Innovation nation

By WILLIAM HENNELLY | | Updated: 2017-04-14 23:12

Innovation nation

Second-largest economy looks to be second to none for new technologies and businesses, reports WILLIAM HENNELLY in New York.

China has done much in the past decade to counter the outdated perception that the country isn't innovative.

The knock against China has been that it has copied technology from other countries and companies around the world.

In fact, according to one expert, China is now taking steps to protect its own intellectual property, whereas in the past, other nations looked to protect their IP from China.

Chinese innovation and companies have emerged in diverse fields such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, drones, e-commerce, electronic vehicles, life sciences, mobile telecommunications, high-speed rail, robotics, supercomputing and virtual reality.

Whether it's a mix of national pride, the sheer numbers of its population and an unrelenting work ethic, innovation in China is barreling forward.

"So, if you were to call me a bunch of years ago" and ask about innovation, "I would say not enough money, not enough qualified people, very outdated infrastructure," said Denis Simon, PhD, the executive vice-chancellor at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province.

"If you asked me the question today, I would tell you (China has) more than enough money, more than enough qualified people, and a very good and increasingly getting better infrastructure.

"The whole landscape of the innovation system has changed dramatically as a result of over the last 10 years of investment that the Chinese government has put in.

"Money doesn't buy innovation," he said. "What buys innovation is opening up the system in order to allow entrepreneurial-oriented scientists to explore their creative pathways and … be unencumbered in what they do in terms of discovery and then eventually commercialization.

"So what we've started to see now and particularly over the last two or three years are really some amazing changes in the attitudes about giving scientists and engineers much more leeway and much more room to explore their opportunities in the research system," Fraser said.

"By removing some of the shackles, by making money more available, by making it easier to get grants, etc., the state is changing its posture. So rather than primarily (having) a top-down driven innovation system, China now increasingly is showing signs that the bottom-up part of the innovation system is yielding results.

"This would be particularly true in areas like life sciences, biotech, etc, where a lot of individual scientists have returned from the West and begun to explore the opportunities in life sciences in China," which he explained as biotech of plants, animals and human beings.

Fraser said one professor at his school, Dr. David Brady, is one of the world's leaders in optics technology.

"That is the camera of the 21st century," Fraser said. "He is developing the lens technology that will now replace or at least be a major advancement over the existing technologies that now dominate cameras and security cameras.

"David went out to China because the United States is no longer a player in the camera industry. And China is now the emerging star in cameras.

"More and more American scientists see opportunities of collaboration and also commercialization in China as being an attraction to give them the push to work with a Chinese partner on projects," Fraser said.

Spreading the word

And the world is taking notice of Chinese innovation.

For the first time in its 31-year history, on March 11, SXSW presented Chinese tech innovation at its interactive session in Austin, Texas.

GeekPark, a technology community featuring Chinese companies, selected a handful of exhibitors to "evangelize" the quality, innovation and ingenuity of China's products, concepts and technologies.

The panelists of GeekPark's "China Gathering" discussed the nation's march into a new age of innovation.

"We are thrilled to bring these exhibitors to a global audience at the world's premier celebration of interactive technology," Peng (Jack) Zhang, founder and CEO of GeekPark, said at SXSW.

In a Q&A with China Daily, Zhang said, "In many tech fields, China is not the most advanced. But Chinese innovators are indeed good at figuring out the most available and the most feasible applications. That's why you may see more and more tech-driven products in China, even earlier adopted than the US, not only to use a particular tech, but also to create value for both business and people's good.

"The mobile internet's fast development in China gives birth to a new

generation of entrepreneurs, who are equipped with new mindsets and vision,

who believe in the power of techs, and who master new ways of thinking and doing

business," Zhang said.

"They have better educational backgrounds. And they (are) a generation to go beyond copycats. You may find they do not only care about how successful the business itself

is, but also how to achieve success and what deeper impact they will bring about via

the success.

"Secondly, the high penetration of mobile devices in China enables the society to become more open-minded. People become more inclined to adopt new things. It makes many things possible." Zhang said.

He listed as examples "the prevalence of sharing bikes, the popularization of WeChat Pay and Alipay, the penetration of on-demand economy (food delivery, housekeeping, etc.), the industrialization of live streaming, etc.".

Xiaojie Huang, CEO of Baofeng Mojing, which produces mobile virtual reality technology, said he "can see innovative technology, products, models continue to emerge. Innovation has been deeply rooted in people's mindset.

"On the one hand, it is the evolving of R&D, education level, professionalism and user base, which are the soil and foundation of tech innovation. On the other hand, more importantly, innovation culture becomes an inclusive atmosphere. Innovators' mindset and users' acceptance are decisive factors in the rapid growth of Chinese innovation.

"The most trending are VR, AI, big data, and cloud computing. In recent years, the government has vigorously promoted innovation and entrepreneurship and led the organization of industry forums and meetings, (which has) greatly encouraged the entrepreneurs' confidence."

Government push

Innovation is set to be the major driver of the Chinese economy, leading its move into new faster-growing and more dynamic sectors, according to a recent Government Work Report.

Premier Li Keqiang stressed research and development in the report delivered to the National People's Congress on March 5.

"We will do more to implement the strategy of innovation-driven development, upgrade the structure of the real economy and improve its performance and competitiveness," he said.

Li said investment in R&D was crucial for China to implement its Made in China 2025 initiative aimed at making the country internationally competitive in key industries such as advanced IT, robotics and machine tools, railway technology, aerospace and maritime equipment and high-tech shipping.

Li said that new, small, private sector businesses hold the key to innovation. Over the past year, the number of new businesses registered in China increased 24.5 percent, with 15,000 new businesses being created on average each day.

President Xi Jinping said initiatives such as the Shanghai Free Trade Zone will play a leading role in boosting China's innovation efforts.

The zone, which has 40,000 registered businesses in new sectors such as e-commerce and medical services, was launched in 2013.

"China's opening door will not close again," Xi said.

Robin Li, chairman and CEO of Baidu, told the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on March 3 of the importance of artificial intelligence and called for preferential policies for its development.

"Like the profound impact of the Industrial Revolution, today we've reached a tipping point where AI gets to bring sweeping changes to our lives, with so many achievable applications to be rolled out," he said.

China now has 156 national high-tech industrial zones, with operating revenue of 27.9 trillion yuan ($4 trillion) in 2016.

Those zones accounted for 11.7 percent of China's GDP in 2016 and 18 percent of China's exports, according to Zhang Zhihong, director of Torch High Technology Industry Development Center, Ministry of Science & Technology.

"The high-tech zones have become a major engine to China's economic growth," Zhang said. "Nearly 4,300 spaces provided services for more than 120,000 enterprises in 2016, attracting investment of 5.5 billion yuan."

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