Aspiring young entrepreneurs typically plan to start a business after leaving college, but SQ Mah couldn’t wait that long. Currently in his junior year at the University of California, Berkeley, he recently set up AI Blocks during a Covid-enforced stay back in Hong Kong, and he has high hopes for what it can achieve.
“The start-up capital was mine, and I’m serious about making it a properly run company; that’s my ambition and goal,” he says. “It is a one-man operation at the moment, but I’m committed to making it happen.”
What instils confidence is the experience he has already gained working as an intern for ILES, a Science Park-based company which needed help with various AI-related projects.
While there, Mah first took the lead in developing a system to “read” and verify the license plate numbers of vehicles entering a car park for government employees only. He was then asked to devise a surer way of checking the track positions of MTR trains to avert the possibility of any future collisions.
“At the start I didn’t know anything about AI, but they had no one else in the company to figure it out. They said this guy can try, so I did. I wasn’t too concerned about not delivering, and that absence of fear really helped. I could try anything and everything, but I also read a ridiculous amount of textbooks and, later on, formalised that learning with some relevant classes.”
Mah soon realised that, so far, not many people in Hong Kong have AI expertise. Some, of course, do work on major projects involving possibly thousands of cameras and vast quantities of data. But there is a gap in the market for anyone who can set up smaller, scalable systems which can be easily adapted to meet differing needs.
“I very much believe in the modularisation of AI,” Mah says. “If you have a good basic model, there is no need to rebuild everything from scratch. My plan is to turn projects into repeatable blocks, but with a different user interface and specific features for every customer.”
At Berkeley he is taking a joint progamme in electrical engineering and computer science along with a dual degree in business administration. It is a lot to cram in, but Mah believes in getting the most out of his time as an undergraduate. Last summer, he also completed a product management internship with Oracle in Silicon Valley and this year, all being well, will spend three months with Microsoft in Seattle in their cloud and AI division.
“It is all very valuable experience if you want to be an entrepreneur,” he says.
The original spark for all this, he recalls, was a first encounter back in 2008 with an iPod touch device, which at the time seemed “pretty mind-blowing”. In due course, that inspired an interest in coding and robots. And while still at Renaissance College in Hong Kong, Mah won the scientist and mathematician category at the 2017 Student of the Year Awards, an event organised by the SCMP and Young Post and sponsored by The Hong Kong Jockey Club.
One of the judges there, Albert Wong Hak-keung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), was impressed by his potential and generously offered to act as a mentor. The subsequent internship at the Science Park clearly opened doors, and Wong continues to offer advice on how to size up market potential and get a start-up off the ground.
“I’ve always been instilled with the energy to take on new challenges and get things done,” Mah says. “Looking ahead a bit, the next great big vision is that I might start a rocket company. The fascination comes from the difficulty of the challenge; it’s very alluring. I’m already trying to learn the technical aspects of how to create enough thrust. It’s a beautiful balancing act, like trying to run a company.”