As I end my second and final term as Dean of Science at the University of Waterloo, I’ve been asked to reflect on the journey to establishing the Centre for Eye and Vision Research, which began operations in October 2020. CEVR is the culmination of a 4-year effort by Waterloo and Hong Kong academic and government leaders, UW alumni and friends. Like many complex undertakings, it was not a linear process, and it involved several ‘catalysts,’ people who bring together key stakeholders and help lower what chemists refer to as ‘activation barriers.’
I met the first catalysts on a trip to Hong Kong in 2016. They are Dr. Ronald Li, who at the time was Director of the Ming Wai Lau Centre for Reparative Medicine at Science Park and also a UW Science alumnus (BSc’94), Mr. Charles Ng of InvestHK, and Ms. Marian Gaultney, who at the time was Head of International Collaboration at Science Park. They were the ones who planted the seed that the University of Waterloo should consider setting up a research centre in Hong Kong focused on health tech.
With the original CEVR catalysts, February 2023 (from left to right): Mr. Charles Ng, me, Ms. Marian Gaultney, Mr. David Timms (Director of Advancement, UW Science) and Dr. Ronald Li.
In late November 2017, I was in Hong Kong for the University of Waterloo Alumni Dinner, which celebrated UW’s 60th anniversary. There, I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive (CE) at the time, who indicated that the HKSAR government was considering a funding program for international research partnerships. And she certainly meant business.
One month later, I was back in Hong Kong to attend a luncheon hosted by the CE at the Government House, which brought together representatives from all Hong Kong universities and global university leaders, including Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, UCL, ETH and Karolinska, to name a few. It was at that luncheon that the CE announced the InnoHK program, a 10 billion HK$ initiative to fund up to 28 research centres in Science Park, half of which would focus on health tech and the other half on AI and robotics. Each centre would be a partnership between a Hong Kong university and one or more global universities and would be located in two new buildings under construction at Science Park—17W and 19W.
To get in the game, our challenge was two-fold: (i) find a Hong Kong university partner and (ii) develop a competitive proposal for the Health@InnoHK cluster.
Enters the next CEVR catalyst: Prof. George Woo. Another UW alumnus (OD’64), George was a faculty member in the School of Optometry & Vision Science at UW from 1970 to 1996, co-founder of the School’s Low Vision Clinic and Founding Director of the UW Centre for Sight Enhancement. Upon ‘retirement’ from UW, George moved to Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 1997 and was appointed Chair Professor of Optometry and Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences; he ‘retired’ again in 2011, becoming an Emeritus Professor at the PolyU School of Optometry. I first met George at the 2015 Hong Kong UW Alumni Dinner, and many times thereafter, both in Hong Kong and Waterloo—I hired his son Stan as Director of our School of Optometry & Vision Science in 2017.
From the first time I met him, George had strongly advocated for UW and PolyU to formalize a research partnership and combine our strengths to become a global leader in vision science. So, when I came back from the InnoHK launch event at Government House, I knew what we had to do!
George introduced me to Prof. David Shum, the newly appointed Dean of Health and Social Sciences at PolyU, and Prof. Alex Wai, then Vice-President-Research at PolyU (now President of Hong Kong Baptist University). Together with our respective international relations teams, we drafted a strategic partnership MOU and an implementation agreement to develop what would become the CEVR proposal, which were signed on November 5, 2018.
The signing of the Strategic University Partnership between UW and PolyU (from left to right): me, Prof. Alex Wai, and Prof. David Shum.
On May 17, 2019, we received a letter from the HKSAR Innovation and Technology Commission that our proposal had been approved, with funding of 200 million HK$ over 5 years. But the most significant challenges remained: negotiate Master and Funding agreements with ITC and build CEVR from the ground up in two empty shells in 17W, and populate it with researchers and administrators from both institutions. The fact that we managed to overcome these challenges and get CEVR up and running—during a global pandemic—is a testament to the strength of the UW-PolyU partnership and the fortitude and tenacity of all its stakeholders, including Prof. Ben Thompson, CEO and Scientific Director, Prof. Chi-ho To, COO and Deputy Scientific Director and Dr. Peter pang, Centre Senior Manager.
Today, CEVR is running on all cylinders and is regarded as one of the flagship centres of the Health@InnoHK cluster. It is poised to achieve great strides in addressing pressing societal needs in eye and vision health and developing groundbreaking technologies in ocular drug delivery and retinal imaging tools to diagnose and treat neurodegenerative diseases. I want to thank all the people—and catalysts—who helped us achieve this goal and kept us riding this incredible rollercoaster.