Impact in the Community

Knowledge Exchange and Technology Transfer

Impact in the Community

Knowledge Exchange and Technology Transfer

Impact in the Community

HKU deepened its commitment to achieving impact from its research through new appointments and initiatives. At the same time, we harnessed resources across the University to help the community respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

HKU is keen to translate research and expertise into impact and in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to do so in ways that benefitted the whole world. The findings of our scholars, described in RESEARCH AND INNOVATION, have been advanced by efforts to commercialise that research through the Technology Transfer Office (TTO), and by a wide range of knowledge exchange (KE) activities to provide expert advice and help to society at large. Coincidentally, the pandemic arrived at the same time as the University appointed its first Chief Innovation Officer to ramp up our innovation and impact.

Sharing Our Know-how on COVID-19: HKU medical researchers have made enormous contributions to the global response to the pandemic, such as producing and distributing testing protocols and developing options for treatments and vaccines (see PATHBREAKERS). To bring the benefits of the latter into the wider world, the University and TTO are pursuing options to develop and commercialise our findings. Already, one vaccine candidate is going through a clinical trial with collaborators in Mainland China and a US patent has been filed for a new antiviral strategy for treating COVID-19 that is based on existing metallodrugs. Negotiations are also underway with an industry partner to develop a vaccine factory in Hong Kong.

Our contributions are not limited to the laboratory. HKU academics have provided expert advice on COVID-19 to many governments, including Hong Kong’s, and spoken with dozens of media outlets around the world. The Faculty of Education has helped primary and secondary school students cope with online learning, while the Faculty of Social Sciences has produced materials on mindfulness. The Development and Alumni Affairs Office collated all of HKU’s research and outreach into a single website and launched education and other programmes to support the community. The University itself launched the HKU COVID Relief Fund to support students and community members in need. Details of these initiatives can be found in the following sections.

Building Our Capacity for Impact: Our COVID-19 research is a good example of the reach and impact that our research can achieve. Often, though, the path to impact is not as clear cut and extra resources are needed to take research beyond academia. The KE Funding Scheme for Impact Projects supports academic staff to undertake such projects and to collect evidence of impact from their research. In 2019–20, 57 projects were supported, such as a project to evaluate the impact of a mobile dental service programme, particularly for underprivileged residents, and another on promoting creative and ethical use of copyright works in education.

Start-ups related to our research receive support through the Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities at HKU (TSSSU@HKU), which in 2019–20 awarded a total of HK$8 million to 24 HKU start-ups. HKU also partnered with the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation to open a new facility to nurture deep technology start-ups and spin-offs, called iAXON, which is located at a 4,000-square-foot venue close to the HKU campus. Measures have also been taken to improve efficiency in the TTO by committing to turn around applications within two weeks and by standardising the negotiation process for licensing HKU-originated patents.


iAXON is the first step of a larger university collaboration model that aims at strengthening academia-industry alliances and fostering commercialisation opportunities of start-ups in Hong Kong.

Incubation and Recognition: Enthusiasm and energy for innovation are being nurtured at iDendron, which provides students and recent graduates with space and support services to explore their ideas. Since its founding in 2017, iDendron has launched some 70 start-ups.

New initiatives added in the 2019–20 academic year include the ‘Meet HKU Startup Founders’ series, which involves weekly online live chats with HKU start-up teams, and the iDendron Incubation Programme. The latter kicked off in July 2019 and provides an intensive six-month programme of mentoring, investor relationship building, outreach and business support. Twelve start-ups participated in the first round and nine were admitted in the second round. Apart from encouraging start-ups, HKU also encourages research postgraduates to hone their skills in communicating their research by participating in the Three Minute Thesis and Visualise Your Thesis competitions, which together attracted several dozen submissions in 2020.

Finally, besides supporting innovation, the University recognises outstanding performance through the KE Awards given out at the faculty level and the KE Excellence Award, which goes to one winner each year from across the University. In the coming year, we will add two new awards for outputs that are innovative and have great potential for impact. The aim is to keep momentum building and reward scholars who pursue research and outreach with deep and lasting community impact.

Presented by iDendron, the ‘Meet HKU Startup Founders’ series invites HKU start-up founders to share the prospect and challenges of their projects in the live online event. 


Research postgraduate students explain their research within three minutes to a general audience in the annual HKU Three Minute Thesis Competition jointly organised by the Graduate School and the Knowledge Exchange Office.



granted in 2019–20, bringing the total since 1998 to 866.



launched through iDendron since it launched in 2017.


KE projects

supported by the KE Funding Scheme for Impact Projects in 2019–20.


Faculties across the University have been disseminating their know-how, reaching out, and creating targeted programmes to help those in need, such as school students.

