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Executive Summary

Founded in 2016, Peek.Me Naturals is a health care social enterprise in Indonesia. It didn't start with the founder's degree in medicine or public health, instead it began close to the founder’s home from a search to provide a better remedy for her son's asthma. After finding that aromatherapy worked for her son, and also reduced her household's health care spending, Arlin wanted to share this information to raise the quality of life for other Indonesian people and the world by changing their health paradigm. This is her story.

Source: PeekMe Naturals

The Beginning

My name is Arlin Chondro. In 2014, my young son who was two and a half years old at the time, suffered from asthma attacks. As a recovered asthma sufferer myself, I knew how bad it feels and I was determined to find a better remedy than the prescribed steroid inhalations. I started researching the usage of essential oils for therapy and read many journals and textbooks on the medical uses of aromatherapy. I found a formula that worked for my son and since then I became immersed in aromatherapy blending for family and close friends. One friend asked for a natural deodorant, another asked about his eczema, and soon after it was suggested that we set up a business to share this information with the world. 

One thing led to another as they say, and in April 2016, Peek.Me Naturals was founded. We started out with 20 products for common health problems in Indonesia, including: eczema (atopic dermatitis) oil, linen spray for insomnia, spray for mosquito bites, natural solid deodorant, varicose veins ointment, and our skincare line. We also provide consultations for people who wish to ask about problems that do not yet have a remedy in our product line. We distributed our products through online platforms initially and also promote them offline at events where we can meet with customers in-person and explain the benefits of our products. I took a certification program from Aromahead Institute in California in clinical aromatherapy to serve as a basic foundation for our formulations. 

The Problem in the Bigger Picture

I started Peek.Me Naturals from the desire to share safer, better options through natural remedies -- as opposed to conservative, synthetic medicines. As we grew though, I realized that Peek.Me Naturals answered more than just the need for natural remedies. It answers a much bigger, more pervasive problem in society -- and I believe that the solution we provide is more sustainable and holistic than any other current approach.

Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs)

Asthma is a form of allergy that attacks the respiratory system and it belongs to a group of diseases called NCDs (non-communicable diseases) -- these are diseases that are not transmitted from one person to another. (1.) The four big categories of NCDs include cardiovascular diseases (like strokes and heart attacks), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (such as asthma and COPD), and diabetes. In Indonesia, NCDs account for 74 percent of deaths annually. In terms of the economic burden created by NCDS, it can be described as massive, especially since a lot of Indonesians do not have the financial means to look for medical support and because NCDs tend to be chronic and long-term. Caring for NCD patients not only exerts pressure on a family's financial resources but also on their well-being. However, the good news is that behavioral factors are the biggest risks for NCD (smoking, sodium intake, alcohol, and insufficient physical activity) as well as metabolic risks (raised blood pressure, obesity, hyperglycemia), both of which are modifiable.

Mental Health Problems

Since I have a degree in psychology, I have a special concern for mental health problems and the daily stressors that might contribute to them. In Indonesia alone, upwards of 15.8 million people (15 years old and above) have depression and other socio-emotional issues. Mental health problems have a high correlation to physical ailments, especially related to cardiovascular health and the immune system.

Although more clinical approaches need to be taken for issues such as schizophrenia and personality disorders, other mental health issues can be treated and prevented using a more holistic approach. Based on research, essential oils have definite positive impacts on mental faculty and processing. One of Peek.Me Naturals' earliest products include the Bye Bye Stress inhaler, a blend specifically targeted to reduce perceived stress. 

Our Three-Part Solution

The current medical approach to treating NCDs and mental health problems are curative (to cure, to help the sick recover), but in the long run this is not sustainable because treating a condition when it is already in a negative position is much more difficult than keeping a healthy condition in a positive position. The annual health care spending in Indonesia reached USD $27.8 million in 2016. It is clear that the economic burden is felt not only on the individual level, but on national level as well.

To reach the distant goal of reducing the NCD rate, the key lies in two words: prevention and balance. Our body has an amazing system to keep itself in balance, called homeostasis. It is a complex set of opposing mechanisms that work in sync to keep our body functioning well. It includes the immune system, nervous system, and endocrine system. However, our lifestyle can throw this system off-balance. Unhealthy eating habits and environmental and emotional stressors can contribute to tipping off our balance.

Our holistic, natural, preventive approach to health has been well-received partly because of Indonesia’s own local wisdom. Traditional medicines such as jamu (herbal concoctions) and rubbing oils have been an indispensable part of the Indonesian culture -- everyone is familiar with them and has used them at a certain point in their lives. The resistance comes when we advocate for achieving a state of healthy well-being (not just the absence of pain or disease) because we need to address the root causes. It might be because of the reliance on drugs and medication has made people believe that relieving a symptom means that they are well. Or it might be because of a certain Indonesian mentality that prefers to stay maintain status quo without having to dig deeper and potentially uncover troublesome messes. Or it might be because in the current age and time, people are just too used to “instant” everything (instant information, instant noodles, instant communication) -- and thus they require instant relief from a problem.

And that is why we came up with not just products, but a three-part innovative solution that includes education and partnerships.

1. Products and Services

Peek.Me Naturals' aromatherapy products and services are aimed to relieve commonly encountered daily health problems and ailments. Using 100 percent naturally sourced ingredients and taking into consideration safety and health concerns (for young children, the elderly, and pregnant/breastfeeding mothers), our products return the body to its balanced state of homeostasis. 

Natural ingredients of our products
Caption: Natural ingredients of our products. Source: Peek.Me Naturals 

2. Education

We realize that without raising awareness, we cannot switch people's focus to the root problem (of lifestyle and behavior) instead of the immediate problem (the ailment or disease itself). People tend to look for instant relief, while not realizing that it might not solve the root cause of a problem. We therefore incorporate education into our enterprise model: we organize seminars, talk shows, and campaigns to increase awareness about diverse health issues -- not just physical health but also mental health.

We also believe that sustainability cannot be attempted through solitary change. Whether we aim to protect nature, raise well-being, or leave a legacy, it needs to be achieved through the transmission of ideals to the next generation. And the main place it's happening is in the family, from parents to their children. Through educating our main target market and audience (women ages 25-45 who are health-conscious or with young families), we believe that the healthy lifestyle, habits, and paradigms that are instilled and nurtured in the current generation will be passed down to their children. We are educating not just our customers, but the future generation. 

3. Partnerships

We realize that to grow, it is not enough to rely on our solitary effort, so we have always looked for partnerships, initiatives, and collaborations that are aligned with our vision and we work together with them for the dissemination of our ideas. Peek.Me Naturals is part of the initiating committee of INSS (Indonesia Natural Skincare Society), IAA (Indonesia Aromatherapy Association), and is a member of KOI (Komunitas Organik Indonesia). We initiated the establishment of Lingkar Hidup (Circle of Life), a community-based program focused on organizing talk shows and campaigns of holistic well-being for urban dwellers.

The main factors that differentiate us from our competitors are:

  • Our holistic approach not just on physical health but also mental health;
  • The focus on education to raise awareness and change paradigms; and
  • Our openness to partnerships to work together for a common goal.

Market Landscape

From the start we decided to focus on our branding and communications, and also concentrate our sales and marketing efforts through online channels. We also grow through wholesale distributors all across Indonesia. Our annual revenue grew from USD $13,800 in 2016 to USD $82,750 in 2017 to USD $144,800 in 2018. 

Products of PeekMe Naturals 
Source: PeekMe Naturals

Products of PeekMe Naturals for different Purposes 
Source: PeekMe Naturals

Peek.Me Naturals has received recognition both nationally and regionally. We won The Best Creativepreneur Indonesia in 2016 (awarded by BEKRAF, the Indonesian government authority on creative economy). In 2019, we were chosen as the Indonesian representative and grand finalist of Asia Social Innovation Award (organized by Social Ventures Hong Kong).

It might seem that everything was smooth sailing for us, but that’s not the case. With the global trend of going for more natural choices, the pharmaceutical and consumer goods industry in Indonesia tried to stamp down the growth of small- to medium-sized enterprises like Peek.Me Naturals. Sometimes our trademark or copyright submissions would be denied (because a bigger company had “applied first”), sometimes entry to market would be made difficult, and sometimes takeovers were orchestrated. It would have helped if the Indonesian government had specific policies in place to regulate social enterprises and recognize us as a special economic entity to protect us from less-than-savory market practices that try to bring us down.

We are optimistic that Indonesian social enterprises have a bright future ahead, not only because of the creativity and passion that fuel us, but because of the support that the government has started to show. The existence of incubation and accelerator programs such as Impact Hub, Instellar, ANGIN, and BEKRAF, have also helped in providing training and connecting us to a wider network of other social entrepreneurs.

A paradigm change cannot be achieved in the short-term. Our impact model might be hard to measure, but as shown by our growing business, our solution has been well-received by society. We believe, that our passion will fuel our innovation and growth. We also believe, that our model will create a lasting legacy of healthier nations.

