Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Miles Wen and Albert Lam are at the heart of innovation, providing winning solutions for businesses with their AI start-up, Fano Labs

As machines increasingly complement human labour in the workplace, Hong Kong-based R&D Fano Labs uses speech, natural processing (NLP), and big data technologies to alleviate the pressure that businesses face when dealing with customer service.

“We are getting a lot of inbound requests from clients,” says Dr Miles Wen, founder and CEO of Fano Labs. “Everyone is knocking on the door and saying: ‘Hey, we need your technology. Can you do it for us?’”

Established in 2015 and backed by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Innovation and Technology Commission, and Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, as well as angel investors, Fano Labs is the first Hong Kong start-up backed by Horizons Venture – the private investment arm of Li Ka-shing.

Wen’s interest in start-ups began in Changchun, mainland China, where he grew up. Inspired by the lives of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, to name but two, he excelled in science-related courses and once even took apart a television set so he could better understand the making of it.

While completing his bachelor’s degree, he contemplated on whether he should launch his start-up right then. But under the guidance of Dr Victor Li, Chair Professor of Information Engineering at HKU and co-founder of Fano Labs, he

decided to pursue higher learning.

Wen completed his PhD at HKU and then became a Fulbright Scholar at University of California, Berkeley, but returned to the city when the Hong Kong government had funds to allot to his type of start-up.

When Fano Labs launched three years ago, Wen was primarily alone in its first year with no growth. Between 2016-2017, it received its first funding from investors, increasing the number of staff from a one-man band to a team of seven staff members. This included Dr Albert Lam, chief scientist and acting chief technology officer at Fano Labs. Lam was also under the mentorship of Dr Li. It was through him that both Wen and Li came to know of each other.

“We  share some common vision and want to be creative. We want to have an impact to society,” says Lam. “Our goal of doing research is to create something useful and innovative.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lam’s interest in technology started at age 10 when he got his first computer. At that time, he was keen on learning computer programming. He went on to pursue his PhD at HKU.

With the growing number of clients that Fano Labs has managed thus far, it appreciates what artificial intelligence (AI) has to offer. For instance, AI can have a positive and incredible influence on everyone in the community, from improving one’s life, their work, to interacting with other people.

Fano Labs devotes itself to developing the best solutions for its clients while advancing the knowledge of people and society. It has been shown that both traditional analytical techniques and new “deeper learning” techniques where AI can be a valuable tool for customer service management and personalisation challenges. With this in mind, obtaining or creating massive data is difficult.

“But if you look at it in a way where you’re not sharing data but you’re rather making data available to allow us to develop the tool to help you solve problems, then we’re probably going to get the green light,” says Wen. “Hong Kong companies are very cautious when dealing with data. That’s a good thing because that means they are serious in protecting their customers’ information.”

Asked about stories of cybercrimes making headlines, Fano Labs takes security very seriously.

“Right now, we need to pay more attention to that. As long as we get more data, people are more interested in that. We’re taking measures to prevent unauthorised access to the data we use and we also try to make sure that we only work on data that do not contain any sensitive or confidential information,” says Dr. Lam.

According to Dr. Wen, the notion that copycats could possibly emulate what Fano Labs offers is limited since its technology is very strong. He also adds that, in the area of AI, one needs data.

“Data makes our technologies even stronger. When it’s stronger, you get more clients.”

Lam further points out that in AI, it’s difficult to copy the same group of talents, –  he requires all of his staff to have PhDs – to possess a certain level of knowledge, and to acquire the right type of data, which serves as the access point.

Within three years of its launch, Fano Labs has been on a steady incline, making every step a strategic one.

In the near future, Fano Labs aims to raise more funding because it needs a bigger workforce in their team.

“To make sure that our technology stays the best in the world. At the same time, we’re going global,” says Wen. He also adds that countries in the South East Asia like the Philippines are within reach of Fano Labs.

According to Lam, there lies within the notion that technology can also change the world similar to other industries like in medicine, law, or business.

“We don’t always talk about money. We have visions of education and culture. We want to give the idea to parents that if their child is interested in technology, they should direct him or her on that path. We want talents to go to the right place,” says Lam.