Scotland/China news

Innovations in Science and Technology Forum

By Ken Currie and Mike Nelson

The SCA were represented at the 2016 Guangdong Public Diplomacy Week and the 3rd Maritime Silk Road International Expo (23rd – 29th October 2016) By Janice Dickson, Mike Nelson, Ken Currie and Youling Sun – an event organized by the Guangdong People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (GPAFFC).

We attended ‘The Innovation in Science and Technology for Corporate Development Forum’, part of the 2016 Guangdong Public Diplomacy Week.
The forum had lined up an interesting range of industry speakers, which was then followed by an impressive group discussion with younger entrepreneurs in technology start-ups. As at the Symposium on the opening day the simultaneous translations were excellent, though some newer technical terms were understandably hard to translate, and this ensured that we could fully follow and be involved in the presentations and discussions of this forum.

There were a range of sectors and companies represented, including:

  • BGI: a genomic research organisation
  • CISCO: the communications leader with seven centres in China
  • IBM: the computing giant with a 30 year presence in China
  • BDWise: a Chinese navigation systems company
  • Hitachi: who have 47,000 Chinese employees and 180 subsidiaries
  • Zhuhai: a specialist in unmanned surface vehicles.

Dr. Gao Qiang, General Manager, BGI
BGI spoke about building the infrastructure of the gene industy, based on

  • Knowledge of evolution
  • Use of big data
  • His company’s innovative technologies in reading DNA sequences.
The volume of DNA sequencing has soared, rising faster than what computer scientists call Moore’s Law. BGI has sequenced 11 million samples in recent times, hence the interest in big data. Use of sequencing technologies are currently dominated by the USA, but China is now the third largest user and have driven the traditionally high cost of data storage down to an incredibly low 0.1RMB/PB (petabyte) – which is a lot of data, and very cheap.

While the technology is useful for diagnosis and for predicting risks of some diseases, etc., BGI are at the point of not just reading genes, but of actually being able to write them. No doubt this will happen at some point, but this is not yet allowed for human genes.

Policy and regulation is seen as a problem, and China established a Genome Ethics Group in 1997. They are catching up with the US on this front, but it is seen as a barrier to those working in large companies. Interestingly their industries are also maturing in the sense that keeping talented researchers is now a problem. Many talented people leave, frustrated at the lack of reward for innovation, often starting up new companies. There seemed to be an implication that small start-ups can get round the regulations! Maybe that’s true everywhere.

Shen Ping, Cisco Great China Business Development.
True to the corporate line, CISCO are into innovation, but as a means not and end. They have a staggering $5 billion international R&D budget which the seven Chinese centres benefit greatly from. One billion RMB is being invested in Guangdong alone though we were not told of what period this is over. The aim is to make Guangzhou a ‘smart city’. This is evidence of their policy of having localised, regional R&D centres but with a focus on getting the supply chain right. This is part of a ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative to build smart cities with Guangzhou being a key pilot selection (along with Barcelona and New York), and looking at the integration of information, better ‘Internet of Everything’ management, and connectivity between different industries and sectors.

IBM

IBM presented themselves as an ‘empowering enterprise’ with a 30 year history in China. The emphasis of this presentation was ‘cognitive business’, and key competencies in areas such as supply chain management (which seemed to be a recurring theme for many companies).

One theme of all speakers was the impact of disruptive technologies, though IBM seem keen to present themselves as a conservative innovator, able to include radical change and innovation within an overall conservative business model. Their focus is on competence and capability, though with 8,851 US patents filed in 2015 alone they seem to be more radical than conservative.

DBWise

This is a company that has taken its military navigational technologies, and adapted them for the general market. They have gone through the experience of significant commercial change, and the issue of trying to get accepted by the general market. They are offering a Chinese alternative to the US GPS, the European Galileo and the Russian Glosnass navigational systems based on RDSS and RNSS. They are looking to value adds such as RDSS for drones, realt time navigation, traffic reports and weather reporting to capture share of a commercial ‘GPS’ market. They predict a huge 200 billion RMB surge in this market and are looking to capture a major share.

Hitachi

Social innovation and the Internet of Things was again a theme of the Hitachi presentation. This talk was about their Lumada platform and its explicit use of artificial intelligence, targeting industrial applications.

It was interesting, again, that logistics was a key focus – suggesting a major issue for Chinese companies? However the problem illustrated seemed to be one caused by traffic issues over the very large cities of Guangzhou and Dongguan, rather than more traditional ‘travelling salesman’ type logistical problems. Perhaps DBWise will be able to help with their handling of big data and data analysis?

Again, Hitachi presented themselves as a conservative company with a 100 year history of continual innovation with existing technologies. However, as the theme of this forum was about disruptive technologies, they explained how the company has to be institutionally ready to integrate disruptive technologies into cross-functional integrated solutions for customers.

Chen Liang, CEO, Zhuhai
The final presentation was about developments in unmanned surface vehicles in water. Zhuhai seemed to be developing from advances in other countries, and one of their slides showed a rather threatening-looking military assault craft from Israel! However their domestic uses seemed to concentrate on marine surveying, temperature and water quality monitoring, fish stocks, etc. Currently they manufacture small (20kg), medium (200kg) and large (1 tonne) vehicles though thee are plans for much bigger craft to come.
Youth Enterprises
The formal presentations were followed by a very free and open Q&A session, but then by a number of presentations from young entrepreneurs who have started some very interesting sounding start-ups. This was more of a Q&A session, though there were some very interesting details that came out of it, including:
  • The Chinese Academy of Science has an off-shoot – CAS Innovation and Investment, established in 2015 and fully owned – to help fund hi-tech start-ups in China
  • There is a ‘Startup Grid’ in 200 cities worldwide, but including Guangzhou, supporting entrepreneurs. Interestingly the local representative was a Czech national.
  • The ease of starting up a company in Shenzhen and the relative ease of obtaining visas for work. Its proximity to Hong Kong, and its manufacturing a logistics expertise make it extremely attractive.
  • Hong Kong, itself, has a very mature angel investment network, and is a useful springboard for listing and overseas expansion.
  • CAS I&I provide funding for IT start-ups, particularly in AI and biomedical areas. They have plans to start up a new incubation platform in Shenzhen in November 2016.

    Finally, we were given a rather eye-opening insight into venture capital in China. Corporate investment is common and we were told that there will be 3 trillion RMB pumped into to local VC. Now we were not told the period over which this will stretch, but it was a rather impressive number nevertheless. They predict that they will surpass the US in a few years.

    Altogether a rather interesting forum, despite initial feeling that it was something to be endured. It was very well organised and the interpreters must be congratulated for their great work ensuring that we felt part of the session.