Works Cited


Author bio

Arlin Chondro and family
Source: Arlin Chondro

Timothy, her first son has been steroid-free for 4 years now
Source: Arlin Chondro


Arlin Chondro has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her lifelong passion is in education and counseling. She has worked in business development and finance for different industries. Prior to founding Peek.Me Naturals she was a stay-at-home mother to two boys. Outside of work, she enjoys reading and writing, and exercising in both nature and indoors (she's a certified scuba diver and loves to hike). As part of her innovative approach to health, her firstborn son, Timothy, is steroid-free for four years now. 


Executive Summary 

Zunosaki Limited, established in 2015, is a Hong Kong based robotic technology venture founded on a mission to tackle the problem of health care accessibility and improve the quality of life of the disabled. The start-up empowers community health care service providers with affordable solutions by designing and developing affordable robotic products for physical rehabilitation. The venture was previously incubated by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks (HKSTP). It is currently funded by private investors and the Hong Kong Government’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund (SIE Fund). In 2018, their flagship product “HandyGalove,” a wearable robotic glove designed for hand function rehabilitation after stroke, was launched under the brand “HandyRehab.” 

Social Issue

In Hong Kong alone, 25,000 people suffer from stroke every year. As medical technologies advance, the mortality rate of stroke cases has dropped significantly from 34.4 percent (2001) to 19.1 percent (2015). However, the livelihood of stroke patients remains an issue of concern. With an aging population, the city has been putting an enormous emphasis on improving the quality of living for the elderly and disabled through the means of poverty levitation and promotion of primary health care. 

While the golden recovery period of a stroke survivor is the first three to six months from occurrence, significant physical and psychological improvements are observed up to two years. Yet, the City’s current public health care system can only offer patients up to two months of rehabilitation due to the shortage of resources. Stroke patients are then sent back to their home and, most of the time, forced to live in elderly nursing homes. However, the quality of services of these 800 elderly homes have been severely overlooked in the past three decades. These health care service providers often demonstrate a wide range in quality of services due to lack of resources.  

The Solution 

One of the key factors to improve the quality of life of the disabled is to empower them and their health care service providers with up-to-date medical technologies which are affordable and, most importantly, designed aptly for community and household usage. 

HandyRehab Product Set
Source: HandyRehab 

Launching under the brand HandyRehab, the robotic assistive device is an exoskeleton over the hand. It provides power-driven extension and grasping force to the fingers and thumb in order to assist stroke patients in opening and closing their paretic hands by means of surface EMG-triggered from the signals through the forearm muscle groups (extensors and flexors). The product is light in weight (380g), powered by rechargeable Lithium batteries, and can be connected to an App on a smartphone through Bluetooth for gesture control, recording the movements as a report, and feedback to the patient or their therapist. The device provides three modes for hand function rehabilitation training after stroke: 

  1. Passive movement: acting as a stretching machine, the device is able to achieve and maintain continuous motion for patients with disabled hands. 
  2. Active assistive movement: with a surface electromyography (EMG) sensor, the device is able to interpret the user’s intention of movement and provide assistive force according to the patient’s will. 
  3. Bi-manual training: motions of paretic hand are triggered by movement of the normal side. 

Not only is it a rehab training equipment for physiotherapist and occupational therapist to use in health care institutions, but because of its portability and user-friendly product design, it is also an assistive device to help the disabled person complete daily tasks, such as holding a glass of water and objects such as a pen or utensils. 

Running on the principal of neurorehabilitation, the technology is clinically proven to assist stroke rehabilitation to up to 90 percent of full motor control (finger movement). Furthermore, being able to get hold of real-life objects, patients are now motivated to make use of their disabled limb. As a result, increased utilization could improve both elbow and shoulder functions. 

With HandyRehab, stroke patients are able to train with real life objects. 
Source: HandyRehab

Business Model 

Zunosaki strives to balance financial sustainability and to create impact in individuals. The company finances its research and development with funding from the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks’ Incubation Programme and the HKGOV’s Social Innovation and Development Fund (SIE Fund). It has also successfully raised its Angel Round of funding from two groups of private investors.

The company will finance its expansion through sales revenue as well as equity raising. Zunosaki used capital raised to expand its R&D capacity which enables the company to expand its product offerings. Funding will also be used to expand marketing and sales channels, both domestic and overseas. 

Product showcase at the Gerontech and Innovation Expo cum Summit in Hong Kong (2018). 
Source: HandyRehab 

Key Survival Factor 

In the early establishment of Zunosaki, the founding team invested in three prototypes but later on decided to focus on commercializing one single product based on their market research.  

Developing strategic partnerships, building a product that meets customers’ needs, and early engagement with multiple stakeholders are some of the crucial elements of Zunosaki’s successful launch of HandyRehab in Hong Kong. During the first two years of product development, the team had been reaching out to numerous rehab service providers in both Hong Kong and overseas, seeking early adopters, conducting case studies, as well as exchanging knowledge with industry experts. By the time the product was mature for deployment, the team had already established relationships with more than 50 institutional users including hospitals, elderly nursing homes, private clinics, and other service providers. The product has so far been tested with a variety of patients, from patients who suffered a stroke just weeks ago to some with more than 20 years of stroke age, from a 24-year-old young man to a lady in her 80s. 

HandyRehab being used in clinical setting. 
Source: HandyRehab 

Expanding Strategy & Scaling Impact 

Source: HandyRehab

Robotic-assisted therapy is regarded as a more effective and efficient method than conventional rehab therapies to promote recovery. Unfortunately, its adoption in rehabilitation is limited to hospital service providers due to the high cost and bulky size of existing products on the market. 

With HandyRehab’s household-compatible design and affordable offerings, robotic rehabilitation trainings are no longer limited to hospital use. The company is set to bring the product to overseas markets such as Singapore, Japan, and the U.S. in the next few years through work with different local partners.  

Author bio

Alvin Cheung is the co-founder and COO of HandyRehab (Zunosaki Limited). Alvin is responsible for technology commercialization, business development, and fundraising. He has an extensive understanding of community health care needs through working with various NGOs, medical professionals, and community-based health care service providers. In 2018, he helped the company raise a total of HK $6 million from private investors and government funding programs.

Alvin grew up in Hong Kong and lived in London and South Carolina in the U.S. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration (International Business and Chinese Enterprise) from The Chinese University of Hong Kong.  

Executive Summary

Like other developed countries, mental health is one of the major concerns of overburdened citizens in Hong Kong. As a world-class city, the ratio of psychiatrists serving every 100,000 people, is far below the median rate in other high-income economies. In 2016, the Hospital Authority in Hong Kong published a “Mental Health Review Report” (2), in which it was estimated that about 1.7 million out of eight million citizens in Hong Kong have different levels of mental illnesses. 

TheraTalk is a multi-disciplinary initiative with experts in psychology and counseling, counseling research, marketing and business, startups, technology, and design that facilitates the technology-based mental health services provision in Hong Kong by featuring a variety of online counseling services, including free mental health screenings and consultation, one-off psychological consultations, periodical text-based counseling, and regular text-based counseling services at the initial stage. 

The Problem 

Mental health is an integral part of overall health and well-being, "Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity," as defined by the World Health Organization. In 2013, the World Health Organization highlighted the need to address mental health issues through promotion, prevention, treatment, and recovery (1). 

Like other developed countries, mental health is one of the critical concerns of overburdened citizens in Hong Kong. As a world-class city, the ratio of psychiatrists serving every 100,000 people, is far below the median rate in other high-income economies. In 2016, the Hospital Authority in Hong Kong published a “Mental Health Review Report” (2), in which it was estimated that about 1.7 million out of eight million citizens in Hong Kong have different levels of mental illnesses. 

In Chinese culture, having mental health illness is often associated with shame and stigma. Oftentimes, there are delays in the recognition, intervention and treatment of mental health issues, along with the absence of a supportive, inclusive, and non-judgmental culture for citizens in Hong Kong to recover from mental health problems. On the other hand, the public’s lack of awareness or inability to recognize mental health problems in themselves or people around them also caused delayed treatment and exemplified the effect of having a mental health disorder. 

Hong Kong also has a manpower problem when it comes to mental health. It has the lowest number of psychiatrists per capita in any economically equivalent global city. The waitlist for government mental health services is often more than a year. This alarming number of mental health issues and a shortage of medical and counseling resources have created a ticking time bomb when it comes to holistic mental health care.

Alternative Solutions to Mental Health Problems

Integrating technology into mental health practices has the potential to dramatically shift the traditional format of mental health provision in Hong Kong. Incorporating technology into mental health makes transformative changes in prevention, promotion, and treatment of mental health problems through flexible, immediate, on-demand, personal, individually paced, and stigma-free services. This innovative service model is often called telemental health, telepsychology, e-therapy, cyber-counseling, or online counseling, in which a client can access mental health information, seek professional advice, and track their mental health progress over a mobile application or by internet. 

In Western societies, the rapid growth in technology-based mental health services, in particular online counseling services, has led to the foundation of the International Society for Mental Health Online. In 2013, the American Psychological Association published the “Guidelines for the Practice of Telepsychology” (3) to address the developing area of psychological services supported by technology. However, most of the development in the telepsychology field is operated in western countries. In Asia, the development of technology-based mental health services has been very limited in the past years. 

