Roll Call Alum

The Secret Recipe of Success for a Startup Entrepreneur

Derek Ng talks about the future of AI chatbots in Hong Kong

Derek Ng set up Parami  with the fighting spirit of a Hongkonger

Derek Ng, founder of Parami, won the championship in last year’s CUHK Entrepreneurship Competition, held on the CUHK Entrepreneur Day 2019. Parami is a software company specializing in chatbots and automated customer service. Established in January 2018, the burgeoning startup tells the story of how a CUHK alum strives to excel in popularizing deep technology that seems to be out of reach to ordinary business operations, as well as everyday men and women.

Affilated to New Asia College, Derek majored in computer science and engineering and graduated in 2003, the year SARS struck Hong Kong. Landing a job was then very difficult, which prompted him to consider starting his own business in selling mobile phones and digital products online.

But it was not only SARS that set him on the course of entrepreneurship. Derek is particularly grateful to his alma mater for being a place where he could pursue new ideas and think freely. He attended an exchange programme organized by CUHK to Beijing in the summer of 2002, where he worked as an intern at Sun Microsystems.

‘It was an eye-opening experience: I not only experienced a culture shock but also came to realize that there were in fact many choices in life, and living a full life meant more than making money,’ said Derek.

Many entrepreneurs start from humble beginnings, and Derek is no exception. He made a profit of about HK$400 with the sale of his first mobile phone, which was enough to assure him that, to make a living, you don’t necessarily have to get a salaried job.

However, his early success was soon overshadowed by the sale of his fourth phone—he met a con man who swindled him out of what he had earned. But he refused to be discouraged, and continued to expand his online selling business, which is now still in operation.

‘I think to succeed you’ve got to be gritty and persevere in the face of setbacks,’ he said.

Derek also attributes his success to humility, which helps him to be a good listener.

‘We tend to assume that our decisions are always right, but in fact our assumptions about the market can be wrong. If you are modest, you will be a better listener and be more realistic about the needs of the market.’

Hong Kong startup entrepreneurs are resourceful and they adjust to the market quickly. A good example is the emergence of food delivery apps that have mushroomed in the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in mid-July. There are now in Hong Kong myriads of online grocery shopping apps catering for citizens wary of the SARS-Cov-2 virus.

Derek is convinced that Hong Kong startups know very well how to realize their full potential by consolidating their available resources, however limited.

Resourcefulness is crucial to every successful startup entrepreneur

‘For example, I know a startup entrepreneur who has been participating in many incubator projects, and his main purpose is to get to know as many fellow entrepreneurs as possible to promote his products. Hence, whether he wins or loses in the incubator competitions, he will always be able to extend his network and forge new ties.’

Of course, the making of a successful startup entrepreneur requires more than personal strengths. Derek pointed out that capital, resources for marketing, and society’s readiness to accept novel ideas and products are also vital for the survival of a budding entrepreneur. The commercial world’s conservative bent sometimes throttles the burgeoning of new ideas and solutions, making it hard for startups to thrive.

‘Many Hong Kong startups are strapped for cash, and for that reason tend to invest in technologies that are more widely available and can generate revenue fast. Deep tech startups require more substantial and longer-term investment, and so are not that commonly found. As a result, the basic technology that gives rise to new products rests in the hands of foreign tech giants or universities.’

Parami is taking the road less travelled by investing in the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into chatbot technology, a good example of deep tech.

A chatbot is a computer programme that simulates human conversation, and is widely used in providing customer support. In Hong Kong, chatbots were introduced only three years ago, and owe their popularity to the fact that many social media platforms have exposed their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable app developers to integrate new features into their applications. By exposing APIs, the social media platforms can enjoy wider application.

Derek presents his invention at the STARS programme organized by the Federation of Hong Kong Industries

Parami's Asanga chatbots differ from other chatbots in several ways. First, its graphical interfaces permit users to construct their own chatbots in a matter of minutes. Second, the use of Natural Language Processing (NLP) frees Asanga chatbots from reliance on keywords to understand human languages. Instead, they can continuously learn from users through interactions. Third, while most chabots only support text-based communication, Asanga chatbots support both text-based communication and speech recognition. The last feature, which is the most special of all, is that Asanga chatbots focus on Cantonese NLP, meaning that Asanga chatbots can play a pivotal role in popularizing the use of Cantonese in online communication and e-commerce, as well as in the realm of deep tech.

Chatbots have great potential in Hong Kong because at present no more than 10% of companies are using the technology, according to Derek.

Derek has great expectations for the application of chatbots in Hong Kong, and is intent on establishing a platform based on Cantonese that will have its codes and language models released to the public. Chatbots in Mandarin and English are well developed, while those in Cantonese are still in their nascent stages of development.

‘Not many Hong Kong companies release their research findings, and not many people engage in deep tech. I hope Hong Kong startups developing AI technology are willing to collaborate and share their resources, so that together we can build an AI ecosystem based on Cantonese, which is unique and open to all.’

By elizachan@cuhkcontents
Photos by Keith Hiro

This article was originally published on CUHK Website in Aug 2020.

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alumni Derek Ng startup artificial intelligence chatbot robot Department of Computer Science and Engineering New Asia College Entrepreneur Day