Hong Kong is home to more than 800 fintech companies – up from 180 five years ago – with the impressive growth attributed to its open market, robust regulatory regime, strong government support and investment in talent. With the city now “going ahead in the fast lane” to make up for “time lost” in the past few years to the pandemic, is Hong Kong the ideal hub for fintech development?
There’s an air of expectation in Hong Kong following the recent relaxation of its tough Covid-19 restrictions on international arrivals and the end to three years of border controls that have isolated the city from the Chinese mainland.
“I am incredibly optimistic about this year – Hong Kong right now is enjoying the microclimate,” says Kevin Rideout, co-head of sales and marketing at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX). “China has such an influence on the activity of Hong Kong and China has been closed. As soon as China opened up… supply chains buffer themselves up, people get back to work… the borders have reopened and the zero Covid policy has gone.
“So, you’ve seen this bullishness come back into China and you’ve seen the impact of that on the stock markets in the last week or so. It’s been magnificent. We’re seeing uncertainty move towards clarity.”
At the 16th Asian Financial Forum (AFF) in Hong Kong this month, Rideout’s optimism was shared by the city’s chief executive John Lee who lauded a “happy and thrilling start to the year” with hopes for a “bright future” in a keynote speech.
“Thanks to the continuing and wide-ranging support of our motherland, Hong Kong’s strengths as an international financial centre linking the Mainland and the rest of the world are primed to proliferate,” he said. “We need to tell the world that Hong Kong is back on the centre stage, and what that means for the countries, economies and companies that partner with Hong Kong.
“What it means is opportunity – long-term, long-rewarding opportunities. Thanks to our ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong is blessed with a wealth of prospects – in financial services, in trade and logistics, in innovation and technology, in arts and culture and much more. So many good stories to tell. So many opportunities to realise.”
Focus on fintech
During his forum speech, Lee also touched on the importance of fintech to the city – “financial technology is the future and we’re determined to make it ours”. He outlined how financial regulators and public agencies are working closely to enhance Hong Kong’s fintech infrastructure, provide an enabling regulatory framework, while encouraging financial innovation and nurturing talent.
As well as the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) and the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) introducing sandboxes to promote fintech development, and HKMA’s ‘Fintech 2025’ strategy for driving fintech development, the city also has a number of initiatives in place to position the city as the ideal platform for evolving and expanding fintech businesses.
InvestHK, a department of the Hong Kong government responsible for attracting foreign direct investment, has a dedicated fintech team looking to attract the world’s top innovative fintechs to set up and scale their business via Hong Kong into mainland China and Asia.
In December 2022, InvestHK soft launched the FintechHK Community Platform, a centralised fintech platform to connect local and global tech companies with ‘corporate, investor and service champions’ to drive growth of Hong Kong’s fintech ecosystem.
December also saw the launch of the Office for Attracting Strategic Enterprises (OASES) with a mission to attract representative and high-potential strategic enterprises from around the globe.
OASES provides bespoke incentives in areas such as land, tax, financing and visa application for individual enterprises for setting up or expansion of their businesses in Hong Kong. OASES also offers strategic fintech enterprises with advice on licensing and listing requirements and assist them throughout the process.
Jimmy Chiang, associate director-general of investment promotion at InvestHK, says: “Fintech is probably one of the fastest developing verticals in the startup ecosystem here. Fintech has become one of the most popular areas for companies to develop and capture new opportunities.”
Two years ago, Hong Kong launched a Fintech Proof-of-Concept Subsidy Scheme that encourages fintech players to test innovative concepts that can both boost their operational efficiency and expand customer services. In 2021, the scheme approved around 90 projects and its second round – which is still open – has already attracted more than 120 applications.
The scheme is operated by Cyberport, a digital community that provides over 47,000 square feet of co-working space. It currently boasts more than 1,650 startups and technology companies and supports over 400 fintech companies, including fintech unicorn WeLab. Cyberport also collaborates with the government to promote the development and application of Web3 and virtual assets technologies.
Victor Yim, head of fintech at Cyberport, says: “We are one of the largest incubators for startups in Hong Kong supported by the government. We support talent cultivation and help the whole industry in fintech adoption. We are also working with different government departments and agencies to come up with financial support.
“Hong Kong is wonderful market for startups. Those that are licenced in Hong Kong, can easily develop in different parts of the world whether that’s in Southeast Asia or in Europe or the States. Hong Kong really is a leading market in fintech – those of you who make it in Hong Kong, can make it elsewhere.”
The Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) is an innovation and technology (I&T) hub that looks to attract and nurture tech talent for growth in Hong Kong, the Greater Bay Area, Asia and beyond.
Dr Crystal Fok, head of STP platform at HKSTP, believes Hong Kong has the potential to breakthrough to become a global fintech service centre due to its healthy regulatory environment and innovation in AI technology.
She explains: “We want to nurture startup companies to be active in Hong Kong and mainland China as well as different parts of the world. We’re incubating more than 100 fintech companies. In addition to providing financial support to them we also help them to network and provide them with ties to the financial sector.”
“We see many fintech companies that have business opportunities, serving some of the major banks. There’s a lot of demand for regtechs and fintech companies with AI capabilities are becoming very busy because of this.”
HKSTP is currently looking for fintechs to enter Elevator Pitch Competition (EPiC) 2023. The competition is aimed at global startups looking to expand their footprints into Asia with the top 50 semi-finalists qualified for up to US$5million investment by HKSTP’s corporate venture arm.
Other incentives include use of InnoCell, a smart living and co-creation space designed for I&T talents to spark collaboration within Hong Kong Science Park. Plus the chance to tap into the talent pool of HK’s major universities.
Greater Bay Area
As well as welcoming fintechs to innovate and grow in the city, Hong Kong is also keen to showcase the opportunities offered through the developing Greater Bay Area (GBA). This region is a city cluster in Southern China, consisting of nine cities in Guangdong Province, as well as the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao.
According to Steffanie Yuen, head of Hong Kong for digital wealth platform Endowus and a committee chair for the Fintech Association of Hong Kong, by working with the Greater Bay area Hong Kong can create an even bigger market for the next stage of fintech development.
She says: “Hong Kong has natural competitive advantages in fintech 2.0, as an international financial centre with in-depth financial knowledge and expertise. It is now further coupled with huge opportunities offered by Greater Bay Area, a region with over 70 million population and GDP equivalent to that of South Korea.”
InvestHK’s Chiang also believes there are “many exciting opportunities arising from the GBA development”.
“International companies can certainly utilise Hong Kong as an effective platform to access the GBA and then the whole of mainland China,” he says.
Last year also saw the launch of the Greater Bay Fintech Talent Initiative in partnership with Hong Kong Monetary Authority, Bloomberg and the Hong Kong United Youth Association. The initiative aims to accelerate local talent development and equip students with relevant skills and knowledge for a digitally integrated financial region
Twenty big financial companies, including Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and the HKEX back the initiative.