In 2017, the number of smartphone users in Hong Kong was estimated to reach 5.53 million. (4) By the year 2021, it is predicted that 80.69 percent of the population in Hong Kong will use a smartphone. As the population becomes increasingly reliant on personal electronic devices, a new challenge for mental health practitioners in Hong Kong is to harness technological advancements and leverage technologies in the improvement of current practices, to design more accurate, timely, convenient, and accessible services for their targeted users. Through technology, patients would benefit from improved assessment, immediate treatment, and continuous feedback for better care. The advancement in technology also helps to extend mental health services to people who traditionally might have been excluded from them because of long working hours, limited financial resources, transportation, and other scheduling barriers. With the innovative integration of technology into mental health practices, technology-based mental health services will be the way to create a better world.

When Psychology Meets Technology: An Innovative Approach

Source: Theratalk

With the vision to reform the current mental health practice in Hong Kong with technology, the duo, Isabel Li, a seasoned psychologist, and Ming Hiu Yau, an information technology expert, co-founded TheraTalk in 2017 along with a dedicated interdisciplinary team composed of technology, psychology, counseling, research, marketing, and business development experts. 

TheraTalk is a multi-disciplinary initiative with experts in psychology and counseling, counseling research, marketing and business, start-ups, technology, and design that facilitates the technology-based mental health services provision in Hong Kong by featuring a variety of online counseling services, including free mental health screenings and consultation, one-off psychological consultations, periodical text-based counseling, and regular text-based counseling services at the initial stage. 

Ming is a technology expert with experience in investment banking, who also co-founded a fintech prior to TheraTalk. In his past experiences, he discovered a lot of start-up founders and investment bankers were constantly working in high-pressure environments. As entrepreneurs, startup founders are often facing huge pressures to succeed, using up their life savings, sacrificing family time, and constantly working in a multi-tasking mode. These are all factors that contribute to having high stress. Actually, it is a proven fact that startup founders are twice as likely than the general population to suffer from depression or to have suicidal thoughts (study by Michael Freeman). By witnessing his peers who have been struggling with mental health issues, Ming then teamed up with Isabel, a seasoned psychologist to find a new solution for the public. TheraTalk, (“Therapy + Talk”), a comprehensive technology-based mental health services platform was then established as the first comprehensive mental health startup in Hong Kong, articulating technology with mental health services. Since its incorporation, TheraTalk has been well received across the city and in Asia. In only one year, TheraTalk has served more than 3,000 clients in Hong Kong and in other Asian countries, including mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Chinese populations living in countries like the United States and United Kingdom. 

How Does It Work?

TheraTalk aims to reform the current mental health practice in Hong Kong to integrate technology with traditional psychology practices. The platform provides support within the spectrum of mental health prevention, early intervention and education. Clients are greeted by their chatbot Amy with no wait time to understand their current mental health issues to initially detect mental health problems. Once the client understands more about his/her mental health status, he/she can be connected with a professional counselor within 24 hours to start their online counseling journey and obtaining, then, an early intervention to mental health care. Throughout their counseling journey, the client works with the same counselor to ensure that the counseling process is continuous, allowing for rapport and trust to be built. 

White IPhone main screen
Source: Theratalk

Unlike traditional counseling sessions, where a client has to wait a week to see the counselor, TheraTalk’s clients can text their counselor anytime throughout the day and receive regular feedback from their counselor so that the client’s needs are met regularly. On the other hand, the platform also provides free mental health articles for clients to understand more about common mental health issues and trends. 

TheraTalk Goes Further

TheraTalk aims to become a comprehensive mental health hub serving clients in Asia, and the team is currently developing additional features including a free forum for clients to post common problems with the app and mood trackers to meausre counseling progress. 

The ultimate goal of the project is to promote a paradigm shift to change the stigma of seeking mental health services and to promote public awareness of mental health by providing clients with innovative, accessible, cost-effective, and flexible services. In this process, counseling professionals and clients work hand-in-hand to co-create a healthier world. This innovative approach in psychological services is the first of its kind in Hong Kong, and is believed to significantly reduce the wait-time for traditional mental health services. Results also have proven the services to be effective in overseas countries. Theratalk next envisions collaborating with local universities to ensure the use of innovative practices that are both evidence-based and effective. 

The Jumpy Journey of a Mental Health Startup

The journey of promoting a mental health startup was challenging yet fulfilling, although there are a blooming number of mental health tech companies getting into the market in recent years, most of these companies are based in the United States and other western countries. In 2018, the total amount of funding raised by mental health startups tripled compared to the number in 2018 in the United States, indicating that investors are showing growing interest in the field. However, in Asia, investors and funders still find this field to be very foreign to them. TheraTalk, along with other Asian mental health startups have to work hand-in-hand to promote the field to show effectiveness to convince investors, clients, and the public to understand the importance of mental health identification and intervention. 

On the other hand, maintaining a mental health platform requires a lot of expertise in this field. With the shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists in Hong Kong, the professionals must unite and align their practices in order to promote the field together. The cost of mental health can be detrimental for clients who have to pay out of pocket, collaborations with insurance companies, corporations, and even the government to cover mental health expenses is going to be an important health issue to help the whole ecosystem.

Fortunately, we are at a golden age where the stigma around mental health is decreasing globally, people all around the world have become more open about discussing their emotions and mental health statuses, in fact a lot of celebrities around the globe share their journey in fighting mental health issues and these testimonials have helped people to become more aware of the devastating harm mental health can cause to people.  

TheraTalk Today

Since its creation, TheraTalk has served more than 4,000 clients, proving that there is a need for an alternative form of mental health care. Throughout the process, TheraTalk’s team carried out different tests to understand more about their client’s behaviors and to constantly seek the best product-market fit in terms of the service and pricing models. Effectiveness measures have also been put in place to understand the efficacy of online counseling services. The preliminary results were promising, almost 80 percent of clients showed a significant reduction in their anxiety and depression levels after using the online counseling service.

The Asia Social Innovation Award in Hong Kong presented to Theratalk founders Isabel Li and Ming Hiu Yau
Source: Theratalk


TheraTalk will continue to expand its landscape in the mental health tech field in the coming years through integrating technology into psychology practices and by adopting innovative technologies, including AR/VR, as well as biofeedback systems into mental health prevention and treatment. The team is in search of funding support from social ventures and private investments to scale up production, hence improving the quality of life for people living in stress more efficiently and effectively. 

Works Cited

  1. World Health Organization, (2013). Mental Health Action Plan.
  2. Hospital Authority, (2016). Mental Health Review Report.
  3. American Psychological Association (2013). Guidelines for the Practice of Telepsychology. 
  4. Statisca (2015). Number of smartphone users in Hong Kong from 2015 to 2022. Retrieved from:

Author bio

Isabel Li is a mindful thinker, social innovator, educator, professional psychologist, arts therapist, and an entrepreneur. As part of her passion to promote the importance of seeking connections of our body, mind, and spirit in this technology age, Isabel aspires to provide accessible psychological services at a click and to advocate a balanced life as part of a bigger whole.

She holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from University of California, San Diego, a Master of Family Counseling and Family Education degree from Chinese University of Hong Kong, a Master in Educational and Child Psychology from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from Education University of Hong Kong, and a Master of Expressive Arts Degree from University of Hong Kong. She is a graduate member in the Division of Educational Psychology, Hong Kong Psychological Society (DEP, HKPS), and a registered arts therapist (AThR) at The Australian, New Zealand and Asian Creative Arts Therapy Association (ANZACATA).

Executive Summary

Samatoa is a social textile enterprise focusing on the values of fair trade and sustainable development to create an alternative to the textile industry. Creating the greenest and most innovative textile in the world, Samatoa was recognized in 2012 by the UNESCO Prize for excellence. The lotus fabric enables the creation of a workshop of 30 people with exceptional know how. The fabrics are innovative, 100 percent ecological, spun and woven by hand, following the Cambodian traditional methods giving them texture and unique properties. From these exclusive materials Samatoa develops different patterns and high-quality scarves and brings a new way for Cambodian women to empower themselves and “get out of the mud” and blossom, just like the lotus flower.

Lotus Buds  

Symbolism of Lotus 

In South Asia, the sacred Lotus is omnipresent in religious history. For Buddhists, beyond the fact that the lotus is considered a sacred flower, it’s a symbol of every man and woman’s ability to surpass their conditions no matter their origin, and accomplish themselves, just like the lotus flower growing tall until it floats above the muddy waters. Everyone has the potential to elevate themselves and reach Buddha’s state “without letting the world pollute them, like a lotus on water” as cited in the Lotus Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most important educational texts.

Spiritual Lotus Flower

The plant on which Buddha is frequently seen sitting, expresses all the promises of the future and of becoming a better man. For decades, the flower has been identified as a symbol of wisdom and spirituality. We can equally read the Lotus Sutra as an encouragement to actively engage in others’ lives as well as society. The lotus flower is unlike any other flower. It grows in rough conditions as it is surrounded by mud under the water. The lotus seems to be fragile, but it is flexible and strong, and finally gets out of the muddy water to open itself to the world and become a beautiful flower. 

