MIT forum draws top minds to help China tackle problems

Updated: 2013-11-18 07:56

By MICHAEL BARRIS in Boston (China Daily USA)

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MIT forum draws top minds to help China tackle problems

Hugo Shong, founding general partner of IDG Capital Partners, a China-focused investment firm, gestures to spectators at the third annual MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum conference. Michael Barris / China Daily

Recognizing that China is "important to its future", the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held a two-day forum this weekend that showcased ideas and technologies China ostensibly could employ to attack environmental issues and other challenges that have accompanied its rapid growth.

But the event at the renowned private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts also reflected MIT's determination to build a relationship with China that would last well beyond the day the Asian nation overtakes the United States as the world's largest economy, which is expected to occur by the decade's end.

"If we don't engage with China now, 10 years from now we'll have to take a number," Victor Zue, an MIT electrical engineering and computer science professor and the chairman of the MIT Greater China Strategy Working Group, told an audience Saturday at the Stata Center. "So our strategy must be driven by the desire to work with a potential peer."

Zue, whose remarks officially opened the third annual MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum, said MIT has had "many different" relationships with various nations, but its relationship with China "is different, due to (China's) sheer size and accelerated growth".

MIT believes, he said, that "very soon they are going to be at the level of the United States. The impact of this relationship will far exceed any relationship that we have had".

Zue, who has done consulting work for the US Department of Defense, said Chinese universities are "not at the level" of some top higher-education institutions, including MIT. The Chinese government, however, "is making tremendous investments to upgrade its universities", the professor said. "And the talent pool in China is immense".

"As our (MIT) president, Rafael Reif, once said to me, 'If we don't engage with China now, 10 years from now we'll have to take a number'", Zue said.

Given China's importance to MIT's future, Zue said the school, traditionally known for research and education in the physical sciences and engineering, must prepare students for careers in which they could work for US-based Chinese employers or even work in China. MIT, he said, must continue to attract "some of the best minds from China".

The conference — subtitled "Transforming Ideas to Impact" and including panels on healthcare, biotechnology and venture capital investment — came with China at a "turning point" in its development, as its energy demands rise, millions need clean water and safe food, and its economic growth slows, according to the conference website. China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2010-2015) has emphasized technology and expanding international cooperation, as the country seeks to build an innovation-oriented economy and a healthy, growing domestic market, the website said.

The event also came amid a decline in US government research funding that is seen as hampering America's global competitiveness. In the US, federal R&D spending has dropped 16.3 percent since 2010, according to a September report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By contrast, government research funding in China has grown 20 percent a year since 2011, putting China on track to overtake the US in R&D spending by 2023.

The conference spotlighted figures from China and the US who have succeeded in taking, or who are striving to take, innovative ideas to the marketplace.

Hugo Shong, the well-known founding general partner of IDG Capital Partners, a China-focused investment firm with $2.5 billion in capital under management, advised students during his keynote speech Saturday to follow a passion and be persistent in dealing with setbacks, while building a dependable team of partners to support the march to success.

"Once you have a dream, keep doing it," Shong said. "You may find people who are interested in giving you money. But, more importantly, look at the team. You need people to help you sell and promote a product. Have a team to share your dream."

Shong said China is "much different" than it was in 1993, when the one-time Xinhua news agency reporter helped Patrick McGovern, the chairman of Boston-based International Data Group, establish the $50 million IDG Capital venture fund in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. Since then, Shong has launched and published more than 40 magazines in China and Vietnam, including the Chinese editions of Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, and National Geographic, and invested in Chinese Internet concerns such as web services provider Baidu, instant messaging software service Tencent QQ, and web portal company Sohu.

Last week, Shong launched a new scholarship program with the American Film Institute, the AFI/IDG China Story Fellowship, aimed at developing feature-length screenplays that foster greater understanding of Chinese history, culture and literature. The fellowship allows for nine AFI fellows to travel to China for cultural research.

"Twenty years ago (in China), people all were looking for funding," Shong told the audience that packed a lecture theater in the Stata Center, a wildly angular structure that houses the office of World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, among other academic celebrities. "Now China has more cash than any other country. They are looking for great ideas." With air pollution now a major problem in Beijing, "everybody is talking about pollution in China," Shong said. "We need a great solution to solve this problem."

Speaking both as the executive responsible for IDG's businesses in 15 Asian countries and regions, and as a graduate of Harvard University's business school, Shong urged students to improve their "personal skills" to feel comfortable talking to people in the commercial world, including interviewing job candidates.

The conference showed MIT's ability to attract top minds with projects that could help China deal with its growth-related problems. Led by John Leonard, an MIT expert on mobile robot navigation and mapping problems, a panel on "emerging technologies and the future" included: Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of crowd-funding platform JumpStartFund, whose projects include the Hyperloop, a transportation system advanced by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk that would move riders in bullet-shaped aluminum pods magnetically through airless, low-pressure tubes at 800 miles per hour; Elaine Chen, product-development vice-president with Rethink Robotics, which explores new ways of using robots in production and research; Carl Dietrich, co-founder and CEO of Terrafugia Corp, which has developed a flying car that can travel up to 120 miles per hour on the ground and more than 400 miles an hour in the air, slated to go on sale in two years; and Kevan Weaver, technology integration director with TerraPower LLC, a nuclear energy technology startup company.

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