Growing army of engineers helps China gain the upper hand
Max von Zedtwitz believes the Chinese may not only be the first to land a man on Mars, but also the first to cure cancer.
The managing director of GLORAD, a research and development think tank, said the sheer number of science and engineering graduates being churned out by Chinese universities could dramatically speed up the process of innovation.
While it took 200 years to move from the steam engine to the Internet, there could be major breakthroughs in what are now considered frontiers of science in just a matter of decades, he said.
“Innovation is to some extent a numbers game. If you just have one idea per 1,000 people, then a country that has a 1.4 billion population is going to have an advantage over anyone else.”
Von Zedtwitz, who was speaking in the business lounge of the Sofitel Wanda Hotel in Beijing, had come from the United States to promote his new book, Created in China: How China is Becoming a Global Innovator, which he co-wrote with Georges Haour, a professor of technology and innovation management at the IMD Business School in Switzerland.
Although now based in San Francisco, the 46-year-old Swiss is no stranger to China, with GLORAD being partly based in Shanghai, and he has spent a large part of the past decade as associate professor of innovation management at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“What we wanted to get across in the book was the impact of all the agents and actors involved in innovation in China, including the government, the education system and the companies. Outside China, all the focus is on the big companies like Huawei and Alibaba that are global leaders, but what is not always seen is the role smaller companies are now playing in innovation.”
The book points out that China is to increase fivefold the proportion of GDP it devotes to innovation from 0.5 percent in 1995 to 2.5 percent by 2020. This will involve the need for 3.7 million scientists working in research and development. The figure is the same as the European level, 2 percent — even though the EU set a target of 3 percent in 2007.
This has resulted in a 17 percent annual increase in patents since 2005, with applications reaching 2 million in 2014, three times as many as that of the United States, although importantly, a smaller proportion relates to higher-quality invention patents.
Currently, 31 percent of undergraduate degrees in China are in engineering compared with 5 percent in the US, and by 2030 the country aims to have 200 million college graduates.
“There is definitely a race going on, and I don’t think the West has actually caught up with the severity of that race. China is opening up a new international front in the area of innovation. Because people matter so much in the race, the more people you have, the better you are at it.”
Von Zedtwitz believes one of the cutting-edge areas could be in finding a cure for cancer.
“Cancer is a big issue in China because of fears of the impact of the environment on people’s health. Because of the size of the country’s population, many more people are going to be dying of cancer in China than anywhere else.
“There are also going to be a lot of resources devoted in China to diseases that affect older people such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and cardiovascular illnesses because China’s population is aging fast. I think medical technology will be a cutting-edge area for China.”
Von Zedtwitz said it would be wrong to expect instant breakthroughs because the lead time for scientific development can often be between 30 and 40 years.
He cited Tu Youyou, the Chinese pharmacist who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine last year for developing the anti-malarial drug artemisinin. She began work in this area in the late 1960s, but the drug only became available in the middle of the last decade, eventually saving millions of lives.
“A breakthrough discovery generally takes about 30 years, certainly in terms of bringing it to market. So what we are doing now in terms of research and development might not have any impact until 2046.”
Many believe that China is likely to be the first to land a man on Mars by, according to some estimates, 2060. The return journey is expected to take at least 21 months.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if China gets there first. Those who go may have to do so without the prospect of coming back. Even I, if I was 20 years older with 10 or 15 years left to live, might want to go and live on Mars. Why not?”
Max von Zedtwitz