When the latest electronic gadgets arrive in stores or new pharmaceutical products are first advertised, consumers rarely ask themselves how those items have been developed. However, the complete process of product development, from initial idea to hitting the shelves, can involve hundreds of separate steps. In this, the role of the partnership development manager – the person providing the link between the research centre and the commercial world – is regarded as pivotal, though not widely recognised.
"I have difficulty explaining to my kids what I do!" says Andrew Young, head of the Partnership Development Office (PDO), a unit of the Institute for Enterprise at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). His basic mandate, though, is to build and maintain long-term strategic relationships between the university's academic and research talent and the industrial and business sectors. The aim is to create a bridge between these communities so that the strengths of each can be used to mutual benefit. Potentially, any of the PolyU's 26 academic departments might be called on for advice about patentable products and the application of new technologies.
Mr Young began his career as a mechanical engineer, specialising in defence facility construction. As he moved through the ranks, attaining an MBA along the way, he began to develop new areas of interest and turned to management consulting. "As an engineer, I was continually working to a fixed set of assumptions," he recalls. "In the new role, I was able to adopt a different mindset and use alternative methods of problem solving." His diverse experience therefore made him an obvious choice when the PolyU decided to set up the PDO in 1999.
Any member of the current team has to be a jack of all trades. The job requires sound technical judgement, analytical ability, negotiation skills, legal knowledge and the ability to work under constant pressure. One of the most exciting aspects is having the chance to contribute to the development of new technologies and groundbreaking inventions. "A can-do attitude is essential and I live by the motto that if there's a will there's a way," says Mr Young. He also emphasises the importance of a willingness to learn and the ability to think outside the box.
One of the PDO's most rewarding ventures so far was its collaboration with Eco-Tek Holdings Limted, a group providing products and ancillary services related to environmental protection. The team had the opportunity to work alongside the group's founding chairperson, Dr Lily Chiang, and had considerable input in the subsequent R&D process, including conceptual, aesthetic and engineering design, prototyping, and production engineering. What made the case particularly significant was that the Eco-Tek group was later successfully listed in Hong Kong on the Growth Enterprise Market (GEM).
Diversity is virtually guaranteed for any PDO employee. The team has already participated in projects involving the development of liver cancer drugs, the fast detection of a high level of antibiotics in foods harmful to humans, the development of large community-based e-learning platforms, and the production of the nano-coated face masks used during the SARS epidemic. As Mr Young says, "Every project brings new experiences and that's what makes it a really challenging and stimulating job."