From keeping restaurants safe in Delhi to applying bug-busting surface coatings to Hong Kong commuter train compartments, finding ways to control the coronavirus pandemic has relied on Hong Kong’s innovative entrepreneurs. Their strategies, services and products have helped hard-hit sectors reopen and rebuild even as Covid-19 remains a health threat.
Carrying more than 3m passengers per day, the MTR Corporation provides vital transport links for Hong Kong. But, with a virus that spreads through aerosol and droplet contact, keeping staff and passengers safe was a challenge. The MTR appointed a special committee to take a leading role in implementing its infection prevention strategy. “Information related to the pandemic, such as strengthened precautionary measures and confirmed Covid-19 cases among staff, is proactively provided to the public to keep them well-informed,” a spokesperson said.
The corporation stepped up its cleaning and disinfection of stations using a non-toxic disinfectant, nano silver-titanium dioxide coating, to kill a wide range of germs and bacteria on surfaces that passengers commonly touch inside train compartments. In addition, the operator introduced its Vapourised Hydrogen Peroxide Robots (VHP), a development between MTR and Avalon Biomedical, a Hong Kong biotechnology company.
The VHP Robot can access small gaps difficult to reach through normal cleaning work and can eliminate viruses and bacteria. “We plan to deploy a total of 20 VHP robots for train cleaning in depots and hope this helps to ensure the comfort of passengers’ journeys by providing ever greater health protection for our colleagues and our customers alike,” the spokesperson said.
Another innovation keeping Hong Kong safe and clean is Raze, a sanitising coating that can be sprayed on surfaces to keep them virus-free for up to three months. Raze, which began as a disinfectant in the agricultural sector, had expanded to commercial properties and shopping malls through a partnership with Henderson Land. Chief executive Vincent Fong thought the product, which also eliminates mould, bacteria and even odours, could help in the pandemic and contacted the Hong Kong government.
Mr Fong believes the use of sanitisers has become embedded in society in Hong Kong and elsewhere. “A lot of the measures and innovations that keep people safe, such as temperature checks and masks, are here to stay,” he said. “People are more aware of the health of their environment now.” “It’s not just Hong Kong”, he added. Since the start of the pandemic, Raze has expanded its operations to Mainland China, the UK, Italy and South Africa.
Other Hong Kong entrepreneurs have taken their technology abroad, too. Prenetics, which began as a DNA testing service, developed a coronavirus test that was rolled out across the city as part of Project Screen, a non-profit testing programme backed by a consortium that included Prudential, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and others. Expanding to the UK, it’s available for £80 for departing passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport, and is used to test players and staff in the English Premier League.
One sector most affected by the pandemic has been hospitality – hotels, conventions and restaurants have all taken a hit. Bouncing back will be a challenge, but the sector has been among the most proactive in confronting the pandemic.
Black Sheep Restaurants, a Hong Kong-based company that runs 27 eateries in the city, took a global lead, perhaps inadvertently, in preparing its staff for a storm. Co-founder Syed Asim Hussain said that when he read about the outbreak in mainland China, he called his team leaders in for a meeting. “We should expect this thing to be at our doorstep in a week's time,” he told them. “What are the things we are going to do to keep running our businesses and keep people on our front line safe?”
The meeting resulted in a hastily prepared action plan. But their “Covid-19 Playbook” – initially a notebook of ideas – quickly went viral and was copied and adapted worldwide as a how-to manual for eateries to navigate the pandemic. “That sort of went everywhere, from Detroit to Delhi,” said Mr Hussain.
“In March, April and May, the playbook was just an internal document that we started writing”, he said. “Then we started getting phone calls from chefs and restaurateurs asking for it, so we made it a public resource for folks in our city”. Blacksheep’s playbook quickly spiralled into a global movement. “It's been shared all over the world and it's been translated into five different languages,” said Mr Hussain.
As an international finance centre, Hong Kong’s vibrant innovation and technology sectors rushed to develop and implement responses to the pandemic. Drawing on Hong Kong’s experience, financial technology (fintech) came to the fore as customers avoided bricks-and-mortar banks, relying on online banking and fintech start-ups.
King Leung, head of fintech at Invest Hong Kong (InvestHK), which promotes foreign direct investment in Hong Kong, believes the city was able to harness two key tech strengths in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic: medical technology and fintech. “The pandemic just happened to occur at an inflection point for fintech in Hong Kong,” said Mr Leung, referring to a surge of investment in 2019. According to Accenture, HK$2.92bn (US$374m) was poured into Hong Kong fintech in 2019, nearly double the 2018 total.
Fintech companies did their bit in the fight to contain the coronavirus crisis, Mr Leung added, citing companies such as Fenergo, which accelerated the launch of two solutions to address the demand for remote account opening among mid-tier and boutique business and commercial banks as banks were unable to open physical branches during the pandemic; Ksher is rolling out the omni-channel digital payment, marketing and e-commerce services in Hong Kong and other regions in Asia to support the digital transformation of their clients.
The pandemic has spurred faster digitalisation rather than obstructing it. “Major companies have had to adopt new technology,” said Mr Leung. “With Covid-19, we’ve had to change faster and condense three years of work into just a few months,” he said.