Expert Input

The University is home to some of the world’s top researchers in infectious diseases. Not only have they been working tirelessly to provide new insights on the virus that causes COVID-19, they have also been sharing their expert advice with governments and international organisations.

For example, the Dean of Medicine, Professor Gabriel Leung, Helen and Francis Zimmern Professor in Population Health, and Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, Henry Fok Professor in Infectious Diseases, were invited to join the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mission to Mainland China in February to gain insights on the pandemic. The two professors were also appointed members of the Chinese National Experts Group and, with Professor Keiji Fukuda, appointed to the Hong Kong government’s four-member expert advisory group on COVID-19.

Professor Leung also co-convenes the WHO research group on the epidemiology of COVID-19 and has been sought for advice by the governments of Canada, Chile, Malta, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and the UK, as well as the Asia Development Bank and the Bank of International Settlements.

Other contributions include Professor Yuen paying more than 10 visits to sites of COVID-19 outbreaks in Hong Kong with the Hospital Authority (HA); Professor Malik Peiris, Tam Wah-Ching Professor in Medical Science, and Professor Leo Poon Lit-man helping the HA establish evidence-based patient discharge criteria; and Professor Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, Ru Chien and Helen Lieh Professor in Health Sciences Pedagogy, helping set up the admission, monitoring and discharge protocols for the community treatment facility at AsiaWorld-Expo for COVID-19 patients.

These and many other HKUMed scholars have also fielded hundreds of interviews with local and international media hungry for a better understanding of the outbreak. They have featured in more than 10,000 news clips since January in outlets such as the BBC, CNN, CCTV, NHK, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, The Economist, Der Spiegel and The Straits Times.

Meanwhile, the Annie Lab of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre has also contributed to knowledge by helping debunk fake news and rumours circulating in the community. The student-led lab is part of International Fact-Checking Network’s #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, which includes major news agencies and outlets from around the world.


Professor Gabriel Leung (third from right) is one of the four experts in the expert advisory group to provide professional advice to the Chief Executive and the HKSAR Government in fighting COVID-19.
(Courtesy of HKSAR Information Services Department)


Professor Yuen Kwok-yung paying a visit to the wet markets in Hung Hom and To Kwa Wan to carry out inspection and offer advice on anti-epidemic measures.
(Courtesy of HKSAR Information Services Department)

Tips on Staying Safe

People everywhere have been trying to understand how to protect themselves and their loved ones from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. HKU has been serving that need with materials targeted at all age groups and delivered across multiple platforms.

HKUMed produced a series of bilingual ‘healthographics’ that provide a snapshot of key information and advice, such as how to practise social distancing and the meaning of ‘effective reproduction number’. They also invited the public to submit questions that were answered by its professors in short videos, in a series called #askHKUMed. Games and stickers for children and adults were also developed. Selected healthographics have been translated into nine other languages in collaboration with the School of Modern Languages and Cultures.

These initiatives were carried on the Faculty’s website as well as HKU’s Fight COVID-19 website (see A One-Stop Platform). They were also disseminated through HKUMed’s Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, WeChat and YouTube accounts. Since January, these postings and news updates from the Faculty have generated 37 million impressions across all platforms.


HKUMed produced easily sharable ‘healthographics’ to provide the general public with a snapshot of key information and advice.

A Better Mask

Masks have been shown to be effective in reducing transmission of viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19 (see Evidence that Masks and Other Non-drug Measures Can Help). But disposable masks, which are commonly used in Hong Kong and elsewhere, pose a burden on the environment. A project by HKU students is helping address that burden.

Undergraduates Zhang Junwei and Lo Yan-tung of the Department of Civil Engineering, working under the supervision of Professor Chuyang Tang and Dr Hao Guo, have successfully developed reusable face masks with novel air filters. The filters are made using nanotechnology and their fibres are tiny enough to remove fine particulates, including viruses and bioaerosols. The filters can be washed with a simple ethanol rinse and heat drying and still retain their filtration efficiency – making them reusable. The team have applied for a US provisional patent through the Technology Transfer Office and are exploring potential collaboration with industry partners.


Nanofibrous face mask prototype developed by students in the Department of Civil Engineering.

Masks were a particular focus of outreach during the early days of the pandemic, when Hong Kong experienced a shortage of masks. Alumni in the US and their high school friends initiated crowd fundraising for masks and sanitisers, and donated them to HKU, which prompted locally based alumni and friends to do the same for Hong Kong people in need. The Development and Alumni Affairs Office and the Department of Social Work and Social Administration collected thousands of masks and hand sanitisers, which were packaged into gift packs by HKU students for the ‘hidden elderly’ who live alone. The gift packs were distributed by HKU students and staff, together with social welfare agencies, to nearly 1,000 individuals in 15 districts.


HKU students and staff distributing masks and hand sanitisers to the elderly.

