Jack Lau has come a long way since his teenage years, when a fascination with Japanese alloy robot toys sparked an ongoing interest in electronics and design. His career has taken him on a rewarding journey from academia to running a cutting-edge consumer enterprise.
Now the chairman and chief executive officer of Perception Digital Holdings Limited, a 230-plus-staff company specialising in embedded operating systems and turnkey solutions, Mr Lau attributes much of his success to an inquisitive mind.
"All my employees have a keen interest in technology," he says. "This industry is about turning something ordinary into something special. Creativity gives a product boundless market potential."
While studying towards his master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, he developed his first patented technology in test circuits, at the age of 24.
During his studies, Dr Lau worked for Hewlett Packard as a technical support intern and for leading oilfield services provider Schlumberger as an automatic test equipment engineer. After graduating, he applied his skills as a CPU (central processing unit) design engineer at Integrated Information Technology, Santa Clara, California.
Dr Lau then returned to Hong Kong and obtained his doctorate from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in 1994 and subsequently became an adjunct associate professor at the university's Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (now the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering).
During this time, he helped establish the university's Consumer Media Laboratory, while conducting research in consumer electronics. This culminated in a HKUST School of Engineering Faculty Teaching Appreciation Award in 1995. Around the same time, he also started two years of post-doctoral research as visiting scholar at Stanford University.
"I enjoyed passing my knowledge on to my students and working on research. But then I developed the urge to translate research results into real products," Mr Lau recalls.
Just before the turn of the millennium, with two colleagues from the HKUST, he started Perception Digital, which became the largest spin-off company under the HKUST Faculty Entrepreneurship Programme, with an annual turnover of more than HK$500 million in 2008.
Success did not come immediately, however. "Our first product, which was an MP3 player, was a design failure," Mr Lau concedes, adding that there was an important lesson to be learnt. "Rejection taught me that technology and design have to be market-oriented. If a product fails to appeal to buyers, it is doomed."
The setback led the business trio to identify the gap between the academic and commercial worlds. "It is important to keep applicability in mind when trying to commercialise a product idea," Mr Lau stresses.
"Keep applicability in mind when trying to commercialise a product idea"
Perception Digital went on to integrate cutting-edge digital signal-processing technologies into a wide array of multimedia consumer products, such as wireless waterproof TV, fitness MP3 and MP4. The company also pioneered a design supply chain management system, providing one-stop solutions from the initial product design to sourcing sales channels. Over the years, Perception Digital has filed 39 patents in the US, China and the EU for the designs and technologies they have developed, of which 17 were successfully granted.
"Our competitive edge lies in incorporating technology into design. Although we don't have our own factories, we source manufacturers for our clients to ensure high product quality," Mr Lau notes. The business maintains a competitive edge through progressive research, with the majority of staff engaged in R&D (research and development).
While Mr Lau's role has changed over the years, his passion for electronics remains constant. "Teaching and running a business both give me a huge sense of accomplishment, but the latter involves additional concerns about profit and loss issues," he points out.
His day starts with internal roadmap discussions and client appointments. Communicating with a range of people helps him to maintain an overall perspective of the industry. "I also keep my finger on the pulse by attending seminars and reading industry journals," he says.
In 2000, Mr Lau, then 33, was honoured with a Ten Outstanding Young Persons Award from the Junior Chamber International Hong Kong. Five years later, he received a Young Industrialists of Hong Kong award from the Federation of Hong Kong industries.
He advises aspiring young people interested in the field to maintain an open and questioning mind, and to keep up with the constantly evolving world of electronics, in addition to acquiring the necessary academic qualifications. Ongoing education is close to his heart — he is currently enrolled in the top-ranked Kellogg-HKUST EMBA programme.
As for the future, aside from continuing to grow Perception Digital's business, Mr Lau's aim is simply to enhance people's lives through the advancement of technology.