A government technology department has requested the organiser of a government-steered tech startup awards body to make arrangements to review the eligibility of an awardee to join the competition following recent controversies.

The companies Metas and Znaps won the grand and bronze awards respectively in the 2016 Hong Kong Best ICT Startup Awards. The Arist coffeemaker won the grand award in 2015. The eligibility of all three to join the contest has been disputed.

The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) told HKFP on Monday that it has demanded the award’s organiser arrange for its judging panel to review the eligibility of one of the awardees, though it did not specify which company was under the spotlight.

Duncan Chiu Eric Yeung
Duncan Chiu (left) and Eric Yeung (right). Photo: GovHK.

The OGCIO said the award’s Standards Assurance Sub-Committee will also have at least one representative participating in the review process.

“According to the existing mechanism, if any applicant is found to have provided untrue information – or there are other rule violations – the judging panel can consider proposing a cancellation of its award eligibility,” a spokesperson said.

Among the members of the sub-committee are Duncan Chiu, the president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Joint Council, which was the organiser of the award, and the award’s organising committee chairman Eric Yeung Chuen-sing.

It is unclear whether they will participate in the review process, as the OGCIO, Chiu and Yeung have yet to respond to HKFP enquiries.

Copycat designs?

Metas is a maker of “intelligent electronic modules” founded in Hong Kong in 2014. Its product is similar to littleBits, a toy invented by a US startup in 2008, but it has denied it copied designs from littleBits.

Znaps, a magnetic adaptor for smartphone cables, and Arist were both products crowdfunded on the Kickstarter platform. Many backers have said they have yet to receive their products as promised.

The company behind Znaps claimed the product was sold to buyers in over 138 countries in its application for the award. Arist said in an update on August 12 that mass produced models will be shipped in April 2017.

The minutes. Photo: HKFP.

Previously, HKFP acquired the minutes of a July 7 meeting of the Steering Committee of the Hong Kong ICT Awards. In the meeting, members were briefed about media reports on Metas and Znaps.

According to the document, Allen Yeung Tak-bun, the Government Chief Information Officer, said that “checking on eligibility [of applicants] would inevitably be on a trust basis” due to limited resources. “Nevertheless, LOs [Leading Organisers] had to ensure that there would not be fraud or major irregularities.”

Davey Chung, the Deputy Government Chief Information Officer, was quoted in the minutes as saying that “while LOs should make every effort to exercise due diligence in eligibility check, they should not overdo this to the extent of making it too harsh and tedious, and defeating the objective of recognising innovation, especially by start-ups.”

Allen Yeung Tak-bun
Allen Yeung Tak-bun. Photo: GovHK.

Before the new review process was requested, IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok previously told HKFP by email that he saw the incidents as a “systemic failure” and “grossly unfair to other entrants.”

Minor mistakes

Responding to the issue at an election forum on Monday, Eric Yeung said that people have to tolerate “small and silly mistakes” by startups.

“The ICT Awards need to encourage these [companies] that do not give up,” he said. “The ICT Awards should not be a punishing mechanism… where people use a magnifying glass to see if they are doing things properly.”

“There have been negative media reports in the past two years – startups have the responsibility to clarify,” he added. “But I think that our attitude in helping these startups should show tolerance to mistakes, to allow them fail. If we criticise them whenever there is a small problem, this is not helping them.”

ICT Awards
The awards ceremony. Photo: GovHK.

The tech startup award is part of a set of eight awards overseen by the OGCIO annually. They include the Best Business Solution Award, Best Digital Entertainment Award, Best Mobile Apps Award, among others.

According to the office, the eight categories in total spent between HK$6.4 million and $7.2 million of public funds each year since 2012. The awards were founded in 2006.

“The OGCIO have always attached great importance to the credibility of the awards – other than reviewing the existing mechanism and criteria from time to time, we demand that all organisers strictly review the eligibility of applicants…” the spokesperson said.

“In the next Hong Kong ICT Awards (2017), the Standards Assurance Sub-Committee under the Steering Committee will… review the existing mechanism and the judging criteria once again.”

Eric Yeung Cheun-sing and Charles Mok are both candidates in the information technology functional constituency running in Sunday’s Legislative Council election.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.