Supporting Education

The COVID-19 pandemic that caused learning by primary and secondary school students to move online, coincided with the release of research by Professor Nancy WY Law of the Faculty of Education that showed students from grassroots families in Hong Kong were being disadvantaged by the digital divide. This prompted an outpouring of community concern to understand the impact of online learning due to school suspensions, and led Professor Law and her team to launch the eCitizen Education 360 study – an ongoing in-depth investigation on the preparedness of Hong Kong schools, teachers and students for online learning and teaching.

At the same time, efforts within the University snowballed to help students cope with the disruptions. The HKU COVID Relief Fund, set up with donations from staff, students and alumni to support students and communities in need, funded the #TeachforGood initiative, which was launched in June to help grassroots students in secondary four and five prepare for public exams. The students received online tutoring from new HKU graduates, and 100 iPads and 1,000 data cards were also distributed to schools to help students in need. Some 93 online classes were conducted benefitting more than 200 students. The second phase of #TeachforGood is providing resources to the Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic in the Faculty of Education to provide therapy to low-income patients, as well as internship opportunities for 150 HKU Speech and Hearing Sciences students.


#TeachforGood, enabled by the HKU COVID Relief Fund, reached out to grassroots secondary school students and helped them prepare for public examinations with online tutoring from new HKU graduates.


A hundred iPads and 1,000 data cards were distributed to schools to support students’ online learning.

The Faculty of Education itself launched the LIVE to LEARN, LOVE to SERVE campaign through which student teachers prepared and delivered content to primary and secondary school students, which also gave them a chance to practise their teaching skills. The content included a video series offering top tips from HKU students on preparing for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE); a package of teaching materials, including bilingual videos, teacher’s manual and handouts, for physics students and teachers in secondary schools; a programme of at-home science experiments for primary school students, which included 17 sets of teaching materials and videos; real-time online tutoring for HKDSE candidates by student teachers which attracted more than 1,100 secondary school students; and eight half-day online workshops on unleashing creativity at home for primary and junior secondary school students and teachers.


Students from the Faculty of Education shared their experience on the preparation of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE) in a series of ‘Top Tips for HKDSE English Exam’ videos.

Secondary school students were also given the opportunity to earn free certification on HKU’s MOOC (massive open online course) offerings through the edX platform. The Faculty of Social Sciences also produced resources to help HKDSE candidates and other students practise mindfulness during the stress of the pandemic.

HKU’s Admissions and Academic Liaison Section packaged resources and information of interest to local secondary school students through their LoveHK LoveU website. A key goal was to lift spirits and spread a caring message, which was also the aim of the HKU Sync with U initiative in which students and alumni collaborated with their alma maters to produce online musical performances. This included the HKU Sync with U Music Relay which involved nearly 100 musicians.

A One-stop Platform

HKU’s Fight COVID-19 website was launched early this year to provide the public with easy access to trustworthy information about COVID-19, aggregate all of HKU’s related activities in one place, and support students, alumni and the community. Here, visitors can find summaries of COVID-19 research from across the University written in layperson’s language; links to media coverage of our work and expertise; health tips and related materials produced by our faculties; and e-learning sources.

The website was the brainchild of the Development and Alumni Affairs Office, which also used the platform to broadcast live interviews with HKU experts on topics ranging from public health to the economic fallout of COVID-19 to coping with isolation and loneliness. This online platform has attracted more than 500,000 unique visitors from around the world and over two million page views, and edited highlights have been posted on Facebook.

The platform was also used to host the 15-part Fireside Wednesday series, in which business professionals and alumni shared their experiences and advice with students on topics ranging from tourism, the retail industry and start-ups, to NGOs, education and freelancing.

HKU’s Fight COVID-19 website has attracted more than 500,000 unique visitors from around the globe since its launch in early 2020.


Two start-ups with roots in HKU received international recognition in 2020, while an impactful initiative on HIV / AIDS was honoured with the University’s Knowledge Exchange Excellence Award.

Making Progress against HIV / AIDS

Professor Zhiwei Chen, who helped establish the HKU AIDS Institute in 2007, has influenced government policy in AIDS prevention and control, raised community awareness, and made a breakthrough in vaccine technology that is also being put to work to search for an effective COVID-19 vaccine. These achievements earned him the University’s Knowledge Exchange Excellence Award.

One of the earliest initiatives of the AIDS Institute was to convince government, clinicians, NGOs and the wider community that treating AIDS patients could help prevent infection. This work involved not only scientific publications but outreach to the media and the public. Professor Chen and his team also organised community fundraising activities for more than 500 AIDS orphans in Mainland China to signal their commitment to patient well-being. Their efforts paid off in 2017, when the ‘treatment as prevention’ approach became government policy in Hong Kong.

