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6 Dec 2017

Making It Work – Alex Orange

Making it work

Google Maps did not exist in the early 1990s, but Alex Orange was already a step ahead of the curve. Or so he thought.

Fresh out of university with a physics degree in hand and head full of ideas, he spent a few years working in consumer electronics manufacturing in Hong Kong before deciding to enroll in a masters programme in electronics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He set himself out on a mission – to invent a product and build a business of it.

A change in fortune

“I wanted to combine laptops with GPS and create mapping software. I wanted to be the first Google Maps,”

the KGV graduate tells ESF. “But when I got there in 1995, they told me ‘sorry, it has already been done’.”

In the end, he ended up designing sensor technology for the university’s cycling programme. His eventual breakthrough would be a device fitted onto a bicycle that monitored cyclists’ performance, and relayed data to a computer in real-time.

“I built the prototype, wrote my thesis, got a good mark for it, then I said all right, I’m now going to take this invention of mine out into the market!”

But there was a problem. “I had ideas but I suddenly realised how deficient I was on the business and marketing side”. Alas, Alex did not know how to market anything.

He ran out of money and the device was never built. But Alex’s passion for science and engineering never went to waste. It would instead lead him to a completely different career.

What, why and how

Alex Orange spent his formative childhood years in New Zealand, his birthplace, before his family moved to Hong Kong. He attended Kowloon Junior for primary school and entered KGV for secondary.

The Orange children were a gifted bunch. His sister excelled in academics and his two brothers were superb athletes. Alex describes himself as somewhere in between.

Partially influenced by his engineer father, Alex spent his childhood building things, disassembling them, tinkering with machines and taking part in soapbox races. There was always a scientist in him.

“I was the kid who took apart video recorders and put them back together. I was always wondering what, why and how things work.”

He vividly recalls the first Meccano construction set his father bought him when he was young boy.

“Instead of giving me the set with all the parts. He spent the night building a crane for me – hooks, cables and everything; it rotated and went up and down. He really wanted to show me what I could do with it. And he got as much fun out of it as I did.”

Kindling the passion

His fascination with making things continued into secondary school. It prompted him to take up “graphical communication”, a forerunner of sorts to the course now known as Design and Technology – but without the 3D printers and laser cutting. He found himself absorbed in the intricacies of tech drawing and design.

Alex recently attended a D&T workshop at West Island School, and was awestruck by the technology now available for students to explore and create with. Certainly, his was different times. But some things remain unchanged –the quality and passion of the ESF’s teachers.

“The greatest skills you can learn are those that enable you to think outside the box; the skills to analyse an issue or problem and come up with a brand new solution. Teachers at ESF empower their students and prepare them for this.”

From class subjects to after-school activities, ESF schools’ wide range of choice and emphasis on diversity is what Alex believes is and will continue to be its biggest appeal. Both his daughters, Adelaide and Emily are now at ESF schools.

“It’s all about choice and I’m a strong believer in that,” he says. “It’s about giving kids a paint box and giving them the opportunity to see what they can create. ESF offers them that.” And choice facilitates passion.

“Life has its ups and downs. You’ll need to find a source of motivation to get you through the little depressions and hard bits. That source is the passion you have for whatever you’re doing. Being paid a lot of money can help, but it can only help you so much before you exhaust this source of motivation and the effort becomes too much. If you’re passionate, you’ll never get exhausted.”

Circle of life

Alex may not have built his product, but he’s always been able to leverage on his passions for science, engineering and technology. After putting away his thesis, he took up a job as a radio engineer for New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development, where he built an 11-year career in the regulation of the airwaves.

He later joined Qualcomm, a global semiconductor and telecoms equipment and services provider to head its government affairs for Taiwan, Southeast Asia and Pacific.

“In 2007, I was attending a conference in Geneva and I mentioned to someone at Qualcomm that I went to school in Hong Kong and wouldn’t mind going back. They remembered and about eight months later they asked me if I was still interested.”

By the end of 2008, as the global financial crisis was hitting, Alex arrived in Hong Kong, the city he grew up in. “Now my kids go to ESF too. It was really like life came full circle.”

There’s more to science

With a little encouragement, he hopes to see more young people explore science and innovation too. He says in Hong Kong, many young people tend to look at career paths narrowly through a limited scope.

“People growing up in Hong Kong look around at all the tall buildings in Central and tell themselves ‘I’ve got to go into finance’.”

“They don’t prominently see a career at a research institute because that kind of profession isn’t out there making a bold statement, self-marketing itself. After all, in finance you’ve got to be bold and brash but in science you’re always in the back room somewhere.

But the finance guys need the science guys and the science guys need the finance guys, he says. “It’s all part of the ecosystem.”

Alex still has his master’s thesis buried somewhere at home and he doesn’t rule out digging it out and getting it made one day.

He may have gotten sidetracked but there was never any regret. “I got to be the mad scientist and learn a lot of cool stuff”.