Samatoa believes in the symbolic strength of the Lotus Sutra and is using the same positive and humanist dynamic on which it has developed its economic, social, and environmental project, allowing vulnerable women from small Cambodian villages to become autonomous, to live and to support their family decently. 

There is a popular Asian saying that “a pond without lotus is like a home without women.” Indeed, the lotus still is important in the daily life of Cambodian people. Used in religious rituals, and in domains like medicine, cuisine, and cosmetics the lotus is far less known for its’ textile use. Once worn by Buddhist monks the weaving of lotus fiber was once known and used across South East Asia.

However, this activity has begun to fall into obscurity. Only the inhabitants of Inle Lake’s floating villages have continued to perpetuate this ancestral craft. Day after day, Samatoa brings lotus fabric back to life guided by its symbolism. For Samatoa, the lotus represents the culmination of the company’s ultimate quest for excellence.

Lotus Field 

History of Samatoa

In 2003, Samatoa established the foundations of a solid fabric composed of the best experts in biotextiles and ethical fashion by becoming a social textile enterprise focusing on the values of fair trade and sustainable development to create an alternative to the textile industry. Creating the greenest and most innovative textile in the world, Samatoa was recognized in 2012 with the UNESCO Prize for excellence. Its unique lotus, silk, kapok, and banana-based fabrics have become increasingly popular amongst international designers in ethical fashion and luxury industries. 

Awen Delaval, a Frenchman at the heart of a fair-trade promotion association, was exposed to (and toughened by) the poverty in Cambodia during a trip to Asia. He then had the idea of developing natural textiles and bringing the industry back to life in Cambodia. Seduced by the teachings of the Lotus Sutra he created an itinerary in the same humanist vein.

In 2009, he was introduced to the art of robes made from lotus fibers worn by Burmese monks during an annual celebration. As a designer of ecofriendly textile, he pursued this craft, setting up a laboratory at his Siem Reap home in search of the perfect lotus to create the unique fabric. Setting his eyes on a spectacular 15-hectare lotus lake at Kamping Poy (near Battambang), Awen knew he had found his nirvana.

Lotus Lake
Source: Samatoa

Based in the city of Angkor, he is surrounded by historic spirituality. The lotus appears as the cornerstone of his project, offering symbolism, nobility of soul, beauty, and purity. 

What new symbol can we find, with its millions of fibers, living in lakes and rivers? Once worn by Buddhist monks, it’s now seducing high fashion’s biggest names.

For 10 years, Samatoa experimented with more than 10 local natural fibers: lotus, pineapple, banana, water lily, romchek, kapok, papyrus, palm, silk, coconut, water hyacinth, and rice leaves. During this search, he also developed a team of expert spinners, weavers, seamstresses, and designers. The innovative fabrics are 100 percent ecological, hand spun and woven, following traditional Cambodian methods. This gives them a unique texture and properties available nowhere else on the planet, which are now in demand around the world.

Samatoa uses eco-friendly pigments, using ones that don’t harm the environment and are non-polluting Natural Raw Materials.
Source: Samatoa

Our Lotus Fabric

Experiment after experiment followed by research conducted in remote villages enabled Samatoa to bring back to life long forgotten skills. Thousands of years ago, the art of creating lotus fabric was known, but then lost. Lotus flowers have been harvested in Cambodia for generations, but only the flower. The stems -- the valuable stems -- were left in the water. What a waste! We now harvest the stems and weave our lotus fabric from them. Lotus fabric has unique properties: it is naturally soft, light, especially breathable, and almost wrinkle free. It is also a very eco-friendly fabric containing no chemicals or toxic products. It’s probably the most ecological fabric in the world. We transform a waste into a quality textile that doesn’t use any polluting energy during any of the process.

Starting with this uniquely soft and breathable fabric, we developed the first prototypes of our new collection. Our fabrics are all made possible thanks to the skills of our artisans who possess unparalleled know how resulting in strikingly precise and detailed creations. 

In 2012, we submitted a sarong, made from our unique lotus fibers to the UNESCO handicrafts program and received their Seal of Excellence. The Seal “encourages artisans to produce handicrafts using traditional skills, patterns, and themes in an innovative way in order to ensure the continuity and sustainability of these traditions and skills.” The award is a sign of the craft expert jury’s recognition of high-quality materials. Upon receiving the Seal of Excellence our lotus fabrics have received a great deal of attention from designers all around the world.

Why a Social Innovation?

The basics of the Samatoa model rely on the belief that sustainable economic development is intrinsically linked to social equity and environmental protection. No source of polluting energy, no chemical or toxic substitute, and no heavy metal is used in the manufacturing process of lotus fabric with the greatest respect for nature. This fully integrated model allows Samatoa to ensure the quality from yarn to the finished product, without any intermediary. Thanks to the pilot as the only duplication of the production of the lotus fabric, Samatoa wants to multiply its production capacity by 10 within five years.

100 percent handmade process from extracting the fiber from the plant to making a unique yarn
Source: Samatoa

From mid-range to luxury, Samatoa affects professionals in textile and fashion, and individuals through an innovative model with high added value. The lotus products are already distributed to the famous players in fashion, such as those at TTTT in Hong Kong (founded by Sir David Tang), the Tang Store in Singapore, and designers in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The Samatoa team is multicultural, committed, and dynamic with a low turnover. It is rich from 10 years of experience in research and the development of ecofriendly fabric, and today consists of 30 experts: spinners, weavers, seamstresses, and designers.

Spinner Woman at the Lotus Farm
Source: Samatoa

Eco and Social Business

The lotus fabric, the most spiritual fabric in the world, allows the emancipation of 30 vulnerable Cambodian women. Samatoa uses the best socially responsible manufacturing techniques to create eco fabrics that support women’s empowerment in Cambodia. Our aim is to duplicate the workshop pilot project in Siem Reap and increase production capacity. 

Handmade Cambodian craftmanship, extracting and spinning Lotus fiber
Source: Samatoa

The impact of expanding our eco-textile company will be considerable for a variety of reasons. First, of course, we will provide more than 500 women with long-lasting employment. We will ensure that these local handicrafts using new eco-fibers are made in traditional ways that will never be forgotten. Poor communities will benefit from the market for Lotus and education for farming, and lotus farming works in parallel with rice farming.

Preserving the environment, paying people fairly, and treating each person with respect and dignity are our prerequisites for a sustainable fashion business. All our workers are paid a living wage, have trade union rights, paid leave, and health insurance, not to mention a safe working environment. 

Our fibers are also incredibly friendly to the environment. The extraction, spinning, and weaving of the lotus fiber, consume no polluting resources such as oil, electricity or gas; and do not require any toxic chemicals. Social and environmental benefits and economic value are given to growing lotus and environmental conservation is taught to farmers. There is zero environmental impact in our process. The use of lotus benefits nature and humans. Vegetal plants clean the water (phyto), provide foods for humans and animals (textifood), and protect animals (ecosystem). Therefore, the basics of the Samatoa model rely on the belief that the most sustainable economic development is intrinsically linked to best social, environmental, and economic practices.

Our experimental farm in Phnom Krom Siem Reap, Cambodia
Source: Samatoa

We believe that eco-fashion is defined not just using natural fibers, but also by using fair-trade Cambodian labor in every step of a sustainable fashion supply chain. 

It’s with great pride that Samatoa bridges the gap between the rich and the poor using fair and ethical commerce, allowing formation, emancipation, and international recognition of our producers, to offer a chance to each man, and consequently vulnerable woman, to surpass their condition and elevate themselves, to accomplish “like the lotus flower growing above the muddy waters.” 

Farmer and weavers at a lotus farm
Source: Samatoa

Obstacles, Risks, and Opportunities

Low production capacity and long lead time (from six months to a year) discourage many customers. Samatoa, then, only responds to a fraction of client requests (less than 10 percent). The risk for the company to be copied is very high and it is urgent to protect its innovation and trade secrets. However, this threat is limited because the "sacred" lotus flower (Nelumbo Nucifera) is only available in a few countries. On the other hand, the competitive price of labor in Cambodia, the complexity of the process, and the expertise gained over the years by Samatoa create significant intellectual benefits to the company and limit the implementation of a similar project.

Today the demand is soaring, and the company must support its growth to achieve sustainable development. Samatoa wants to win market share by responding in priority to requests for fabric lotus and create the necessary leverage to advance its overall growth. Samatoa is responsible for the manufacturing processes from beginning to end -- from yarn to finished product -- with no intermediaries or outside providers. This is how we ensure the quality of all our products. 

Therefore, the spiritual foundations of Samatoa, the search for excellence and the confidence of the quality of our products gives us courage and confidence in the future of our product. 

For more information contact Awen Delaval, GM of Samatoa at +88512285930 and by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To shop Samatoa visit: or

Videos about Samatoa can be accessed at (English V) and

Author bio

Awen Delaval. Founder of Samatoa in the lotus field. 
Source: Samatoa

Awen Delaval, a Frenchman at the heart of a fair-trade promotion association, was exposed to (and toughened by) the poverty in Cambodia during a trip to Asia. He had the idea of developing natural textiles and bringing life back to Cambodia’s textile industry. Seduced by the teaching of the Lotus Sutra he created an itinerary in the same humanist vein.

