HKUST has become a hotbed of innovation. In this story, we meet three alumni entrepreneurs who have battled through the challenges of setting up their own companies and emerged triumphantly. When one thinks of entrepreneurialism at HKUST, some descriptors come to mind: flexibility, adaptability, resourcefulness, intuition and hard work.

The three alumni are forging their way through obstacles in different industries, and exemplifying the spirit needed to achieve big things. We look at Smart manufacturing and related industries; Medical tech and sleep devices; and using WhatsApp Business API to supercharge customer experience. A common thread of these entrepreneurs is the ability to move with the era and battle through hard times. The results, as we shall see, are companies that mark the zeitgeist of our age.


Mentors from HKUST were so important to me on my journey and inspired me to do top-of-the-line research. We could brainstorm among the best, which gave courage and belief.

A perfect vision for growth

Jiaya Jia (2004 PhD Computer Science), Founder and Board Chairman of SmartMore, exemplifies many of the qualities that signify achievement. Jiaya has been a professor in Computer Science and Engineering at CUHK, and taught, acted as a researcher for the likes of Adobe, Microsoft and Tencent, learning about everything from automotive, to medical devices, and automation in manufacturing.

Since first studying Computer Science as an undergrad at the Fudan University, he has made leaps and bounds in computer vision, artificial intelligence, and computational imaging, turning SmartMore into a unicorn along the way. “I spent more than ten years making photography with better quality, and now the algorithms for making photos on your phone are very powerful. When we integrate AI into that, the future looks bright. All these revolutions happened within a few years, who knows what the future will bring,” Jiaya says.

Bringing in the future

Founded in 2019, SmartMore applies AI to vision and optical technology, with a wealth of applications in smart manufacturing in a wide range of areas including precise machines, automotive, consumer electronics and new energy as well as smart factories. “It’s a new sphere that requires high standard techniques and experts with know-how and experience. Many students shy away from industrial work, but this is a misunderstanding — we are making all the processes automatic”. In the future, workers will perform tasks in a separate room from machines, monitoring the production line — it is beginning to happen now. “The world is changing from labor intensive to automatic, but we still need people to carry out quality control. Having said that, AI can help cover up many human flaws, acting as a safety net,” says Jiaya.

The shining star

As we visit the SmartMore Museum of Innovation in Shenzhen, we are witness to many technologies that allow for deep learning and automation, ultimately making the production line more efficient and smarter. SmartMore’s futuristic vision has seen it complete four rounds of funding within 18 months, the fastest smart manufacturing technology company to become a unicorn in Hong Kong, boasting hundreds of staff globally.

“Everyone talks about AI, but most people don’t know how to bring AI correctly into real industrial applications”. Jiaya has deep experience in the manufacturing industry, and calls most machines used by the industry today “no-intelligence machines”, contrary to SmartMore’s “smart machines”. As Jiaya points out: “Traditional machines have no mind and do not know what they are making, not to mention how good their working quality is.”

It is a new-generation for industry 4.0, where each machine is aware of the environment and can perform quality control better than humans to guarantee high-precision, high-efficiency production. “Labor-intensive work in factories has become unpopular globally, and many industries are approaching us — this is our golden moment,” says Jiaya.

The SmartMore Museum of Innovation is a testament to the company’s strong commitment to futuristic applications, showcasing advancements in its areas of expertise. As the editorial team walks around the impressive space, this company was almost destined to be successful.

AI could make the perfect growth scenario

Becoming a unicorn in two years has nonetheless been an amazing achievement, and much of that was Jiaya taking his experience and discovering what was interesting and unique to the commercial world. “When we generated the business model, we sought to do the most difficult things possible. It became a mantra for our company, because if it’s difficult for us, it is always a high barrier for competitors,” Jiaya says.

SmartMore’s market reach encompasses many industries, and with AI on the rise, this potential can only get bigger. “We are in the best potential window in human history, a new industrial revolution, upgrading workers to work with AI and ultimately this could make the world a much more exciting place,” Jiaya says.

