China’s Coming Age Of Invention

Rebecca Fannin, 06.07.10, 06:00 AM EDT

Now, everything is made in China–

but little is invented there.

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When will the familiar label “Made in China” switch to something more challenging: “Invented in China”? Not for another decade at least, according to investors and technology entrepreneurs who gathered recently at an event in Beijing to discuss the topic. (For video of the event, click here.)

Sure, some things are already being invented in China. Internet whizzes have pushed advances in mobile gaming and instant messaging. But many obstacles prevent a full-scale leap into widespread inventing.

One hurdle is culture. Entrepreneurs in China are still afraid of failure, noted Feng Deng of Northern Light Venture Capital. A failed startup in Silicon Valley is practically a badge of honor. In addition, entrepreneurs in China may be good at coding software, but they make for lousy managers. That often keeps their businesses from scaling.

Innovation in China comes largely by accident, not by design, said DCM investor Hurst Lin, one of the first generation of China’s returnee entrepreneurs from the West and co-founder of Chinese Internet portal Sina. Facebook and Google ( GOOG news people ) were accidents of imagination that was allowed to roam and think differently. Such breakthrough ideas could not have been the result of an upbringing in China, said Lin, where education needs to move toward critical thinking and away from sheer memorization.

Even so, Lin and others (including myself) hold out hope–and the expectation–that China will climb the innovation ladder quickly. Why? Necessity is the mother of invention. Many of the country’s 1.3 billion people are yearning for middle-class living standards and the cars and consumer goods that go with it. The market for homegrown innovation is there.

Major and rapid developments are coming in clean tech–an area that Northern Light’s Deng is focusing on with bets in energy-efficient lights, wind power and energy storage. Let’s hope some of these ideas can clean up China’s polluted cities.
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// Before China’s tech hubs join the same league as Silicon Valley, however, the country needs more collaboration among university labs and venture capital firms to work on breakthrough ideas. This method has worked well in Silicon Valley and in Boston. In Shanghai and Beijing I’m told that professors and scientists prefer not to share their intellectual capital with financiers.

Still, corporations worldwide are pouring more investment into Chinese R&D operations every day, a point made by Egidio Zarrella of KPMG.

One example is corporate America’s interest in Chinese biomedical research and development–an area of investment that is rapidly becoming as hot as clean tech. Pfizer ( PFE news people ) recently established a joint venture with Crown Bioscience to work on finding a cure for cancers common in Asia–predominantly lung cancer. While in Beijing, I got a tour of Crown Bioscience, which is located in an immense life sciences park close to the Great Wall.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 7th June 2010

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