In 2009, he was introduced to the art of robes made from lotus fibers worn by Burmese monks during an annual celebration. As a designer of ecofriendly textile, he pursued this craft, setting up a laboratory at his Siem Reap home in search of the perfect lotus to create the unique fabric.

Setting his eyes on a spectacular 15-hectare lotus lake at Kamping Poy (near Battambang), Awen knew he had found his nirvana.

Executive Summary

Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland has become increasingly recognized as a leader in the field of social innovation for its pioneering work in embedding international social innovation networks in universities. The Southeast Asian Social Innovation Network (SEASIN) ( has been established between eight higher education institutions (HEIs) in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Cambodia along with four non-HEI social innovation organizations and three European universities. The approach argues that universities should support social innovation in a systematic way beyond ad hoc initiatives and sporadic activism. All these projects seek to demonstrate the potential of universities to use their knowledge by developing new paradigms and tools for targeted exchange between actors from all societal sectors. At the same time, they have demonstrated how universities can learn from other organizations with more experience in supporting social innovation. 


A primary challenge for higher education is to prepare our students for a world that is very different from our own. Throughout history there have been seismic societal shifts that force the new generation to recalibrate accepted truths and structures. The difference is that today, the changes that await young people are both global and existential -- for the first time since civilizations established themselves across the planet there is a real and imminent threat to the continued survival of humanity itself. In part because of this, a fundamental skill for the new generation is that it must be proactive rather than reactive. We are conditioned to resolving problems as they manifest themselves and become tangible but in order to prepare for the world of tomorrow, we need to pre-empt problems that are intangible with solutions whose impact may not be immediately apparent. 

One of the key aspects of the younger generation is their greater awareness of the world around them. Because technology has armed them with the means to access information from anywhere at any time, they have a more empathetic understanding of challenges even though they may not be facing these challenges themselves, while also feeling more acutely the need to make change happen. In this context, it is increasingly essential that universities not only offer environments in which new knowledge is created but also help to instill an ability in students to harness that knowledge in order to effect real change in our societies. With the recent crises in democracy, the seemingly inexorable increase in inequalities, and the rise of populism, the need to understand the processes involved in transforming society at a systemic level is more urgent than ever. This transformative movement, usually referred to as social innovation, though often misunderstood and misrepresented, is in a sense the only viable response to what Roberto Ungar described as a “dictatorship of no alternative.” It is precisely the failure of economies, bureaucracies, and ideologies to offer a viable solution to our myriad problems that has led to the emergence of a movement that is defined by its search for alternative solutions. 

If universities are to serve their societies and their students as they should, it is essential that they create environments which encourage and nurture this drive for change, supporting social innovation just as it supports technological and scientific innovation.

Meeting Social Innovation Needs

Back in 2010, the study on social innovation prepared by SIX and the Young Foundation for the Bureau of European Policy Advisors underlined the problem, “Civil society and the grant economy have long been rich sources of social innovation, but they are not well-placed to develop rigorous methods for innovation, lack R&D capacity, and find it hard to spread risk.” The report categorized four key barriers to social innovation: Access to finance; Scaling models; Skills and formation; and Networks and intermediaries. Clearly, universities represent ideal partners to help break down or at least mitigate against many of these barriers. 

As the global mapping of the SI-DRIVE project ( has shown, knowledge gaps represent one of the biggest barriers for successful development of social innovations, especially leading to a limited transfer and diffusion. Often, social innovators are lacking capabilities and skills (especially, business and managerial skills, staff training and personnel development skills, and networking and communication skills) as well as professional knowledge (e.g., information technology and recruiting staff). In addition, they have difficulties accessing required information and therefore external expert knowledge is needed in some areas. 

Against this background, social innovators who participated in the survey expressed the need for building up skills and capabilities (upskilling and training, workshops, learning etc.) as well as providing managerial training (e.g., administration procedures, business plan design etc.). They also stressed the need for more and better knowledge exchange, connections with other organizations, collaborative learning opportunities, bought-in knowledge, and external expertise for specific purposes. Universities can provide appropriate R&D for robust, empirical evaluations of the effectiveness of social innovation, offering an understanding of what can accelerate and scale-up, beyond the anecdotal. 

Currently, while social innovation is becoming increasingly recognized and rewarded as a relevant discipline within social sciences (just as other forms of innovation research became more prevalent in the 80’s and 90’s), it remains siloed within that narrow discipline. Social innovation needs to be supported across thematic areas, in health, engineering, sciences, and humanities; the whole portfolio of knowledge produced by universities needs to be put at the disposal of social innovators for them to grow and flourish to their true potential. 

Another area that is already demonstrating its effectiveness in providing instruments to help effect change is design, and, in particular, the emergence of techniques of ideation, design thinking, and service design as a way of approaching so-called “wicked problems” -- apparently unsolvable and intrinsic to the “dictatorship of no alternatives.”

As policymakers become more convinced of the effectiveness of social innovation, universities will be given more opportunities to establish effective support in other areas. Just as technical expertise in specialized areas can support commercial businesses and give them the means to help grow and expand, the same technical expertise can be offered to social innovators. But in addition to this, universities are providers of a range of logistical support to their community that can provide real added value to social innovation: through the exploitation of their tacit and codified knowledge; through capacity building, mentoring and training; the use of specialized equipment; the provision of real and virtual spaces for networking, hot-desking or more formal incubation facilities; selection and evaluation expertise; and lobbying. 

While social innovation has existed as an ill-defined, undervalued phenomenon for decades, universities have likewise always supported civil society through a variety of activities without necessarily being able to categorize them under a unified terminology. However, there are two interrelated, fundamental characteristics of university support for social innovation that need to change: i) social innovation support activities tend to be ad hoc and largely altruistic, universities have not recognized or systemized a process to measure the social return on investment; ii) as a result, while commercial innovation is recognized and institutionally supported by well-established knowledge exchange offices, there is no professional support function or physical space within universities for supporting social innovation. This function needs to understand the dynamics of the process and the challenges that social innovators and communities face in order to drive social change. And social innovators need to recognize the potential of universities as partners and facilitators for social innovation. 

University Social Innovation Networks

Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland has become increasingly recognized as a leader in this field for its pioneering work in embedding international social innovation networks in universities. Its’ core mission is to be internationally recognized as a “socially innovative university” reflecting its institutional motto “For the Common Good.” The focus of the University’s Strategy 2020 is upon transforming lives, enriching cities and communities, and creating societal benefit by engaging globally. Its approach involves working closely with civic society, not only within Scotland but also beyond, engaging with partners across the world to support and develop local solutions to the challenges they are facing, and utilizing its capacity as a university to bring specialized knowledge and attract investment.

A particular strength of the University is its experience in international projects, particularly under the Erasmus+ CBHE Programme, as the leading UK beneficiary with 20 projects (  At the core of this international activity, the University has established regional networks for building support for social enterprise and innovation.  Intrinsic to all the projects is the establishment of incubation and knowledge exchange facilities that explicitly support social innovation amongst students, academics, and external stakeholders. Complementary to this, the projects have also developed curricular academic programs as well as non-curricular training programs:

The Latin American Social Innovation Network has established eight fully equipped Social Innovation Support Units (SISUs) in universities in Chile, Colombia, Panama, and Brazil. As well as the incubation/co-working spaces, the project has developed a post graduate program in social innovation. 

In the Common Good First project (, similar units have been established through which academics and practitioners are developing digital storytelling techniques and an online directory to showcase social innovation projects in South Africa. 

Social Innovation through Knowledge Exchange ( is a network of HEI and non-HEI partners in Scotland, the Basque Country, Croatia, Germany, and Portugal. In each region a “Social Innovation through Knowledge Exchange (SIKE) Unit” has been established which combines incubation, training, and knowledge in an exchange specifically aimed at supporting the social innovation ecosystem.

Strategy for Change ( has created a European network of universities and student associations which aim to embed social innovation within university curricular and extracurricular programs.

Social Innovation Support in Southeast Asia

In the same way, the Southeast Asian Social Innovation Network (SEASIN) ( has been established between eight HEIs in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Cambodia along with four non-HEI social innovation organizations and three European universities. 

The four Southeast Asian partner countries present very different socioeconomic realities: Malaysia and Thailand have undergone major industrial and social transformation amid rapid economic growth and development over several decades; Cambodia, on the other hand, still has a large proportion of the population living below the poverty-line despite emerging as one of the highest growing economies in the world (7.7 percent between 1995 and 2018); the new Myanmar Government is committed to equitable development and has enjoyed recent growth of about 6.5 percent, but most of its institutions and public administration are still weak and the pace of the reform process is slowing down. In this context, the precise role of social innovation within each country also varies, from an intrinsic element in the equitable development of an emerging economy to a counterbalance to the inevitable consequences of rapid growth -- increasing wealth inequalities and political challenges to fragile democracies. As such, universities play a particularly important role as the intermediaries between the often subversive nature of social innovation initiatives and an honest broker for governments -- often fledgling democracies -- trying to tackle increasing societal challenges in an effective but equitable way.