HKUST heritage a core strength

Jiaya credits HKUST professors for their strong help along the way. Mentors that helped SmartMore rise include Prof. Harry Shum, who is now Council Chairman of HKUST and had been Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, along with Prof. Chi Keung Tang from HKUST Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“These mentors from HKUST were so important to me on my journey and inspired me to do top-of-the-line research. They did give us a lot of pressure, pushing us to publish in the most influential publications, and helping me find my place among the top scientists in the field. We could brainstorm among the best, which gave courage and belief,” says Jiaya.

Jiaya is conferred the Best Innopreneur Award 2022 by the Fedration of Hong Kong Industries

Jiaya’s advice to budding entrepreneurs is simple. “I would say this to anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur — it is important to know how the world of business really runs. I learnt that research is just research, when you really want to do something, you need a unique and promising business model,” he says.

“You also need to have a philosophy about what you want to do and be willing to go through pain. Start-ups are time-consuming; people should take them seriously and be realistic about the timeline, especially with trials. If such a journey eventually leads to failure, you will waste time, resources, and investment. Fully understand all possible consequences before committing all your time to it. Think carefully and prepare well,” he adds.


Enjoy the journey, hone your communication skills, and work on your sales skills — you should be able to sell air.

Life is getting better

At the heart of many tech companies is a powerful ambition to create a wonderful world for all. Lydia Leung (1998 BEng, 2000 MPhil and 2005 PhD Electrical and Electronic Engineering), CEO of Belun Technology, is working towards just that. Belun specializes in wearable medical AI solutions for screening sickness, diagnosing sleep disorders, and preventing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Established in 2016 with two co-founders and one of them also from HKUST, Belun’s key unique selling point is that it helps customers manage all these issues from the comfort of their own home.

Formerly Director of Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI), Lydia was able to take her business acumen and apply it to sensor packaging, bio-medical signal processing, and AI, to create smart wearable devices. It also helps that many of her current colleagues are from ASTRI. “Although when we started we had a low salary and long working hours, we enjoyed the moments together and built an amazing team spirit,” Lydia says. “The team has different areas of expertise, so that allows us to be like a super Lego, plugging in, learning new things, and being able to catch up quickly,” she adds.

Start-ups often need that decisive moment where things fall into place. Indeed, COVID was the moment that Belun proved it was a force to be reckoned with, and the company’s remote monitoring system, used in care homes globally to monitor the likes of oxygen saturation and pulse rate, was crucial to help people survive the epidemic.

Sleep is the key to health

Belun’s success was not unnoticed, and soon Lydia received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the Belun Sleep System, which became the world’s first wearable ring diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea, with the help of AI. The invention, marketed B2B to doctors and businesses, has the potential to reach millions of people in hospitals or at home, while also providing massive savings on chronic disease management, which will become increasingly important with an aging population.

Belun started examining sleep and the root causes of unsatisfactory sleep, and how AI can address those issues. Data and hardware, thus work in tandem to assist physicians in treating people. “Sleep is very special, it’s a personal journey that cannot be solved by just taking a pill,” says Lydia.

Perfect data for the product

Accurate data is very hard to come by, which is why the team started from scratch to create the Belun Sleep System, looking at both technology and wearability. The concept came from a designer in Belgium, who made sure the ring would not rotate during sleep, meanwhile, they filed for IP protection. “The special thing about this ring is that it is produced in a factory in Hong Kong,” says Lydia.

A factory in Fo Tan, along with facilities in Taiwan, are linchpins of the business, making Belun part of the reindustrialization movement in Hong Kong. “We discovered lots of diseases were related to lack of sleep, and while there are many gadgets in the market, there is nothing that doctors can trust,” says Lydia. Popularity meant that the phone was ringing off the hook, and Belun has since developed a B2C sleep ring. Now the team is looking to expand into South East Asia and the United States.

