Start it Up with TSSSU@HKU

Start it Up with TSSSU@HKU

Here's a golden opportunity for the entrepreneurial-minded to translate their new technologies and inventions into business opportunities. TSSSU@HKU is a new award programme with an annual budget of HK$4 million, and the HKU edition of the Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities (TSSSU) launched by the Innovation and Technology Commission in October 2014. It provides funding support to technology startup companies formed by HKU students, staff and alumni. Applications can be made through the Technology Transfer Office which, for 2014-15, received 29 applications. Eight were awarded TSSSU@HKU funding, including Passber Limited and NovoHeart Limited, who share their stories here.

FROM STUDENT CLUB TO START-UP


Andy Leung (right) and Ivan Law (left), founders of Passber

A firm started by university students, for university students, mushrooms into a social network and a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Sound familiar? The success of Facebook may be a distant dream, but Andy Leung and Ivan Law are taking a page from its book to launch their own service to students that has potential for much wider application.

Their startup, Passber (Passport for Membership), aims to make it much easier for clubs to manage their membership, for members to use club services, and for relevant external businesses and firms to reach these members.

It is premised on a simple idea, that people with one common interest may have other common interests, but it has been propelled by more practical concerns.

Andy and Ivan, who met while they were studying for an MSc in E-Commerce and Internet Computing (MEICOM), realised student clubs at HKU relied on volunteers to manage their memberships and had cumbersome, sometimes repetitive procedures. Andy had also worked with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has small internal clubs, and knew the problem of membership management was a widespread one.

Their solution is to offer an automated solution through a one-stop app for registering, keeping records, carrying sponsored advertising and enabling members to find other clubs and services.

"More advanced organisations will have systems to manage memberships, but a lot of clubs are managed on a volunteer basis and they don't have money to buy sophisticated software. When volunteers turnover, the new ones have to try to pick up where the others left off. We think our software can benefit them," Ivan said.

He has a logistical automated software background to complement Andy's background with user experience (UX) design and community groups. Their MEICOM training, combined with participation in HKU's Entrepreneurship Academy and as active volunteers, provided them with the additional skills needed to develop and launch their platform.

They also received advice and support from various professors, HKU staff and alumni, such as the Associate Vice-President (Research) of HKU, Professor Paul Cheung, and the Director (Alumni Affairs) of the Development & Alumni Affairs Office, Miss Janet Chung.

Passber is being tested on campus first, but the goal is to reach a wider audience of young people. "First we want to get people connected to our service and using it, and then we want to focus on building a community. Once we have that, Passber can become a main place of communication for users to share photos and talk to each other, and for clubs and SMEs to talk to customers," Andy said.

MATTERS OF THE HEART


A mini human heart engineered from ventricular heart muscle cells derived from pluripotent stem cells being recorded for ECG signals or 'heart rhythms'. This heart can pump, with its pressure measured, and respond to various neurohormonal inputs and pharmacological stimuli as does our native heart.

Professor Ronald Li (right) holding the "mini-heart", with Mr Allen Ma, Chief Executive Officer, Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (left)

Professor Ronald Li, Founding Director of the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Consortium at HKU, created the world's first genetically engineered human heart cells and the first "mini-heart" grown in the lab. These inventions are amazing in themselves but he has also been engaged in translating his inventions into products that can be used by industry and others.

His start-up, NovoHeart, is a global stem cell biotechnology company that aims to revolutionise drug discovery, reduce patient harm and pioneer next-generation cardiac tissue engineering.

Drug discovery may seem an unexpected target for heart-focused research, but cardiotoxicity is a major reason why all kinds of drug trials fail, including cancer drug trials.

"Our inventions can test drugs far more quickly and without harm to patients," Professor Li said.

The drugs are applied directly to the human heart cells, heart "sheets" of cells, muscle fibres or 3-D mini-hearts that Professor Li has developed with his team, which includes collaborators in the US. Many drug compounds can be tested simultaneously.

"Before, drug trials had to look at one drug at a time, a process that can take years and cost up to US$1 billion or more. With synthesised cells and organs, we can now screen 10s of 10,000s of compounds at a time and get rapid feedback.

"If a drug is not working, or alternatively if it is enhancing cardio function, we want to know as early as possible."

His constructs have been developed with funding from the Theme-based Research Scheme, Innovation and Technology Fund and TSSSU@HKU, and support from the Hong Kong Science Park and HKU's Technology Transfer Office

NovoHeart has also signed a strategic partnership with Pfizer that will take its technology to the next stage, and continue to involve the researchers. "This is not like a cooking recipe that can be re-produced. It also involves know-how, so we will have to stay involved," he said.

The company will also work on developing its constructs into treatments for patients. A transplantable heart from the lab could be developed within the next few years. Patients could also benefit from synthetic "patches" that repair heart damage at an early stage. All of these could be personalised from a simple draw of five millilitres of blood – which, in fact, was the starting point of his mini-heart.

"With what we and our colleagues around the world are doing, there are going to be even more promising developments over the next three years. But the first step is this revolution in drug discovery."