Despite the different national challenges, the SEASIN project has identified common ground in terms of the kinds of support social innovators might seek from partner universities. The Network conducted a survey among those involved in the Southeast Asian ecosystem, identifying 115 organizations across nine countries and selecting 60 social innovation projects in the partner countries, monitoring 10 of them as case studies on the effectiveness of HEI support. 11.1 percent of respondents to the SEASIN survey felt that mentoring from industry experts would help build their capacities while 10.7 percent identified workshops, 9.7 percent identified funding and investment, and 9.5 percent of them zeroed in on experiential training programs as the support initiatives that could help improve the social innovation ecosystem in their region. In addition to this, the respondents also identified social innovation support units and networking events as relevant resources to help them implement their projects. 81 percent of the intermediaries on the other hand, have identified promotion of social innovation across universities and knowledge sharing as the most effective initiative for building capacities followed by, policies that promote social innovation (78 percent), skill-building programs (63 percent), and providing fiscal incentives such as tax incentives (56 percent). 

The SEASIN State of the Art survey concluded with four recommendations to create a thriving social innovation eco-system: 

  • Government as both the facilitator and enabler: streamlining policymaking to support social innovation;
  • Institutionalize social innovation by transforming education: capacity-building to support social innovation;
  • Social impact/benefit bonds: financial innovation to support social innovation; and
  • Catalyse civic participation and democratise information: create an environment that facilitates collaborations.

In response to these recommendations, the Network has established eight incubation Units (Social Innovation Support Units) each of which include fully equipped makers’ spacers, co-working, and incubation spaces as well as training programs for students. 


While the universities in Myanmar (Cooperative University Thanlyin and Yangon University of Economics) were clearly committed to embedding social innovation within their institutions, and enjoyed the support of regional stakeholders thanks largely to the awareness raising initiatives carried out by organizations such as the British Council, the challenges of their unique socioeconomics meant that much of the support offered by their units were different from other partners. For instance, the 3D printers that had been installed within other universities were not practical since they had neither the expertise nor the resources to ensure their long-term usage by staff and students.

Students from the SISU in Myanmar 
Source: SEASIN


The two Cambodian universities, National University of Management (NUM) and the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), take very different approaches, largely due to the priorities of the faculties involved. NUM is extremely entrepreneurial and created a very dynamic and extremely well-equipped space for students, staff, and external stakeholders. Much of this is thanks to private matching funds which allowed them to offer state-of-the-art facilities. RUPP, through the Faculty of Development Studies, used the space for more curricular activities and centered it around creating a bank of virtual and physical learning resources to raise awareness. The participation of the Cambodian branch of the French organization, Friends International, has ensured that the Universities’ activities are well integrated within the Cambodian social innovation ecosystem, introducing a local network of stakeholders. 


In Thailand, Thammasat University already had a degree of social innovation experience through its School of Global Studies and had even developed a makerspace. Kasetsart University, on the other hand, enjoyed more limited experience within the field and much of their activities are focused around awareness raising. Their SISU has been established as part of the Faculty of Social Sciences but is located as a part of the Center for International Affairs and International Studies Management. Both Universities have been directly supported by Ashoka Thailand which has wide experience of working in the Higher Education social innovation space, especially through its Changemakers program. 


In Malaysia, the two partner universities are also very different: Sunway University is a young, private university, emerging from the Bandar Sunway district while University Teknologi Mara (UiTM) is Malaysia’s largest public university in terms of size and student population. Sunway’s mission is very much based around the SDGs and already had a recently established i-Lab to encourage entrepreneurship among students. In UiTM, the project is based within the Education faculty but involves students and staff from across the University. The two HEIs are supported in their activities by Mission & Co (previously the Scope Group) whose mission is to magnify social good by mobilizing capital. 

Malaysian Human Library. One of the projects being supported by SEASIN
Source: SEASIN

Each partner has developed a series of social entrepreneurship training workshops -- Impact Connect -- in collaboration with Mission & Co and the UK-based global platform, Social Innovation Exchange. These workshops have been replicated by local partners during the course of the project. The project is currently also developing a doctoral program in collaboration with the University of Aveiro (Portugal) and the Asian partners. In October 2018, the first SEASIN Conference, SI-LIVE ASIA, was held in Malaysia, with more than 150 participants and a second conference will be held on October 8-9 in Bangkok.

All these projects seek to demonstrate the potential of universities to use their knowledge by developing new paradigms and tools for targeted exchange between actors from all societal sectors. At the same time, they have demonstrated how universities can learn from other organizations with more experience in supporting social innovation. The projects are forging alliances between universities and stakeholders across the social innovation ecosystem including business, local government, civil society organizations, and community groups in order to develop a new concept for knowledge exchange, informed by a needs analysis and monitoring of local social innovations. By combining the different experiences from universities and non-HEI practitioners, a blueprint for a social innovation support unit has been developed that can be adapted by other institutions wishing to join the Network and emulate the experience of SEASIN partners, creating a physical space to bring together different stakeholders in order to support social innovation processes. 

The Units offer training, policy-briefings, and online tools as part of a suite of incubation and knowledge exchange services applying specialist research, equipment, outreach programs, and existing business support tailor-made to meet the needs of social innovators, whether they be students, academics, or external stakeholders. A series of strategic recommendations and case studies, as well as online tools and teaching materials, are being produced to help other HEIs wishing to create similar units for driving social innovation through knowledge exchange. 


The rationale behind all the projects is that to successfully support social innovation, it is not enough to rely on traditional methods and processes for knowledge exchange. A university needs to establish a specialized unit that is specifically geared towards the needs of social innovators. The approach argues that universities should support social innovation in a systematic way beyond ad hoc initiatives and sporadic activism. A Unit is the next step towards institutionalisation of social innovation through universities. Moreover, the explicit notion of this form of knowledge exchange clearly places universities as conscious actors within the social innovation ecosystem: they proactively assume the task of facilitating the exchange, flow, and co-creation of knowledge.

The ultimate goal of all these projects is to create a global network for supporting social innovation within universities, to embed a culture of changemaking as a fundamental part of higher education, to be able to tackle the pervasive challenges of our age, and combat the “Dictatorship of no alternative.” 

Works Cited

1.  NESTA Social Frontiers conference: “Roberto Magabeira Unger in conversation with Geoff Mulgan on 'The task of the social movement'” November 14th 2013, accessed 15th June 2019.

2.  Jürgen Howaldt, Antonius Schröder, Christoph Kaletka, Dieter Rehfeld, Judith Terstriep “Mapping the World of Social Innovation: A Global Comparative Analysis across Sectors and World Regions” SI-Drive deliverable, July 2016, accessed 15th June 2015.

3.  SEASIN Project: “The State of the Art of Social Innovation in Southeast Asia, April 2016, accessed 15th June 2019.

Author bio

Mark Majewsky Anderson is the Director of Research and Innovation at Glasgow Caledonian University and has helped to embed social innovation as a core part of the University’s mission. As well as overseeing the University’s research and innovation portfolio, he leads several international cooperation projects around the world, in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia. One of his main focal areas is setting up community-facing “Social Innovation Support Units,” specifically dedicated to helping universities engage with their local stakeholders in order to confront societal challenges. He has established 16 of these units in Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Panama, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. He also coordinates SIKE, Social Innovation through Knowledge Exchange, establishing similar units in UK, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, and Germany. Other projects have focused on areas such as research, innovation, internationalization, disability support, female entrepreneurship, etc., in a range of countries including Indonesia, Iran, India, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, among others.  



Stanley Fu, the COO of Sense Innovations, is an example of someone who took a life passion to make a positive impact on those with special needs and made it part of a vision that has empowered more than 600 patients today. It is an unfortunate reality that while there are opportunities for the special needs population to be assisted and supported, there are not many to further their potential to do more. With eye-tracking technology and dedicated one-on-one training programs, patients are provided with new avenues of learning and communication methods to truly maximize their potential. This article sheds light on the vision of Sense Innovation, the progress they have made, and where they plan to go from here. 

Patient smiling using the eye-tracking technology
Source: Sense Innovation 

The Need for Sense Innovation

Today, Sense Innovation (Sense) aims to become a global platform for disabled people, caretakers, therapists, hospitals, and special needs schools and organizations, each communicating and interacting with each other to maximize the potential of disabled individuals by providing eye-tracking assistive technology to the severely disabled. This desire to create something innovative was driven by the understanding of the great capabilities of the individual when equipped with the right technology and opportunities.

Sense was founded in 2015 by Sid Chen and Jay Lin. Their vision began by seeing the amount of help their friend who was physically disabled needed. They sought to create a technology for his benefit. Although it first began for analysis purposes, the team quickly realized that people cannot be immediately helped solely through analysis which led to an evolution to help even more people. Sense came to be after the realization of the positive impact that this product could have on a greater number of people with disabilities. Stanley Fu met Sid back in 2016 and they connected through their common interest of helping people with disabilities, Stanley jumped on the opportunity to serve as a strategy advisor and later transitioned into the role of COO of Sense and is in charge of international expansion.

