Software Start-Ups Take Root in Hong Kong

By Wingrove, Norman | Research-Technology Management, May/June 1997 | Go to article overview

Software Start-Ups Take Root in Hong Kong


Wingrove, Norman, Research-Technology Management


At a time when many large corporations in traditional lines of business are looking for ways to remodel their R&D departments in order to reduce costs and increase efficiency, at least one industrycomputer software-can still offer big returns on a tiny initial investment.

Netscape Communications is probably the best-known example. In only four years, it has risen from a small startup company to a multi-billion-dollar corporation that has captured the major part of the market for the browsers needed by Internet users to access the World Wide Web (WWW). It also supplies a significant proportion of the complementary server software used on WWW host machines around the globe.

Here in Hong Kong, several small, new companies have their eyes firmly set on achieving similar success by developing new software tools that will serve needs that are themselves only just becoming recognized by the great mass of users. One of these is Knowledge Discovery Limited (KDL), founded in early 1995 by five Hong Kong-based professionals specifically to commercialize technology invented by Scott Deerwester, formerly a senior lecturer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Searching for Information

In the summer of 1996, only 18 months after KDL was founded, its first product, More Like This, was already on the market and a second generation was released in November. More Like This uses advanced technology to overcome many of the problems associated with searching for specific information on the Internet.

Conventional search engines perform complex operations on key words or phrases supplied by the user in order to locate and retrieve documents containing one or more of these search terms from thousands of computers all over the world. This commonly results in hundreds, or even thousands, of "hits," many of which, while containing some of the search terms, are actually not relevant to the user's needs. The user is frequently overwhelmed by a mixture of relevant and irrelevant references that have to be laboriously sifted. At the same time, much appropriate material that does not contain the specified search terms is bypassed.

More Like This works with the user's conventional search engine by applying a sort of electronic "lateral thinking" to the search keys and to other words that are currently on the user's computer screen. It then builds its own idea of the type of information that is required in order to transform the simple key word inquiry into a wider, contextual search. The result is a reduction in the proportion of irrelevant hits and the likely retrieval of many documents that would have been ignored by the search engine working by itself.

Wheels Already Invented

To someone who has endured the frustration of sifting through hundreds of documents retrieved by conventional search engines in order to home-in on the handful of truly relevant articles, More Like This may appear revolutionary. However, according to its creator, its conception did not involve a massive research budget. Rather, it was a case of using wheels that had already been invented to produce a vehicle that was in itself entirely original.

"It is a small derivative product of very much larger technologyknowledge technology," says Deerwester. "This technology was 15 years in development; it's essentially my entire professional output from my entire career. It's a technology for discovering relationships in large sets of data fully automatically, as opposed to an expert system where you prescribe what sorts of relationships might be there."

Now that it has brought its first product to market, KDL is pursuing several other projects, including developing and then incorporating its technology into other companies' proprietary products in Hong Kong, Europe and South Africa. "We are already a global organization that just happens to be in Hong Kong," comments Deerwester.

"One of the reasons we have been able to develop our first product and get it to market in Hong Kong is that, especially in the computing field, it's not the same world that it was even five years ago," Deerwester explains.

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