Jason Chiu is the North Asia regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
For the better part of two years, we have been told the best way to protect ourselves and others has been to stay home, socially distance, wear masks and get vaccinated. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly 450 million cases have been confirmed and 6 million deaths reported by the World Health Organization. Government and business leaders have encountered many hurdles to bringing people back together safely.
At the start of the pandemic, serial tech entrepreneur, angel investor and YPO member Jason Chiu, Founder of Cherrypicks, a leader in Hong Kong in mobile innovation, e-commerce and smart cities, saw an opportunity to leverage technology to create a critical component of preparedness and safety. Given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, he set out to apply existing location-enabled technology to protect citizens through contact tracing.
“The inspiration came quite naturally, and a lot of those technologies were ready to be pieced together and deployed in a quick manner,” Chiu says. He stepped forward, knowing his team had the depth of knowledge and was well-prepared to solve the problem.
By April 2020, Chiu and his team had collaborated with leading institutions to propose solutions to help make Hong Kong safer during the pandemic, subdue the spread, build community resilience and aid with reopening efforts. The result: the LeaveHomeSafe app, the official contact tracing and vaccine bubble platform for Hong Kong citizens and venues, and the GroundSage platform, crowd density monitoring for large-scale exhibition venues. Both combine privacy-by-design contact tracing and exposure notification, artificial intelligence (AI), smart sensor fusion and location intelligence.
Collaborating for good
Chiu is no stranger to using technology to solve global challenges. Cherrypicks focuses on making cities smarter by reducing waste, costs, energy, natural resource consumption and more through mobile-first user experience (UX), smart city software as a service (SaaS) and blockchain platforms. The company’s early entrepreneurial journey is featured as a Harvard Business School case study.
As a serial tech entrepreneur for two decades, Chiu has experienced major ups and downs from raising tens of millions of dollars to being on the brink of bankruptcy. In the last five to 10 years, he has become a mentor as an angel investor and Chairman of the Hong Kong Startup Council, accelerating and growing over 60 high-impact tech startups, including Xandar Kardian which uses radar signals to monitor a patient’s vitals without a wearable or touch.
“A lot of these experiences taught me about different aspects of innovation and how one should navigate, make things happen, turn technology into something useful for the community,” he says. “Putting great people and great founders on the right track to multiply the social impact is far greater than something I alone can work on and build.”
Innovation at work
This cohort of innovators across academic institutions, non-government organizations (NGOs) and global tech companies set out to collaboratively create a best-in-class contact tracing tool that was effective enough to be used by every citizen on their smartphone while preserving privacy.
“Contact tracing is easy,” he says. “It is non-privacy preserved. That’s what drove us to act – because of the difficult problem that we were trying to solve, and we believed this could really make a difference.”
Location intelligence can detect through various sensors whether a person is indoors or outdoors, moving or stationary, when they cross paths with another user and more, Chiu explains. The cohort applied those technologies to contact tracing and then created a privacy architecture that was scalable to protect the identity of the users with high security standards.
“Only the users would be able to track and process the information,” he says. “No central server or updates of any kind would be passed to any parties.”
The biggest challenge the team faced was creating rigorous technologies that worked but also helped build trust among all the stakeholders. The initial proposal was drastically different from the final product, Chiu says, because they were balancing a complex interplay of government interests including health, technology, education, customs and public safety with that of the user.
“Ultimately it’s about people,” Chiu says. “It’s about the user experience in the utility and pleasure. Utility as in does it serve the function and purpose? Does it get done what it intends to? Pleasure as in is it easy to use? Does the user have satisfaction? The great technologies are often invisible to users. If this is to protect citizens, they have to trust that this technology is indeed privacy-preserved, will work in a convenient manner and not add any burden to their daily life.”
Since launching in September 2020 on iOS, AOS and HarmonyOS, the LeaveHomeSafe app has surpassed over 7 million users at 10,000 venues and has become a central tool for every citizen in the fight of the pandemic in the city of Hong Kong. Starting in December 2021, LeaveHomeSafe became mandatory in 18 types of designated premises including restaurants, gyms, cinemas, museums and beauty salons. A second phase kicked off in February 2022 when the LeaveHomeSafe vaccine pass became required for entry at malls, supermarkets, department stores and wet markets.
Putting great people and great founders on the right track to multiply the social impact is far greater than something I alone can work on and build. ”
— Jason Chiu, North Asia regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award share
GroundSage aims to take safety to the next level and help communities lead new normal lives in an informed, safe, frictionless and user-friendly way. The Jaarbeurs Event and Exhibition Centre in Utrecht, the Netherlands, with 2.5 million annual visitors, became the first major convention center to use GroundSage for crowd density monitoring. Launched in October 2021, the Jaarbeurs Welcome helps visitors maintain safe social distance and prevents overcrowding. No personal data is shared with Jaarbeurs, and the users’ privacy is safeguarded at all times.
“Changing lives in a way that we still allow normal life to be conducted but in a safer way, despite the pandemic and the fifth wave or fourth wave around the world would be what I see as a priceless impact,” says Chiu, who hopes to make even more of a difference in communities around the world with the open sourcing of selected platforms through Tech Response to COVID-19 Limited.
Tackling a dynamic problem
The creation of LeaveHomeSafe and GroundSage has been a tremendous learning experience in preparing for the unexpected and riding out waves of unpredictability. Working under constantly evolving circumstances required concentrated teamwork and presence of mind.
“Building a secure and solid platform in a very short time was already a Herculean task, let alone doing all this with dynamic input and distractions from all directions,” says Chiu. “It was like navigating a lava maze. The ground you were standing on may not be there tomorrow.”
To prepare themselves to handle whatever might be around the corner, the cohort modeled teams after Navy SEALs, known for their grit, refusal to quit, team-orientation, focus, ability to deal with disruption and pivot, and acceptance of reality. Much like during a special operation, the two sub-teams were given a mission and had to drop everything in pursuit of it. In many cases, Chiu says, they slept at the office for days in a row, the two shifts working 24/7 for continuous sprint cycles under a strong tech lead and scrum master to ensure “there was always someone ready to act whenever something happened, whether it was from the government, the pandemic situation or policies from the WHO.”
“My biggest role was to protect the team and enable them to innovate and sprint full speed,” says Chiu. To do so, he stressed staying “focused and calm, concentrating on solving the problem, despite all the crisis disasters, surprises and attacks happening all around us.” It was exactly what they needed to persevere, not get distracted and cross the finish line with LeaveHomeSafe and GroundSage.
The art of pivoting
The experience has not only given Chiu a more empathetic perspective of communities but also a broader view of how he can continue to “use technology responsibly with purpose and do good while of course still making a sustainable profit so that we can continue to innovate.” While he never could have predicted the pandemic or the need for contact tracing and crowd density monitoring, as an entrepreneur, he understood he could pitch in and make a difference in a challenging and unexpected situation.
“Entrepreneurially, we envision that if things like that happen, we would seize the golden opportunities,” says Chiu. “We have demonstrated to ourselves that we have done exactly that: we stepped up and rose to the challenge, despite a lot of criticism, challenges and frictions throughout the process. The impact from the work we made and the people whom we touched is going to have a sustainable effect, and it will attract more opportunities to ultimately make cities smarter, safer and better in the future.”