay will still exist, and, these opportunities will still exist,” she said.
This article first appeared in Disruptive.Asia, and can be found here.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CDOTrends.