A wearable doctors want to use

“Being a B2B business, we don’t compete with the likes of Apple watches, we are really more of a medical device rather than a fashion-driven wearable. You can put so much money into marketing, and being a brick-and-mortar retail operation would ruin the business — so we are focused on being a device doctors love,” says Lydia.

Lydia treasured her time at HKUST because of its community, and advice from mentors throughout her career. “Even long after I left the University, HKUST professors continued to give me advice, particularly Professor Emeritus, Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, Roger Cheng. That’s why I go back so often,” Lydia adds.

So what advice would she give to budding student entrepreneurs? “Enjoy the journey, hone your communication skills, and work on your sales skills – you should be able to sell air,” Lydia adds. “And control your spending – you should be working on hand-me-down furniture in a down to earth location – beg, borrow and steal.”


Working with HKUST people allows you to feel their passion, it’s not just a job and transactional, they love networking and learning.

From banking to the entrepreneurial excellence

Bianca Ho (2011 BBA Global Business and Economics), Co-Founder and COO of Wati, took a 180 degree turn from her life as a banker at JP Morgan and entered the tech industry. Joining Ken Yeung (2005 BEng Computer Science) in 2016, the duo set up chatbot company Clare.AI, and also launched a new product Wati in 2020. The organization has focused on automating conversations and has pivoted from enterprise to small to medium businesses, creating personalized conversations at scale, with easy-to-use customer engagement software built on WhatsApp Business API (Application Programming Interface).

The software helps with everything from commerce to customer requests. “We saw increasingly that businesses were using WhatsApp to deal with customers, but they had little expertise and knowledge on how to scale this service to enhance customer experience. Wati was formed to help them deal with this crucial make-or-break aspect of business,” says Bianca.

Wati rises above

Wati serves thousands of customers across more than 70 countries, piggybacking on the trend for companies to use WhatsApp for business, but also their inability to automate customer requests. “There has been a fundamental shift of people wanting to use WhatsApp to reach businesses, whereas in the past they just wanted to call,” says Bianca.

As we all know, calling customer hotlines makes many people want to tear their hair out, a situation that has aided Wati’s growth. It now has around 120 people globally, having moved office several times, landing in Canton Road, where we are sitting today. The company has recently raised US$23 million from Tiger Global Management, DST, Sequoia, Shopify, and investors betting on the company’s growth prospects in Southeast Asia.

Entrepreneurial guidance for students

Wati’s success story came only after many years of hard work – for students who want to replicate their success, what should they do? “Entrepreneurialism is not for everyone, you can think about joining a high-growth start-up or even Wati,” she says with a laugh. “Your mistakes while you are learning will not be on your back, and you will have support to learn, along with not having to pay Hong Kong rents,” she adds.

Clare.AI was focused on helping large enterprises, but Wati also saw opportunities with SMEs, who are ardent users of WhatsApp. At the same time, they went from multiple channels to WhatsApp only, aided by COVID, which pushed automation in businesses, and allowed Wati to be in international markets. “We are very international in nature, with five nationalities alone at our board meeting. Being global is in our DNA and we are everywhere that WhatsApp is,” Bianca says.

Wati is aimed at aggressive growth, and with the rise of automation, who would bet against them? With online retailers growing in number, Wati can be the difference maker by offering consumers deals, asking for feedback, providing order notification, and even addressing carts abandoned by consumers. “We found WhatsApp to also be a very effective platform for customers to provide feedback, with much better response rates, when they normally not be bothered to fill out generic feedback forms,” Bianca says.

HKUST experience the key difference

In her career, Bianca says her participation in the NetMission Ambassador Program during HKUST was especially valuable. The program aims to bring together a network of dedicated young volunteers working on collaborative and sustainable internet governance, and Bianca used that to participate in United Nation forums and gain international experience. “Working with HKUST people allows you to feel their passion, it’s not just a job and transactional, they love networking and learning,” Bianca adds.