As a social enterprise, Sense strives to be an organization with a social mission to serve people on a global scale. It isn’t uncommon to have social enterprises develop solutions to pressing problems in society. In fact, the Social Welfare Department of Hong Kong has been promoting social enterprises for years now, through programs such as Enhancing Self-Reliance that funds social enterprises that benefit disadvantaged population. In Taiwan, social enterprises are a relatively active but growing field. As nonprofits and the government realize that social causes cannot rely solely rely on volunteers and NGOs, for-profit social enterprises will begin to take a leading role in championing social causes through innovations.  

Patient using the eye-tracking product
Source: Sense Innovation 

Products and How They Work

The eye-tracking technology is utilized to help individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy, stroke, and other disorders to communicate freely, use the internet, get in touch with others through social media, and learn new knowledge from e-books. In fact, one of the Sense team members who is disabled, Ric, taught himself to use Photoshop through the software and is now a full-time graphic designer. It also gives educators the freedom to empower these populations by creating personalized courses and specific occupational and speech therapy programs. 

Though some people may find eye-tracking technology a daunting concept, its hardware has actually become more prevalent in commercial use. The recent release of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” game for instance, actually incorporates the specific hardware, a thin strip that looks like a smaller version of Xbox’s Kinect. Sense leverages similar hardware to build software for individuals with special needs. 

Instructor helping the patient use the eye-tracking software 
Source: Sense Innovation

The products range from computer control and communication, educational training, and medical training. EyePlayer is an eye-tracking software specifically designed for people with disabilities to assist with learning, job hunting, self-expression, and other daily needs. Users can easily learn how to use office programs, browse web pages, and even check their social networking sites just as anyone else does. As mentioned previously, our in-house graphic designer, Ric, trained himself on various software including Photoshop through EyePlayer. 1246 Cognitive Learning provides a platform for users and their caregivers to communicate with each other. Instructors can utilize diverse resources to guide and improve the patient’s learning and speech-language ability through real life object recognition, visual discrimination, and attention strengthening. 1246 Doctor-Patient Communication serves as a communication platform using eye-tracking technology for the user to gaze at the screen and convey their needs. EyeJoy is an interactive game targeted for kids to retain their attention as they learn to control the screen with their eyes and strengthen their recollection skills. 


A key reason attributed to the success of Sense Innovation is the unique, non-intrusive nature of the products and services to supplement regular treatments and fill a gap where long-term care patients are oftentimes left without significant development opportunities. Another area where Sense Innovation differentiates itself from competitors is in the combination of a bold vision and high scalability. In fact, they have already served more than 600 patients and gained recognition from Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs, Taipei City Government, and Taiwan Mobile. Sense is the only organization that has products specially tailored for this population with usability so warmly received. This is most likely attributed to their efforts to maintain close relations with the disabled population and within their ecosystems like support groups and schools to continuously develop and advance their products further. With the implementation of one-on-one training, Sense makes sure that their influence makes a lasting rather than a temporary impact. 

Stanley Fu and Alvin Lam at ASIA pictured receiving the Grand Prize
Source: JumpStarter 

It is inspiring and exciting to see the momentum Sense Innovation has had in the past few years not only from the number of patients reached but also through the opportunities they have been a part of. Earlier this year, in January, Sense competed in ASIA, a social startup competition co-partnered by JUMPSTARTER, and beat out competitors from 25 countries to receive the grand prize. This competition highlighted the “Impact of Things” (IMoT) and the relationship between social entrepreneurship and the startup ecosystem. Since then, they’ve received a lot of positive publicity in both Hong Kong and Taiwan and have made great connections with investors like UBS and CVC Capital Partners, as well as collaborators such as the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network and Social Ventures Hong Kong. More recently, Sense took part in the Asia Pacific Social Enterprise Summit in Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung. This two-day event was co-organized by the Ministry of Economic Affairs with more than 1,000 attendees and 62 applications from 13 different countries. There was a showcase of the products and services 60 Taiwan-based social enterprises provided, and it was the first Asia Pacific Social Innovation Partnership Award hosted. This award, which Sense received, was given to encourage and promote social innovation specifically in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Patient learning to use the eye-tracking product to communicate
Source: Sense Innovation 

Progress and Future Goals

As Sense’s COO, Stanley finds the growth at Sense since he first joined the company as an advisor on business strategy quite meaningful. Since then, their products have evolved from being analysis-focused to being practical-focused, meaning that the business model has gone from being solely focused on products to a mix of products and services, with 30 percent of their revenue coming from recurring streams. Without the generous financial support of government agencies, corporations, and charities, Sense would not be where they are today. From the initial product development that was sponsored by the Taiwanese government, to the charities that purchased the products for the benefits of special needs institutions and patients, to the CSR departments that sponsored one-on-one training for the development of special needs children, the impact on 600 patients cannot be solely attributed to the efforts of Sense but to all those who have made its’ vision into a reality along the way.  

With such successful milestones, there also came the prospect of scaling; Stanley looked to double their recurring revenue and aggressively expand into Hong Kong. Domestically, Sense looks to expand their business in one-on-one training services and tap into more corporate social responsibility departments for potential collaboration, just as they have done with Fubon Bank’s Charitable Trust and Taiwan Mobile. They hope for more collaboration to fund Sense’s vision to eventually become a global platform. The reason for this drive for growth is due to their understanding of the level of impact this software can have. Stanley had the personal experience of this particular impact when he had the privilege of watching a 12-year-old girl with spinal muscular atrophy use their software to control a computer for the first time. Seeing the joy in her face put tears in his eyes and reassured him of their vision and motivates him to continue his efforts to further growth. In fact, the potential scaling impact is a rough estimate of one percent of any population benefitting from their products and services. 

This growth is sought by replicating their current business models into different markets and continuing expansion by increasing capacities. They hope to develop an online platform to reach populations that otherwise cannot be physically reached through potentially large-scale investments, then leveraging the data collection for further research and improvement of their products and educational content. Additionally, such financial infusion would provide the opportunity to develop new technology to enable eye-tracking on mobile devices. On a personal level, the social implication of such scaling efforts is the range of new avenues of communication and learning patients will gain to improve their quality of life, decreased burden placed on caretakers, and as aforementioned, the maximization of the potential of these individuals. This then will increase their contributions in society and eventually improve the workforce. With the proven positive impact the program creates, it can encourage policymakers to increase funding and provide more resources and support to social enterprises such as Sense Innovations hereby benefitting society as a whole. 

Works Cited

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). “Asia Pacific Social Enterprise Summit Wraps up in Kaohsiung.” Taiwan Today. May 13, 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.

“Stanley Fu Leads Sense Innovation’s Grand Price Win in Hong Kong.” The Stern Opportunity. February 8, 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.

“The Eyes Have It.” USC Marshall. February 19, 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.

Author bios

Stanley Fu joined Sense Innovation in 2018 as COO and is responsible for the Asia Pacific Region. Prior to joining Sense, he served as General Manager of VenturelyCo’s Asia Pacific Region and built a successful sourcing and logistics operation for the company’s e-commerce business. He also served as a management consultant and implemented major projects for Unilever China and Cisco Systems. Stanley received his Master of Science in Business Analytics from New York University, MBA from the University of Southern California, and his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, San Diego. Stanley looks to leverage his professional experience, academic knowledge, and philanthropic network to help bring Sense’s assistive technology to those in need in Hong Kong.

Jane Lee is a rising Junior in the University of Southern California (USC). She is currently part of the Global Fellows Program, which is a highly-selective summer internship program where students can intern in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Shanghai. Coming into USC, Jane was interested in making a societal impact which is why she joined the Global Brigades at Marshall, an organization that strives to provide strategic investment consulting and financial literacy to under resourced micro enterprises in Panama and Honduras. Then in the summer after her freshman year, Jane interned with Mockingbird Analytics, an organization to empower non-profit organizations through Strategic Planning, Development Planning and Support, and Database Administration. She hopes to continue her interest in societal enterprises and gain valuable insight during her time interning for Sense Innovations this summer. 

Executive Summary

Hong Kong is well-known globally for being the most expensive housing market. Encapsulated in unaffordable housing are the plethora of socioeconomic issues such as domestic abuse, social isolation, and a lack of opportunities to upward mobility, to name a few -- all of which entrap grassroots families in a vicious cycle of urban poverty. In the face of this seemingly unsolvable conundrum lies the belief of Ricky Yu, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Light Be, “that every Hong Konger deserves the dignity of decent living and a chance to uplift themselves.” Starting as an “outsider” to Hong Kong’s real estate and social welfare circles, Light Be pioneered the concept of “social realty.”

