Alex Chan is the co-director of the incubator The Mills Fabrica in Hong Kong.
The Mills Fabrica has invested and incubated tech and sustainability start-ups like Re:newcell, Geltor, Mango Materials, Huue, Unspun, ADAY and Goxip. With a focus on innovation and sustainability, they have been disrupting and transforming industries from food to fashion since 2016. We talked to him about the strength of values for entrepreneurs, the ins and outs of staying innovative, and how creatives and start-ups can collaborate.
Interview with Alex Chan by Sarah Wei.
Paradigm Haus: Tell us about what you’ve been doing with Fabrica.
Alex Chan: A huge part of my work is focused on incubating and investing in early stage startups with the mission to help accelerate and co-create innovations for sustainability. We work very closely with startup founders to help them accelerate and scale their businesses for the industry.
I am not a startup founder; Fabrica is more of an innovation platform to support and help startups to scale. That said, it has been an amazing journey in the past four years working at Fabrica; from understanding more about industry pain points, defining our thesis/ theory of change, setting and iterating on our strategy, executing and implementing our ideas; Fabrica has grown a lot in the past four years into a global innovation platform.
We now have around 25 companies in our portfolio and incubation programme, we also had our first IPO (Initial Public Offering) last year!
PH: What lessons have you learnt from your experience so far? And how has it carried onto your decision-making now?
Alex Chan: A few things stand out for me...
Community building is core, this is at the heart of everything and it relates to my belief that to create meaningful industry impact, collaboration and partnership are key. A group of startups and partners who share similar values but are diverse in expertise/ experiences makes a huge difference in pushing forward for impact.
A huge part of our work is in building out a community and ecosystem of different partners and this community is also what I personally look back on with most pride and fondness.
Values and pain points first, business model second. Having had the unique chance to meet with thousands of founders in the past four years, at early stage of a company’s life, what matters most is the a) values that a founder holds and b) the pain points he or she is looking to solve.
Starting a company is no mean feat and takes a remarkable degree of resilience and grit, and so when the tough times come, what matters most is the clarity of purpose that founders should have, in knowing why they are doing what they do and what industry challenges they want to address.
Items like business model and strategy can (and more often than not will) change and be iterated upon, but the underlying values that a founder holds is what differentiate great founders from being “just another startup”.
PH: How have your perspectives on start-ups and the tech industry changed?
AC: Resilience: working with founders have given me a tremendous degree of respect for them all, as it is such a mentally and emotionally demanding role. At the early stage, everything is built from scratch, and challenges abound at every corner; resilience coupled with strong moral leadership is often the driving force to keep entrepreneurs going.
Potential and limitations of tech: a core part of our theory of change is that addressing the biggest challenges in sustainability does require the adoption and scaling up of new technologies and innovations.
It’s exciting to see new technologies emerging and growing in scale; especially in areas such as synthetic biology and creating new ingredients/ materials or new production and manufacturing methods. These have the tremendous potential to disrupt industries.
That said, I am also increasingly learning that while some problems are great to be solved through venture and technology, other problems are less about technology but more about having the right regulations and wider stakeholder involvement.
PH: Are there more opportunities now, why or why not?
AC: 2020 has put sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) at the forefront of governments and businesses.
What has previously been a side-note has now taken a front seat in boardroom conversations. Whether it is governments like China making a commitment to go carbon neutral by 2060 or companies and investors leading the change for sustainability, there has never been a more fertile time to innovate.
My hope is that these macro changes will create momentum for new innovations to grow.
The Fabrica Lab Creation Process
PH: What does your creative and innovation process look like?
AC: What we have always found most helpful is having as broad exposure as possible to different areas and industries. Often the best sources of inspiration are from places you least expect to find learnings. So whether it’s reading different subject matters or watching a variety of Netflix documentaries, the wider your field of knowledge, the more possibilities for new learnings and dots to be connected
Learning about the stories of different individuals also provides good inspiration and lessons; in all the brainstorming or discussions we do, talking to as wide a group as possible brings the best ideas to life.
PH: How can the creative and start-up space collaborate? In what ways do the sectors collide and intersect now?
AC: While the world of design and technology have previously been separate spaces, increasingly many are seeing the benefits of intersecting between both worlds.
Design as a mindset and framework helps offer an exercise in empathy and creativity in coming up with solutions while technology offers a toolkit and array of resources to help the functionalities we require.
PH: The struggle we hear from many artists and emerging creatives is that it can be a daunting even a mammoth task to tackle grants and investors for new projects, citing lack of clear public information. What advice and approaches can you recommend for newcomers?
AC: Part of entrepreneurship is the art of being resourceful.
You rightly mention that there’s often a plethora of information out there, what is often most helpful is to talk to “other entrepreneurs” in the space, who might have gone through the process before and knows the “ins and outs” of which grants or investors or programmes are helpful (as well as tips to navigate the landscape).
Another key point is to understand that there are many programmes or funding options out there, but not all might be most suitable to you, what matters is understanding what it requires and what you hope to achieve.
The questions to ask are: is it just funding or support? If it is just funding, what kind of funding makes the most sense?
One final point is it’s often easy to think things only from your perspective “here’s why I need the funding” but it’s equally important to think from the perspective of the other end “why should we take your company as part of the program?”
Understanding their objectives and motivations helps in knowing whether there is a good fit for collaboration.
PH: In what ways can creatives and artists become more aware or engaged in the start-up community?
AC: Many information and sources exist; whether it is media or content platforms like WHub (for HK startups) or Green Queen (for all things sustainability!), to entrepreneurs or individuals constantly sharing interesting news on Linkedin or Instagram. Talking to individuals in the ecosystem always helps!
PH: Tell us what you are working on now and what we can expect from Fabrica?
AC: It is an exciting period for Fabrica; Fabrica is opening a new space in London, similar to what we have in Hong Kong, the Cottam House space at King’s Cross will include co-working, labs, retail spaces, and content and programming focused on sustainability & innovation.
Fabrica is also organizing the 3rd edition of our Techstyle for Social Good competition. A global competition open to all students and recent graduates working on projects relating to sustainability in textiles/ apparel and agri-food tech.
Scarlett Yang, Winner of The CSM X The Mills Fabrica Sustainability Prize 2020
Step into the start-up space in London or Hong Kong with The Mills Fabrica at themillsfabrica.com
Find Alex Chan on LinkedIn for the latest new in the start-up and entrepreneur space.