Returnees are 'seed capital' for startups

Updated: 2013-10-25 00:16

By XIE YU in Suzhou, Jiangsu (China Daily)

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Wen Xuejun's budding dream in the United States blossomed in China.

After staying in the US for 16 years, and holding an endowed chair professorship at Virginia Commonwealth University, Wen returned to China and set up Ryan Nanomedicine Co Ltd in Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu province.

"I have an ambition to transfer my achievements in the lab into useful medical products, and I chose to realize this ambition in China, after careful consideration,"said Wen, who now serves as the company's president.

Wen is one of dozens of people who took part in the latest 1,000 Plan Entrepreneurship Competition in Suzhou. The contest is especially designed for experienced entrepreneurs who have an overseas background.

It's part of a project known as the One Thousand Talent Plan, which has been administered by the central government since 2008.

The program is China's most ambitious specialist recruitment program in recent years. It aims to attract top international specialists in fields such as science and technology, finance and corporate management to start companies in China.

For decades, going overseas for further study was a relatively rare opportunity, and a highly desirable move for bright and ambitious people. Many of them put down roots abroad, obtaining permanent residence and building a life in a new country.

But studying abroad is becoming easier for ordinary people, and more graduates — as well as established professionals — are thinking of coming back to China, with its fast-growing economy that has become the world's second largest.

For Wen, who had an established career and a family in the US, the biggest attraction of China was strong financial support.

After winning the championship, he received 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) in strategic funding from venture capital investors, as well as 300,000 yuan in prize money.

Wen's lab in the US mastered a core technology to make collagen-coated medical catheters, which are more resistant to bacteria and cost less.

But the cost of commercializing the technology in the US would have been too high, Wen said.

The US Food and Drug Administration certification process is an expensive and complicated procedure, and hiring a team for the project would have cost at least 1 million yuan a year.

"However, I am much more familiar with the certification process in China, although the paperwork is much more time-consuming. What's more, human resources are cheaper,"Wen said.

Poon Hak Fei had a similar experience. He joined Nanosolar in Silicon Valley in California after getting his doctorate in chemical engineering at Princeton University. He then co-founded an energy storage solution startup, but he still chose to set up his first wholly owned company in Suzhou.

"To be fair, the working and living environment is very nice in the States, as well as the pay. But I do not want to miss the market opportunities in China,"he said.

Poon set up a company to make conductive nanofilm last January, with $2.2 million in strategic investment from Northern Light Venture Capital. He said he expects the company to be profitable by the end of 2013.

"The logic is to make world-class products at a lower cost in China. Meanwhile, the local government is quite efficient, and the managers from the venture capital company are very helpful,"he added. He added that a cluster of nanotechnology companies has formed in the Yangtze River Delta region, which is another plus.

Talk about China losing its labor advantage is widespread these days. According to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group, "Made in America, Again”, the cost advantage China has over the US is shrinking fast.

"Within five years, rising Chinese wages, higher US productivity, a weaker dollar, and other factors will virtually close the cost gap between the US and China for many goods consumed in North America,"the report said.

There are also reports of manufacturer such as vehicle producers moving back to the US from China.

But people like Poon believe that for technology-intensive sectors, China still has its advantages.

"China has very smart technicians and skilled workers. They are very willing to learn, very good at solving problems. They just lack some systematic training, but they cost half as much as their US peers,"he said.

So it's possible that some blue-collar industries formerly outsourced to China will leave, but skill-intensive ones won't, he added.

Government funds earmarked for universities and research-and-development centers were used over the past couple of decades to cultivate the first wave of entrepreneurs in China.

Banks, local governments with technology zones and industrial parks later became technology investors.

Today, the rise of China's venture capital sector is supporting the entrepreneurial environment.

Media reports have said that VC investment in China peaked at $6.3 billion with 362 deals in 2011.

VCs are still keen on the Chinese market, although they've become more cautious because of a freeze on initial public offerings since late 2012, which blocked a common exit mechanism.

"You've got to go to the early stage to find good opportunities,"said Deng Feng, founder and managing director of Northern Light.

"In recent years, venture capitalists were like hunter-gatherers picking the low-hanging fruit.

"Now, we have to become peasants who labor together with the enterprises that we've invested in, to make a profit,"he said.

But that also means more opportunities for people with "hard"technology such as Wen and Poon to attract capital for their innovations.

"China has a solid base in its manufacturing industry. It's very easy to combine the hard technology and undertake mass production here,"Deng said.

Deng himself is a "returnee executive”, who was born and grew up in China. He studied and worked in the US before returning to China and setting up his VC firm in 2005. Northern Light focuses on early-stage, technology-enabled business opportunities.

"Talented returnees are displaying explosive creativity and energy in China, and becoming fresh troops in leading China's strategic emerging industries,"a central government said.

The report said that revenue generated by enterprises under the One Thousand Talent Plan has reached 63.2 billion yuan, generating profits and tax revenues of 3.5 billion yuan.

Even beyond this program, more young Chinese are returning home to find economic oppotunities.

"It is easier to achieve fast growth for companies in China due to the thriving economy. I plan to go back and start up my own business, although I am reluctant to leave the great technology atmosphere in the US,"said Wang Pu, 32, who works as an engineer for Google Inc in the US.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said 272,900 overseas students came back to China in 2012, up 46 percent from the previous year.

Although many returned students complain that it's hard for them to find jobs, high-end talent is in great demand everywhere in China. Besides the One Thousand Talent Plan, local governments at all levels are wooing well-educated specialists.

For example, Pudong New Area in Shanghai released a five-year plan late last year under which it earmarked 300 million yuan to attract world-class talent in finance, shipping and other strategic emerging industries.