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

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHU ZHE and XIE YU in Shen­zhen

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 xieyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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