“When you reduce the source of the virus, definitely you will see some reduction [in infections]. For HIV, it’s using treatment as a biomedical intervention to minimise secondary transmission,” he said.

Alongside that work, Professor Chen and his team have also pursued a vaccine or cure for HIV / AIDS. In 2013, they made a breakthrough in vaccine technology and they have been working with a Hong Kong start-up to develop a new biomedical product based on their discoveries, which will soon go to clinical trial. Moreover, this work has given him important insights about vaccine creation in general, which he is now applying in the search for an effective vaccine against COVID-19.


Professor Zhiwei Chen (first from left) was honoured with the Knowledge Exchange Excellence Award 2019 for the project titled ‘Knowledge Exchange on HIV / AIDS to Promote HIV Prevention and Care’.

A Win for Mental Health

A team of HKU students was named World Champion in the 2020 Microsoft Imagine Cup for an innovative app that blends artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to help people, especially youths, assess their mental health and provide help if needed.

The Hollo app asks users to complete a standard questionnaire and respond to a few questions via video to detect facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. These are combined with information, such as users’ use of social media and other apps, to assess their mental state with reference to the latest research from psychology.

Users who display symptoms of mental stress, such as poor sleep and social isolation, are suggested to do targeted activities provided by the app to improve their mood. Where symptoms are severe, they are recommended to seek professional help and contacts are provided.

The app was developed with input from a team of experts working in the mental health field in Hong Kong, who also sit on Hollo’s advisory board and have given ongoing feedback as the app has been developed and refined. 

Privacy concerns have also been addressed – the app extracts data points from videos then deletes them so only numbers, not names, for users remain, and users control who sees their data and what data they can access.

The driving force behind the app is Cameron van Breda, who is in his final year of a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and biotechnology with a minor in science entrepreneurship. He recruited Ajit Krishna Namakkal Raghavendran, a Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science student, to help him develop and refine Hollo. Cameron was inspired by his own and his friends’ struggles with mental stress, as well as the course Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which was offered by the Faculty of Social Sciences. 

“I have always had a passion for social projects and this course gave me the idea that I could have a career revolving around something with social impact,” he said.

The Microsoft Imagine Cup win comes with a US$100,000 cash prize, US$50,000 in credits on Azure, the cloud computing service used by Hollo, and a private session with Microsoft’s CEO.


Hollo was named the 2020 Microsoft Imagine Cup World Champion for a mental health companion web application leveraging Azure analytics and AI services to advance youth therapy practices.

Honours for Innovations

HKU spin-off company Fano Labs was named one of the top five winning teams from a field of more than 500 in the JUMPSTARTER 2020 Global Pitch Competition organised by Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, while student team entry ClearBot won the JUMPSTARTER IdeaPOP!, a pitching competition organised globally for student start-ups.

Fano Labs is a deep technology company co-founded by Dr Miles Wen, HKU alumnus and Adjunct Assistant Professor, and Professor Victor Li On-kwok, Cheng Yu-Tung Professor in Sustainable Development and Chair Professor of Information Engineering. It has developed products based around automatic speech recognition and natural language processing that have been adopted by more than a dozen governments and banking, telecom, airline, and utilities enterprises around Asia to enhance customer services, compliance and other lines of business. 

The JUMPSTARTER award included up to US$5 million in investment commitments and a total cash prize of US$100,000, and is in addition to other recognition for Fano Labs over the past year such as being selected an Accenture FinTech Innovation Lab (the only start-up from Hong Kong selected), receiving additional investment from Alibaba, being named one of six Designated Local Research Institutes by the Hong Kong government, and winning in the Innovation and Creativity category of the 2019 Hong Kong Awards for Industries.

“We received early support from HKU when we started out and it gave us a foothold to develop our technology and grow our start-up. The awards and recognition we’ve had over the past year are going to take us to the next level,” Dr Wen said.

ClearBot, meanwhile, is an AI-driven robotic system that collects plastic waste in water automatically, providing a solution for marine plastic waste. Apart from JUMPSTARTER, it won first runner-up in the Student Competition of the 2019 Global Grand Challenges Summit in London. The team is comprised of Sidhant Gupta, a 2019 graduate of Bachelor of Engineering in Civil Engineering, and Angel Woo Chung-yu, Utkarsh Goel, Ahmed Abbas Alvi and Ma Jiacheng from the Engineering and Science Faculties.

Sidhant has also been involved in developing a robotic device to map coral reefs and an affordable braille reader that works with smartphones, among other inventions. He has founded his own robotics and imaging company in Hong Kong. “HKU has provided a lot of opportunities for students,” he said. “We are now keen to get ClearBot commercialised.”


HKU spin-off company Fano Labs Limited was named one of the top five winning teams in the JUMPSTARTER 2020 Global Pitch Competition.

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