Finding Opportunities in Hong Kong’s Poverty Challenges

Hong Kong is well-known globally for being the most expensive housing market. Figures regularly cited to illustrate this situation include 21 years needed for a family to save up for a home1 and spending 70 percent of their monthly income to service their mortgages2. For the 20 percent of the population who live below the poverty line3, the urban poverty they are subjected to is exacerbated by dismal housing situations. More than 200,000 people live in sub-divided units4 with a median size of 5.3 square metres5. Encapsulated in unaffordable housing are the plethora of socioeconomic issues such as domestic abuse, social isolation, and a lack of opportunities to upward mobility, to name a few -- all of which entrap grassroots families in a vicious cycle of urban poverty

In the face of this seemingly unsolvable conundrum lies the belief of Ricky Yu, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Light Be, that “every Hong Konger deserves the dignity of decent living and a chance to uplift themselves.” Starting as an “outsider” to Hong Kong’s real estate and social welfare circles, Light Be pioneered the concept of “social realty.” This concept is a new narrative to urban poverty alleviation measures that has traditionally focused on direct resource transfers to the needy. Instead, Light Be provides a platform that closely intertwines affordable housing, personal development, and community elements for families in need to empower themselves out of poverty.

Ricky Yu with a tenant family
Source: Light Be

Social Ventures Hong Kong, as Light Be’s early-stage impact investor, saw Light Be’s novel approach to urban poverty alleviation as an opportunity to illustrate social innovation in impact investment and resource aggregation. These innovations are relevant not just for Hong Kong, but also for any growing urban center in Asia facing the twin challenges of housing affordability and urban poverty

Property for Poverty

Light Be’s Light Home scheme is centered on renting apartments from socially conscious landlords and sub-leasing these apartments to single mothers with children. These apartments, known as Light Homes, have three characteristics that represent Light Be’s core values:

  1. Light Homes are not sub-divided units, but rather co-living units where families have their own bedrooms and share the rest of the house;
  2. Rents paid to the landlords are based entirely on each tenant family’s affordability, rather than being benchmarked against the market; and
  3. Each tenant family will go through a tailor-made tenant development plan, for them to ‘graduate’ from the Light Home scheme within three years

Since 2012, Light Be has managed over 70 Light Home units from more than 60 socially conscious landlords in 15 of the 18 districts across Hong Kong, benefitting close to 300 families. Many of these Light Homes are concentrated in the downtown neighborhoods around the Victoria Harbor, where housing prices are generally higher. 

Light Housing: View of Exterior Building
Source: Light Be

Private investors form the largest pool of apartment landlords in Hong Kong. Over the years, Light Be has learned the importance of keeping our model easy to understand and hassle-free in order to engage landlords from all walks of life, from family offices to retired couples who may not be familiar with impact investing. Property investment is commonplace in Hong Kong, and Light Be combines landlords’ inherent comfort and knowledge in the property market with social good. Light Be utilizes the time-capital of the properties, such that long-term capital appreciation of the Light Home units and immediate visible social impact would de-risk the lower-than-market-rate short-term rental yields that landlords receive. During the lease, Light Be manages all aspects of the apartments, including small-scale maintenance, in addition to managing the tenants, thus incentivizing landlords to lease their apartments to Light Be and indirectly attract them to this impact investment opportunity. Light Be builds trust with landlords in two ways: 

  1. Encouraging landlords to build direct relationships with their tenant families -- there are cases of landlords who regularly spend festive occasions with their tenants and even a landlord who created jobs in his businesses for Light Home families; and
  2. Allowing for turnover of apartments, so that landlords know that they can have their apartments back when the lease ends -- yet, so far, landlord renewal rate is more than 80 percent.

These two measures give landlords the assurance that their properties are managed under a well-governed system and that the impact they help create does make a difference to real people with real stories.

Rooftop Community Gathering
Source: Light Be

Creating a Better Future, Starting from Within

“Graduation” and “empowerment” are the two cornerstone concepts that set Light Be apart from traditional social services for poverty alleviation in Hong Kong. The maximum tenancy for each Light Home family is three years. Families are well-aware of this timeline from the outset. From the beginning of their tenancies, their assigned Light Home Managers will work with families towards their “graduation” with a tailor-made tenant development plan. “Graduations” come in various forms when Light Home families are ready to stand on their own two feet through their efforts during their time at their Light Homes: some families improve their finances and have the means to live in decent apartments, some families learn the art of co-living and move out with new flatmates, while some families repair their relationships with their extended families and move back home or are able to get accommodation support from their families. Contrary to expectations, only a small proportion of families “graduate” to public housing, showing Light Home families’ resilience and self-reliance in general. “Graduations” are crucial, particularly given Light Be’s limited resources, so that more families in need can get the chance to uplift themselves. By empowering families to stand on their own two feet, Light Be prevents families from relying excessively on welfare handouts, hence alleviating the strain on public funds. Currently, Light Home families take an average of two years to successfully “graduate” and move on. “Graduations” prove to society, and to families themselves, that breaking the poverty cycle is possible, challenging longstanding presumptions on urban poverty

The path to graduation involves empowering families to grasp opportunities for themselves. Consolidating prior experience in working with Hong Kong’s working poor families, we observed that while their “poverty” come in a spectrum of forms and circumstances, in general, they have the following commonalities:

  • A vision deficit: a lack of hope or concept of how a “better future” could play out for them, as they become desensitized to their own circumstances.
  • A community deficit: a lack of connections to a wider group of people who could support them in times of need, whether by financial, material, emotional/mental health, or network support.
  • An opportunity deficit: a lack of channels to participate in mainstream society or workforce, due to constraints from family, skills, confidence, knowledge, or working environment.

Light Be’s model believes that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomics circumstances, has the potential within them to improve their lives. With the Light Home as a conduit to engage with families, the role of a Light Home Manager is to help families see their own potential, then together, work backwards to undo these deficits. A Light Home Manager is a hybrid of a companion, social worker, life coach, landlord, and supervisor -- combining carrot-and-stick strategies with compassion. Each family’s development plan includes detailed concrete targets and personal goals that families have to work towards, with the support of their Light Home Managers, who check in on their progress at least monthly. Light Home Managers sometimes help to bridge families with opportunities and encourage them to build up self-confidence and self-efficacy. Unlike traditional social welfare models, Light Be’s empowerment emphasises “give and take.” Families are expected to give a commitment to uplift themselves before they can take the resources Light Be can offer to them. After taking from the Light Be community, they are encouraged to give back to the community in their own ways, whether it is sharing their experiences with other families or organizing regular activities. We are proud to have witnessed many cases where the “give and take” policy instills a sense of dignity in Light Home families, especially in mothers who want to be a role model for their children, which fosters self-reliance and independence

Reading sessions with children
Source: Light Be

Collective Action for Urban Poverty Alleviation

Similar to Light Be’s belief in Light Home families’ potential, Light Be also believes that Hong Kong has the collective strength and resources to address urban poverty, regardless how entrenched the issue may seem. This belief is the central tenant to Light Be’s collaborative model in creating avenues for one and all to contribute to Light Be in their own ways. Apart from early-stage impact investment from Social Ventures Hong Kong and Ricky Yu himself, Light Be has received grants from Hong Kong’s most notable family foundations for capacity building and family empowerment programs. Light Be has cultivated a network of professional firms and specialist advisors across law, architecture, construction, and property development to inject social value into their specialized expertise. Light Be maintains close ties with the social welfare sector, working with like-minded NGOs and government departments to aggregate resources to support families. Light Be’s property management work to take care of Light Homes is supported by an eclectic mix of vendors, such as a network of neighborhood handymen across Hong Kong, while volunteers contribute their skills ranging from reading to design to uplift families. The effect of these partnerships not only helped Light Be to reduce operational costs, but also grow organizational capacity for Light Be to take on larger projects, such as the Sham Tseng Light Housing project, which has 45 social housing units for working poor families converted from a former textile factory staff dormitory. These partnerships represent a platform of purpose where partners can chip in to make Hong Kong a better place for all

Perhaps, Light Be’s greatest innovation lies not in its beliefs or models, but rather the mind-bending break of a deep-rooted narrative: real estate, the most valuable and sought-after commodity in Hong Kong, can be injected with a social mission to improve the lives of people facing urban poverty. “Property for Poverty” has prompted a rethink, and more importantly action, from asset owners and the government to better utilize land and space, ranging from underutilized industrial buildings to brownfield sites, to make Hong Kong’s property market inclusive for local community needs. Together, Hong Kong can create its own solutions to urban poverty and make this City a place where everyone has a decent choice on how they want to live

Works Cited

1 Demographia. “15th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2019,” Demographia, Jan 21, 2019.

2 Victor Ting. “World’s most expensive housing market is getting even pricier with mortgages in Hong Kong eating up almost 70 per cent of monthly income,” South China Morning Post, Jun 3, 2019.

3 Office of the Government Economist, Financial Secretary's Office and Census and Statistics Department. “Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2017,” Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Nov 19, 2018.

4 Census and Statistics Department. “2016 Population By-Census, Thematic Report: Persons Living in Subdivided Units,” Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Jan 2018.

5 Research Office, Legislative Council Secretariat. “Subdivided units in Hong Kong,” Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Jun 26, 2018.

Author bio

Lehui Liang is the Head of Purpose Capital at Social Ventures Hong Kong, an Impact Purpose Organization dedicated to innovating social change for Hong Kong’s urban social issues. The Purpose Capital team synthesizes resources, both tangible and intangible, from partners across all sectors and enables these resources to have social value to enrich Hong Kong’s communities


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