A government technology department has stripped a startup of its IT award following a controversy over its eligibility. Another winner under the spotlight was able to keep its award.

The companies Metas and Znaps won the grand and bronze awards respectively in the annual Best ICT Startup Award in April last year. The Hong Kong ICT Awards are steered by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO).

Metas was accused by local media of being very similar to existing products. Backers of Znaps, a crowdfunded product, had complained about the non-delivery of their purchases, and of receiving unusable products. Whilst Metas kept its award, Znaps was disqualified.

Znaps. Photo: Screenshot.

Last August, the OGCIO requested that the leading organiser of the award, the Hong Kong Information Technology Joint Council, carry out a reassessment of the two cases. The final reassessment report on February 14 provided the rulings.

A statement from the OGCIO on Tuesday night said that Znaps, a magnetic phone adapter, was disqualified after reviewing all information and on the advice of the award’s Steering Committee, a group of government IT officials and industry professionals.

Launch time

The company behind Znaps claimed the product was sold to more than 138 countries when the awards were introduced last year.

But the OGCIO said in the statement that Znaps “did not fully meet the stipulated entry requirement, particularly the requirement that the ‘product must be launched for at least three months’.”

Many products similar to Znaps can be found on China’s Taobao online store with cheaper prices.

Besides crowdfunding on the Kickstarter platform, a campaign with the same product name appeared on another platform, Indiegogo. However, it was suspended after reports by users and remains under review.

Metas products. Photo: Metas, via YouTube.

Metas, the other winner in question, is a set of “intelligent electronic modules” connected by magnets to form simple circuits. The product is very similar to littleBits, a toy invented by a US startup in 2008.

But the company has argued it has received effective patents in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and was not involved in any copyright lawsuits. The company also said their connector technology is a common technology that is widely used in different devices.

“Based on the information provided by Metas and obtained through further investigation work by the LO [leading organiser] as well as on the advice of the Steering Committee, the OGCIO agreed with the findings of the LO that Metas’s product was not involved in any [intellectual property] rights infringement legal disputes and met the entry requirements for the award,” the statement read.

The 2017 Best ICT Startup award is organised by the Hong Kong Business Angel Network, instead of the 2016 organiser Hong Kong Information Technology Joint Council.

But the Hong Kong Business Angel Network vice-chairman Duncan Chiu Tat-kun is also the president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Joint Council. He is the son of the late Hong Kong entrepreneur Deacon Chiu Te-ken.

The chairman of the new organiser is pro-Beijing former IT sector lawmaker Samson Tam Wai-ho.

Duncan Chiu (left) and Samson Tam (right). Photo: GovHK/Apple Daily.

The OGCIO said in the statement that it has taken steps “to put in place improvement measures to strengthen the processing of applications and the work of the LO in verification of entry requirements and adjudication.”

“The OGCIO will continue to work with different sectors in promoting the development of the local ICT industry through the well-recognised professional award,” it said.

The 2015 grand award winner Arist coffeemaker was also embroiled in controversy. Its backers on Kickstarter complained that they did not receive the same product they paid for.

But the OGCIO did not take steps to review whether Arist should be stripped of its award.

Kris Cheng

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.