Straddling the best of both worlds
Dr Cheung Nim-kwan, chief executive officer of Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (Astri), embodies the best of both worlds – science and philosophy. He has the logical and systematic thinking of a scientist, and the Zen-like calmness of a philosopher. After receiving two Bachelor of Science degrees – a general one in 1969 and a special one in 1970 from the University of Hong Kong – Cheung left for the United States to pursue further studies. He obtained his PhD degree in Physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Having spent more than three decades in the US, he was headhunted for the top job at Astri more than three years ago. He took the helm about a year later after an arduous hiring process. Although he has spent many of his adult years away from Hong Kong, he says settling back in the city isn't difficult and he finds his job exceptionally rewarding. He talks to Luisa Tam.
Could you briefly outline your career history?
This is my second job. I worked for the Bell Laboratories and its group of companies for 30 years. But the nature of my work now is not too different from the time I was in the US. There I worked for the US federal government; here my client is the Hong Kong government. I am used to the public structure and the unavoidable constraints. The only differences are geographical and the language.
I think Hong Kong is only about 2 – 3 years behind the States in terms of technology. The city is very adaptable to new technological trends and is ahead of many countries in many ways. It is quick in deploying new technologies.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
I have to manage 600 people and 100 projects, so delegation is very important. I have an eight-member senior management team to help me run the operation and I am in constant, if not daily, contact with team members.
Besides working with my top team, I have to communicate with our clients, some on a daily basis. Communicating with clients, including the government and other major stakeholders such as industry partners, takes up half of my day. I have to check on the progress of projects and get updates on their development.
Keeping tabs on 100 projects is a huge task because each project has at least two industry partners. You can imagine how many people I have to deal with. That's why delegation is extremely important.
What are the challenges you face?
There are many challenges such as setting directions for the company and the team, finding appropriate resources and maximising them to get the work done. Another big challenge is to deal with changing technologies and trends. We have to try to get ahead of fast-changing technologies and predict trends. In this industry, very often a technology becomes obsolete when there is no demand for it. The survival of any technology is often decided by market demand. Therefore, marketing a new technology is very important.
A technology needs to be useful and functional but it must also have a strong public image to draw consumer support. Apple is one good example. It has a very strong public image shaped by its CEO, Steve Jobs. A popular technology is also a powerful and inspiring trendsetter.
What is the best part of your job?
[That would be] achieving technological breakthroughs. The level of excitement and pride you feel is like becoming a father for the first time. When we kicked-off thee-learning trial programme we had many young students attending our event, testing and enjoying the e-books. The sense of pride and gratification I got from seeing their happy faces and knowing our innovation has brought joy and convenience to them was indescribable.
We are also developing a tele-care system, which uses a remote system to monitor the vital signs of home-bound patients. Knowing that our invention could improve the lives and health of so many people brings me immense joy and pride.
Last year, we launched our 4G mobile technology at Shanghai Expo. On that project, we worked with China Mobile and it was all done according to Chinese standards. It was a real proud moment for us all at Astri when 4G was successfully launched at the expo opening on May 1.
What are the keys to being an effective leader?
A good leader should set the proper direction for his team, listen to different opinions and make decisions, even if those decisions may draw a negative response. Good leaders should be flexible enough to compromise.
Communication is important to success, especially when you have to run a big team or company. Good communication helps explain your thoughts. If you want people to buy into your ideas, you must give them the reasons why they should support you.
What is needed to train the next generation?
We must give them plenty of opportunities to maximise their talent and tackle challenges. I always encourage my staff by telling them “the sky is the limit” and remind them not to set limitations for themselves. I often encourage them by feeding them positive messages such as other peoples’ success stories.
How do you unwind and deal with day-to-day pressures?
I can just switch off after work and not think about work. I like to read history books of science and technology. I also enjoy taking a stroll in the cemetery. I’ve been to some of the well-known cemeteries such as the Pantheon in Paris, the final resting place for many of the world’s most distinguished scientists.
What advice do you have for young people?
Young people need to be encouraged to constantly push their limits and not give up just because of other people's perceived limitations. They must not let other people discourage them. They must set realistic goals and work hard to achieve them.
I always tell young people that personal achievements are not merely about being recognised and awarded prizes and medals; it’s about pushing yourself, maximising your potential and doing your utmost to accomplish something. That’s the kind of achievement that we should all value. I would tell them to have faith, believe in themselves and persevere.
What are Astri’s targets in the next few years?
In the next two years, we will continue to work on our ongoing projects such as the e-reading trial programme and tele-healthcare. We will also try to commercialise more of our projects, allowing them to have wider market application and commercial use. We will work on further expanding our collaboration with the mainland by seeking out more R & D and industry partners on the mainland.