Making it big in China’s Silicon Valley
A growing group of young, talented graduates are heading to theHuaqiangbei area of Shenzhen in search of the next great business idea
Decked out in a simple washed-out T-shirt, skillfully operating a computer and various gadgets, Zhang Hao is easily mistaken for a student working in a busy laboratory.
But the 28-year-old college graduate, who was once an editor for a popular science association, has an unusual ambition — he wants to build a robot by 2027 that will clean your home.
“I would like every Chinese family to own one,” Zhang, who comes from eastern China’s Zhejiang province, said. “The cost of buying this robotic house cleaner would roughly be the same as a standard sedan. It would be nice to find a commercial partner, but if I can’t, I will build it myself. That is the basic target.”
Zhang spends 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in a small room located in the hot and humid city of Shenzhen, the Chinese mainland’s earliest special economic zone, neighboring Hong Kong. And he loves every minute.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I’m stretching myself. If I walked out of the door tomorrow and was knocked down by a car, I would die happy because I’m doing something I love.”
Zhang is not unique about his passion. In fact, he is one of a growing group of “makers” in China, especially in Shenzhen.
Most “makers” are young and well-educated, understand Computerized Numerical Control, 3D printing and laser cutting, and are willing to share their ideas.
They also have incredible dreams and are keen to turn them into reality.
In recent years, the term “maker” has become a byword in China for people who are do-it-yourself hardware designers, inventors, budding entrepreneurs or people who simply make things.
Many just build things fun, while others have business plans.
Gao Lei, 32, who comes from Central China’s Henan province, had a simple idea. Last year, he made a wrist band which could track the wearer’s fitness while exercising and send back data.
The gadget was developed for parents with children and couples. The parents can have on-time information of their children, and the couple can interactive conveniently. For his efforts, he received 3 million yuan ($480,000) of angel funding and is now focusing on developing more funky fitness applications.
From copycat heaven, Shenzhen is now trying to become China’s Silicon Valley by attracting young “makers” with cool facilities and workshops. for big
The term “maker” was coined to explain the tide of technical innovation in Germany and the US since the 1960s.
In China, the country’s leadership hopes this emerging group will inject new vitality into an economy that has relied heavily on fixed-asset investment and a massive export drive.
“The ‘maker’ group shows the vitality of grassroots entrepreneurship and mass innovation,” Premier Li Keqiang said during his visit toChaihuo, the “makerspace” where Zhang is based in Shenzhen. “It will become an eternal engine to support the growth of the Chinese economy in the future.”
Shenzhen is at the forefront of this new era in technology with Chaihuo, in the Huaqiangbei area of the city’s Futian district, the hot place to be. The city has redefined its image as an innovation hub and enticed a special breed of talent with ideas to match.
“Shenzhen is building itself into a center for international ‘makers’,” Lu Jian, director of science, technology and innovation commission of Shenzhen city government, said. “We are encouraging ‘makers’ to start their own businesses here.”
More than 1,000 “makers” have been registered with the city’s authorities and there are about 30 institutions serving this group, according to official data.
Plans are also in place to hold another Global Makers Fair during June 18 to 22. Hopefully, talent from all over the world will attend and exchange ideas.
Of course, this is all part Shenzhen’s ambitious move to morph into China’s Silicon Valley.
This might sound ridiculous to some people. After all, Silicon Valley in the US is world famous for turning startups such as Apple Inc, Intel Corp and Yahoo Inc into global giants. At the other end of the scale, Shenzhen is still shaking off its international image as “Shanzhai (copycat) Heaven”.
But times are changing and Shenzhen is moving with those times.
Liu Rengen is a senior official with the Huaqiaongbei office in Shenzhen, which governs the biggest electronics market in China. More than 18,000 shops are squeezed into the 1.45 square kilometers area.
“Shanzhai was born in a special period, but I would say it also bred innovation,” Liu said. “Pick any electronic product you wanted to make, and you could buy all the devices and components on this street.”
Up to seven years ago, you could have found dozens of shops selling fake iPhones or “bandit mobiles” as expatriates and “do-it-yourself” in China. Making a huge profit is not the main goal, Lau said.
In Chinese, literally means firewood, and there is an old proverb that when every one adds firewood, the flames rise high. And that is the hope of Lau and his partners.
As the biggest landlord in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen Huaqiang Industry Co Ltd is convinced its new “makerspace” venture will be successful and profitable.
“We are building a platform that gathers ‘makers’, designers, venture capitals and media together,” KenLee, executive general manager of the newly established Huaqiangbei International Maker Center, said. “They will focus on the most prosperous business in China nowadays, including intelligent hardware, Internet tech innovation, or crowd funding. A lot of deals will be happening on our platform.”
The Huaqiangbei International Maker Center has invested more than 20 million yuan in building and decorating a rooftop space for “makers” in Huaqiangbei. It will cover 5,000 squaremeters and house more than 10 teams from June.
The target is to provide a one-stop service that could turn a “maker” into a millionaire entrepreneur. The center will also invest in eye-catching projects through its 200 million yuan venture capital fund and share in any monetary success.
Even so, they are not the only venture capitalists on the block. China Vanke Co, the largest residential real estate developer in China, plans to build an “ecosystem” that incubates “maker” projects, as well as providing technical and financial services.
The property group started in Shenzhen and is looking to construct a high-tech complex in the newly planned development zone in the city’s west suburb.
“Building residential and commercial properties is Vanke’s traditional strength. But we like to be involved in new trends that will reshape China’s economy,” Fan Yu, general manager of Shenzhen Vanke Industrial Real Estate Operation Co Ltd, said.
Still, it is important to understand what drives the “maker”. “I think it’s about helping people unlock their potential,” Pan Weiqi, director of the science, technology and innovation commission of Shenzhen municipality, said.
“But it takes a lot to turn an idea into an entity, and even more to turn that entity into a popular commodity. There is a difference between them and entrepreneurs.” Contact the writers through email@example.com