A  Young  CEO  with  a  Mature  Mindset

Prof Richard So (left) and Calvin Zhang (right)

HKUST alumnus Calvin Zhang demonstrates how to live life to the fullest. Joining the University’s MPhil Program in Technology Leadership and Entrepreneurship (TLE) in 2014 under the guidance of Industrial Engineering and Logistics Management’s (IELM) Prof Richard So, Calvin won awards at four business competitions, achieved a research breakthrough which was granted a US provisional patent and a PCT patent during the two years at HKUST. Within months after graduation, the Zhejiang-born engineer has now become the Director and CEO of Incus, the start-up which he co-founded with his mentor Prof So.

Still an undergraduate student at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, Anhui back in 2013, Calvin proactively contacted Prof So after learning about his cutting-edge research on audiology. Attracted by the University’s high ranking and talented professors, he applied for HKUST’s program and soon found himself working with Prof So on exciting topics.

Prof So explained about their flagship project on hearing aids. Human beings, amidst a noisy environment with mixtures of different sounds, have the capacity to focus on the specific sound they choose to hear even if it contributes to only one-tenth of all noises. Whereas it was previously believed that human ears could do little to reduce unwanted noise, this was later proved to be wrong. Through experiments, scientists now know that our inner ears have the sensitivity to reduce sounds via feedback.

“For those with hearing impairment however, the feedback mechanism is damaged. As a result, the damaged ears become unable to make the above-mentioned adjustments. For years, I wanted to know more about how the brain analyzes and recognizes sound patterns, such that we can generate hearing aids which simulate human brains to reduce unwanted noises and enlarge desirable sounds in the ears,” Prof So elaborated.

Calvin was the first among Prof So’s postgraduate students to balance the equations and find the solution. “With patience and endurance, Calvin is willing to make attempts by employing different methods. He intelligently broke up the problem into several smaller problems, tackling them one by one and ultimately reassembling the solutions together. Not only did he fix the mathematics; he applied them with computer simulations and completed the applied research with flying colors,” said Prof So.

Helping the Hearing-impaired

The result is an intelligent hearing aid which allows users to adjust the clarity of selected sound sources by simply selecting the channel they want to hear with a mobile app. Using bio-inspired filtering and pattern recognition system to separate background noise from target audio signals, the novel technology boosts hearing aid performance 10 times, thus significantly improving well-being of the elderly and hearing-impaired.

There is yet another piece of good news: the hearing aid is much more affordable than similar products in the market. With an innovative online sales model, the product avoids layers of businesses and thus substantial mark-ups. Having been granted a PCT patent, the product is targeted to be launched by the end of the year.

Prior to that, the team had already garnered top prizes in the Cross-Strait, Hong Kong and Macau Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition, the New World Cup First Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition, as well as Start-up Award in the Sixth Bank of China (Hong Kong) FITMI Technology.

“During the competitions, the competing teams were seasoned companies with years of experience and plenty of team members showing up. For us, there were only the two of us,” noted Prof So. Despite a contrast as sharp as David and Goliath’s, the duo won. “We were thrilled to win top prizes in these circumstances.”

An Entrepreneur Born and Bred

Interestingly, it was Calvin who first initiated entering business competitions, filing patents and establishing a start-up with the new technology. Born in a family engaged in business and coming from Zhejiang which is famous for entrepreneurship, the entrepreneurial spirit comes naturally to him.

“Our project has been awarded a grant given by the Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities (TSSSU) by the government’s Innovation and Technology Commission. Having set up an angel fund, signed an agreement with Cyberport in Hong Kong and aligned resources in Shenzhen, we hope to recruit top talents from around the world to launch the product with best preparation,” said the young CEO and Director.

While speaking with confidence and business acumen about the projects, Calvin frequently and humbly paid tribute to his mentor. “It is only with Prof So’s guidance that all these have become possible.”

He also credited the success to HKUST’s MPhil in Technology Leadership and Entrepreneurship which gave him a perfect platform to follow his dreams. “The TLE program, hosted by the School of Engineering, is unique in the way that there are professors from all schools – science, engineering, business and management. Instead of having professors choose the students, we as postgraduate students can choose to work with certain professors,” said Calvin who had been conducting research with Prof So ever since.

Genuine mentor-mentee relationship

So how would Calvin describe his relationship with Prof So? “If I was in the position to comment, I would say our relationship is one of mentor-mentee as well as friends,” noted Calvin with great respect for his mentor. “Prof So is by far the professor who cares most about students’ well-being. I can communicate with him with all honesty.”

Prof So recalled that there was a doctoral student who showed up saying she had found her dream job in the business sector. She was asking Prof So to ‘let her go’ so that she could leave behind her unfinished studies and research project for the high-paying job. Though disappointed, Prof So discussed with her in great detail about choices, gives-and-takes, society’s expectations regarding students’ and employees’ sense of responsibility, as well as other lessons in life.

Owing to Prof So’s well-meant advice and his willingness to make time for the student, the latter came back to the University during weeknights and weekends for supervisory sessions while handling a demanding full-time job. “Finally, I was extremely pleased to see her graduate with a PhD last year,” said the professor. All is well that ends well.

“I enjoy witnessing people grow. Students graduate, enter the workforce, get married and have kids. Some stay in Hong Kong; others go to the mainland or abroad. In the midst of all these changes, and despite varying perspectives regarding studies and research at times, we engage in genuine conversations and keep in touch,” said Prof So. “This makes me proud.”

As a supervisor, Prof So maintains that his postgraduate students need to know more than their professor about their topics. “Initially, I guide them to do their research, as if they are drilling their own ‘oil wells’. My guidance continues until ‘oil’ is found. Then when the students become more specialized than I am, they can graduate.”

HKUST being highly recommended

Apart from world-class, personable professors and a superb research platform, Calvin thinks highly of HKUST’s seaside campus. “The three must-dos on campus are: renting a boat and going fishing off the pier, immersing oneself in the indoor and outdoor swimming pools all year round, and going rock-climbing.” These were the ways the engineer-entrepreneur achieved work-life balance despite his busy schedule.

Speaking about HKUST’s student body, Calvin continues to be amazed at how internationalized the campus is. Impressed by Hong Kong’s diversity, he finds local students to be healthy in body and spirit. “They have been very nice to teach me Cantonese,” said Calvin with great fluency in Cantonese after barely three years in Hong Kong.

Calvin is by no means paying lip service. He keeps on recommending his USTC schoolmates at to study at HKUST. To date, two of them have already become PhD students of Prof So, and there is more to come.

So, what are the other projects Prof So is working on? As a professor specializing in audiology, he explores into human sensations in relation to virtual surround sound. With a focus on vision, he also conducts research on virtual reality-related sickness, symptoms similar to motion sickness that appear in some VR users. The third research focus is related to building hearing capacity of robots using microphones. In future, he aspires to conduct more research with computer simulation on how the human brain functions.

Filling gaps in the local technology scene

Looking towards the future, Prof So hopes that Hong Kong’s joint project with China in Qianhai New District will be a success. “The rent in Hong Kong is too high for technology start-ups. We hope there will be more encouraging environment for technology-related entrepreneurs.”

Agreeing with his mentor, Calvin said, “Despite strong access to information, Hong Kong lags behind in technology and product innovation, as well as in technology-related think tank. I will be very happy to see development in these areas to focus on the future rather than the here-and-now.”

There is one last episode: As a child back in Zhejiang years ago, Calvin was already a fan of Canto-pop. Now that he is in Hong Kong, he often goes to concerts and has found the apple of his eye there. In the near future, he plans to stay in Hong Kong and continue developing the start-up company that he and Prof So have founded together.