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In a corner of a university in Hong Kong, a machine quietly swallows and processes food waste that people throw into it, making it easier to convert the waste into energy.

The Food TranSmarter takes only one to two hours to automatically liquefy food waste into slurry at source by using a combination of mechanical and biological processes.

This can then be effectively delivered by vacuum tankers to centralised treatment facilities for recycling and conversion into energy.

The waste-to-energy effort, now on trial at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was the brainchild of the team of Dr Anthony Ma.

Dr Ma said that in developing the machine, a lot of the effort went into making sure there would be no odour or waste leakage, while also keeping manpower, logistics costs and carbon emissions low.

He envisions that one day, the Food TranSmarter could be set up in residential areas so that each household can recycle its own waste easily and contribute directly to the city’s waste-to-energy efforts.

Spurring creativity in developing real-world solutions

The Food TranSmarter was recently crowned a champion for environmental sustainability in the open group of the inaugural Hong Kong City I&T Grand Challenge.

Organised by the Innovation and Technology Commission and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP), the competition invited all sectors of the community to put forward innovation and technology (I&T) solutions to tackle problems facing the city and people in their daily lives.

This year, the focus was on two issues – environmental sustainability and social connectivity. The event hoped to encourage the development of solutions that would make Hong Kong safer, more efficient, connected and sustainable. 

The challenge was split into four categories for the public, tertiary institutions, secondary schools and primary schools.

More than 740 submissions were received from over 1,250 contestants, with 120 shortlisted to enter the Grand Pitch on Oct 15. Winners were announced after the Finale at Hong Kong Science Park on Oct 16.

They were selected by a judging panel consisting of nine representatives from the government, industry, and academic and research sectors.

A snapshot of vital health signs

One winner in the university/tertiary institute group was PanopticAI, a start-up that aims to make use of photographic images to help doctors and healthcare providers remotely monitor patients’ vital signs and deliver better care.

Its technology provides users with a holistic analysis of their health simply by using the camera on their smartphone, tablet or computer to take pictures of parts of their body.

While the start-up has been incorporated for only about a year, the team has been doing research in artificial intelligence (AI) computer vision and advanced signal processing for a long time. 

The inspiration for the winning solution came from research on using cameras for remote physiological measurement, which is an emerging field at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 

Prior to this, PanopticAI had successfully deployed its proprietary AI temperature screening technology at various border points, government facilities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, temperature is only one of many vital signs and the team’s research has shown that there is other crucial physiological information such as heart rate, respiration rate, oxygen saturation and heart rate variability that can be detected by simply using a consumer-level camera instead of a sensor that is based on contact.

“Accurate measurement of these core vital signs can enable further diagnostic capabilities such as fever, stress, cardiac and respiratory risks, and more,” said Mr Kyle Wong, the chief executive officer of PanopticAI.

While the technology was aimed at pandemic control, it has many real-world applications, such as telemedicine, elderly and neonatal care, autonomous vehicles, wellness and mental health, and insurance, he added.

Helping innovators bring ideas to fruition

In addition to cash prizes and trophies, winners of the Hong Kong City I&T Grand Challenge’s university/tertiary institute and open group categories will be given financial support for research and development.

Ms Rebecca Pun, Commissioner for Innovation and Technology of HKSAR Government, said these winners will receive support from account managers and mentors when they subsequently enter the trial and adoption phase. 

They will also be provided with training and will be sponsored for the prototype production for trial runs in government departments or public organisations, she added.

Dr Sunny Chai, chairman of the board of directors of the HKSTP, said: “HKSTP firmly believes attracting and nurturing I&T talents are critical for supporting the development of Hong Kong into a world’s leading I&T hub, and we have been striving to provide opportunities to local youngsters who aspire to become our future I&T leaders by leveraging the strengths of our combined network of government, industry, academic and research partners.      

“The Hong Kong City I&T Grand Challenge is a great example of our partnership with the government and has proven to be an effective and inspirational showcase of our growing I&T talents.”

Indeed, the winning entries displayed potential, with creative ideas on how to solve everyday issues in the city and could make a real difference to the quality of life of residents.

Dr Ma, who is behind the food waste recycling project, said his team wanted to find a solution for collecting domestic food waste.

“We wish that this innovative technology solution can tackle the food waste bottlenecks in Hong Kong,” he explained.

For PanopticAI’s Mr Wong, preparing for this year’s Hong Kong City I&T Grand Challenge helped his team focus more on the impact it could make.

“As engineers by training, we have a tendency to be laser-focused on the technical aspects of the technology,” he noted. “This entry prompted us to emphasise the business and social aspects of our technology.     

“We do not just create a product, but also hope to create a health-conscious community where citizens can take control of their health, simply with a smile.”

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