I Am Generation T: Kevin Johan Wong
I Am Generation T is a series of Q&As with some of the extraordinary individuals on the Generation T List 2018.
When we ask Kevin Johan Wong what exactly his company sells, his reply is refreshingly free of business-speak. “We make really weird wearables,” he answers with a fit of laughter. But while the Hong Kong Generation T honouree's wearable products may not be traditional, they are dazzlingly clever—and if that means weird in his world, then sign us up.
The Hong Kong-born entrepreneur’s company, Origami Labs, has developed a device that puts a voice assistant at your fingertips—literally. Orii, the firm's voice-powered smart ring, allows users to not only make a phone call, but also perform commands.
Users simply touch their finger to their ear to interact with their phone's voice assistant, meaning a number of tasks like sending messages, setting alarms and making phone calls can be performed without staring at a screen.
The ring uses bone conduction technology, which converts electrical signals into vibrations that travel through bone and directly into the inner ear, bypassing the eardrums. When applied properly, the technology can offer superior audio quality even in noisy environments. Hence why this invention has proved particularly popular with those who are hard of hearing.
The brilliance of it all explains why Wong made headlines last year when he raised more than US$500,000 via crowdfunding—13 times more than the company had aimed for. This came about via three campaigns—one on Kickstarter, one on Indiegogo and one in Taiwan—with investors including the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund.
We speak with the Gen.T honouree to find out about his ambitions, inspirations and apparent love of failure.
Who is your inspiration?
Probably my dad. Both because he used technology to overcome his own problems and because he’s just one of the smartest guys I know. He is visually impaired and since he was 13, it’s been difficult for him to interact in a world that is dominated by digital devices. But he had a life mission early to give access to computers and digital devices to other people like him. So, he went to Cambridge and then joined the research division at Microsoft. He ended up building the world’s first talking computer with Bill Gates in the early ’90s as a way of opening the doors to a group of people who couldn’t use tech before.
Where do you want to be in the next 10 years?
We want to be involved in even more exciting projects. We view ourselves as creatives—not just this one product but over many different platforms in Asia. I love the idea that innovation can really happen here and not just be brought over from the West.
What is your ultimate professional ambition?
It will have something to do with knowledge transfer. Hong Kong has been trying to find its third wave. It was manufacturing, then it was finance, and I think that now it’s looking for something more creative. Just to be a part of that is my current career aspiration.
What habits do all successful entrepreneurs share?
A fearlessness of the unknown. One of the difficult things about being an entrepreneur is that most of the time you’re a pioneer. You’re a pioneer in a very unknown space. Because of that a lot of basic decisions can be very hard as there’s no reference. In the face of the unknown, some people can be too conservative but, in general, entrepreneurs have this innate desire to explore and keep going into that dark unknown space.
How do you deal with failure when it happens?
Oh, I love it. I mean, I fail all the time! I have a very short memory, so I guess that’s how I deal with failure. The emotion and frustration of failure passes quickly. I think simply about what things are actionable and what can be learned from that failure, and try to give it a second try.
What’s your industry’s next disrupter?
Contextual voice assistance—the ability for voice assistants to understand truly conversational language. Once they are able to do that, we’ll see interaction with AI on a totally different level to what we have today. Instead of just being command-based, devices will develop personalities [and engage in] interesting interactions.
What does Generation T mean to you?
It’s a broader concept than just entrepreneurship. For me, at least in the last year in a half, we’re coming to the forefront of the entrepreneurial world, in Hong Kong at least. We can feel that there’s a new guard and new a responsibility. It’s a lot of fun, but there’s also a lot of responsibility to try to help define what’s going to come and who’s going to be coming after us. There’s a saying that’s really fitting: "It’s not about you, it’s about who comes before you and who comes after you." That’s sort of what I think of Generation T.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
To come back to Hong Kong. Often people give advice for the wrong reasons but it ends up being the right choice. I came back primarily for the family business but that started a sequence of events that ended up putting me where I am today. And I think my life would be very different if I wasn’t here in Hong Kong. Often success is being in the right place at the right time and being willing to take up that opportunity.
How do you define success?
Success is just a self-fulfilling thing. If you feel good about what you’re doing, that in itself is already a success. For us it’s about enjoying the journey, I think. We see ourselves as very transient people, always moving forward. As a team we always talk about what’s next—beyond this product, what’s going to follow in the years to come. It’s the joy of doing things together.
Can you tell us something interesting most people don’t know about you?
I’m a self-diagnosed dyslexic. I can memorise a series of 10 numbers but I don’t know the sequence. I think that’s also an analogy of why we’re so successful as well. I read quickly, I see things as sort of larger brushstrokes and it allows me to see the environment and the landscape better because I’m not drawn to the minutiae.
See all 50 of the game-changing young talents on the Generation T List 2018.
Photography: Callaghan Walsh | Styling: Christie Simpson | Outfits: Theory