Hong Kong start-up SmartMore is the city’s new hi-tech poster child

A smart manufacturing start-up founded in 2019 by a Chinese University of Hong Kong professor has been hand-picked by the government as a poster child representing the city’s ambitions to become a hi-tech hub.

Government-run Hong Kong Investment Corporation (HKIC) and home-grown unicorn SmartMore celebrated their “strategic cooperation” at a ceremony on Wednesday, in a rare official endorsement of a start-up.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po hailed SmartMore as a typical Hong Kong story: raised in the city, expanding in the Greater Bay Area, and aspiring to global success.

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While privately-held SmartMore has not disclosed its financial data, the company is known as one of the fastest-growing start-ups in China. At the ceremony, the firm displayed products ranging from sensor bar-code readers to an automated machine designed to quickly spot defects in products, such as mobile-phone frames and earphones, in a production line.

According to a SmartMore brochure, the company’s products are used by major clients worldwide, including advanced lens maker Carl Zeiss, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, and Japanese camera and office equipment maker Canon. On the mainland, its clients include leading television producer TCL, smartphone brand Oppo and Apple’s largest contractor Foxconn Technology Group.

SmartMore’s business focus of applying artificial intelligence, automation and optics engineering to factory machinery, a result of research expertise accumulated by its founder Jia Jiaya over two decades, fits into China’s broader strategy of upgrading its vast web of manufacturing facilities with cutting-edge technologies.

Jia, who on Wednesday delivered speeches in Cantonese, Mandarin and English – Hong Kong’s official languages – said the city will be SmartMore’s first choice for an initial public offering down the road. The company is valued at an estimated HK$10 billion after at least three funding rounds backed by investors such as IDG Capital and HongShan.

It is a “must” for the company to float its shares to finance its expansion and generate returns for shareholders, said Jia, who came to the city in 2000 to study at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and joined Chinese University in 2005.

The founder did not provide a timetable for SmartMore’s public listing plans, saying that the company is looking for a favourable financial and economic situation.

HKIC CEO Clara Chan Ka-chai said Smartmore has been given a mandate to boost the city’s technology ecosystem. She declined to disclose how much money the government will invest in the company.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu delivered a video message during the opening of the strategic partnership signing ceremony of HKIC and SmartMore. Photo: Sun Yeung

In a videotaped speech, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu heaped praise on SmartMore, saying its deal with HKIC holds a significant meaning partly because it includes a plan to establish “the first artificial intelligence academy of Hong Kong”.

Hong Kong is placing high hopes on tech start-ups to reinvent its economy, as the city’s traditional advantages in finance, shipping and trade come under threat amid growing US-China tensions.

Asked about the possible impact of geopolitics on SmartMore, including restricted chip supplies from the US, Jia said the firm’s business is relatively immune to such curbs because the chips used in smart manufacturing machines are less advanced than those found in consumer electronics like smartphones.

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