Exciting time for innovation in China

Updated: 2014-06-27 07:30

By Andrew Moody (China Daily Europe)

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Exciting time for innovation in China

Von Zedtwitz says he gets excited when he pictures the promising future of China's innovation. Yang Lei / For China Daily

Breakthroughs will come as R&D begins to achieve same size as in West, Swiss researcher says

Chinese scientists could propel the world far into the future within decades, a leading China-based research and development expert says.

Max von Zedtwitz, managing director of Glorad, a partly Shanghai-based research center and think tank, believes cures for cancer and solutions to global warming could be achieved more quickly than many now expect.

"If the whole of China was suddenly operating at US levels of research and development there would be so many scientific breakthroughs emerging out of China that the world would go into turbo drive for the next 200 years," he says.

Von Zedtwitz, a 44-year-old Swiss, was speaking in his offices on the campus of Tongji University, one of Shanghai's leading academic institutions.

He believes the breakthroughs will come as China's research and development base begins to achieve the same size as that of Western countries.

At present, China has only 900 engineers per million of its population, compared with 4,500 in the United States and 7,400 in Finland, which is believed to have the world's highest ratio.

As China educates millions of more engineers, Von Zedtwitz believes that China could be operating at 50 percent of US capacity between 2025 and 2030 and on the same level by 2065.

"From steam engines to flat screen TVs took mankind just over 200 years with relatively little manpower.

"With the numbers that China can provide from its 1.3 billion population, we are going to go from flat screen TVs to things that have so far proved out of reach of scientists.

"The breakthroughs are probably going to come in areas that are a particular focus for China. Cures for cancer will be a high priority because of China's climbing cancer rates. There will probably be new drugs for diabetes, another health issue in the country. Tackling the environment will also be a key focus as will transportation and healthcare generally, with an aging population being a concern."

Von Zedtwitz says this level of concentrated effort could replicate the conditions of the 20th century's major advances such as the Manhattan Project during World War II, which led to the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, and the US landing a man on the moon in 1969.

"With the Manhattan Project you saw all these scientists moved into the same location to drive forward nuclear technology. I think without that it would have normally taken 40 to 50 years without the intensive effort and not four or five.

"With putting a man on the moon, that was a challenge to the Soviets. That was also very intensive. So far the US is the only nation that has managed to achieve that."

Von Zedtwitz, who has German parents but who was born and brought up in Switzerland, did a master's in computer science at ETH Zurich, one of the world's leading technological institutions, before going to work on nucleonics at a research institute in Kyoto in Japan in the mid-1990s.

He then went on to do an MBA and a PhD in technology management at the University of St Gallen, also in Switzerland and spend time as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard.

At only 29, he became one of the youngest professors in Switzerland at IMD (the Center for Global R&D Management and Innovation), one of Europe's top business schools, and in an idyllic setting overlooking Lake Geneva.

"Most people would say they would never leave this place but I was bored and looking for something that provided a little more excitement. I had an offer to go to a business school in California and also one to go to Tsinghua University."

"It was 2002, and there were not many people then who could say they had gone and worked in China, so that is the path I chose."

After five years at Tsinghua, he moved to a management consultancy specializing in research and development, which was taken over by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

This led to him setting up Glorad, which has bases at the University of St. Gallen and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow as well as Tongji University. Von Zedtwitz also maintains a role as visiting professor at Tongji.

Despite the potential, von Zedtwitz says China is still in the early stages of developing a research base.

He points out that China lags way behind other Asian countries in the number of patents it files. Its patent applications per million people stand at 396, compared with 2,250 in Japan and 2,962 in South Korea.

"I would say China is where Japan was in around 1970 in terms of the innovation curve," he says.

"Right now everyone focuses on IPR (intellectual property rights) violations and the copycat culture. Countries have gone through these phases before. It will take a few more years before this behavior recedes and the benefits of indigenous innovation and patent protection outweigh the advantages of copying and imitation."

Von Zedtwitz says one of the problems in China has been that the fast growth of the economy over several decades has been a disincentive to innovate.

"The point of investing in research and development is to come up with better products, but why do you need to do that while your sales are already strong? The name of the game in China has been to replicate faster and bring more of the same products to market."

Von Zedtwitz discounts some of the criticism that Chinese research and development teams are weaker than their equivalents in the West because their educational system does not produce original thinkers.

"I would actually say that the average Chinese employed in a laboratory is more dedicated than his counterpart in the West. In Germany or Switzerland, there is much more of a 'nine to five' mentality. I think in China there is much more commitment and personal effort.

"It is difficult to make sweeping judgments, but in some areas the Chinese are quite advanced. In the natural sciences such as chemistry, physics and medicine the Chinese publish more than anyone. So they are aware of what is going on."

The IPR protection problem in China is often overstated, he says.

"If you are doing fundamental research in China, you are not so concerned about patents. You are looking at areas where the West is still also looking for answers. In these cases it would take another 10 years of investment to bring a product to market."

"There are much easier things for an infringer or thief to steal than just research results, so doing research in China is still pretty safe."

Von Zedtwitz says it is almost impossible to secure complete confidentiality in any system.

"Chinese companies will hire people from Philips, and Philips will hire people from Siemens. So there are no real secrets. Confidentiality clauses are almost impossible to enforce anyway."

Many expect Chinese companies to go on a shopping spree over the next decade to acquire technology in Europe and the US.

"You buy the patents and licenses these companies own. When you buy a company this way you need to acquire the people as well as part of the acquisition. I think it is more the exception that Chinese companies will make acquisitions just for the technology alone."

Von Zedtwitz says by far the best route for Chinese companies is to enter into joint venture arrangements.

"Part of the deal then is that the foreign company invests in China because of the local content clause."

However, he believes it is a very exciting time to be in China, with the best of its innovation yet to come.

"Some people say that all of the easy stuff has been invented and that everything else we invent now is more difficult. I hope they are wrong."

If China is to become a technology superpower it has a lot to live up to from the giants of the past, he says.

"The fundamental technology for many of the things we use today was basically invented in the 18th and 19th centuries. We give the physicists, mathematicians and chemists of that era far too little credit.

"Very few people today would be able to understand the advanced mathematics (Isaac) Newton came up with some three centuries ago. To reach those sorts of levels is not just a challenge for China but for everyone."


(China Daily European Weekly 06/27/2014 page8)