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TEDA: Nourishing innovation in all its forms
Last Updated: 2016-01-15 09:42 | CE.cn
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China has always been a nation of entrepreneurs - but the government wants people to move away from selling bits and bobs and develop new technologies instead.

"Innovation is the most important driving force for development,"President Xi Jinping said in March 2015, exhorting startups to get their ideas to market as fast as possible.

Stepping up to make this possible is the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA).

One of China's first industrial parks and ranked top in the country every year since 1997, it has more than 20 market-driven incubators and accelerators that have helped launch more than 1,000 start-ups, many of which have since gone public.

The innovation drive was given even more impetus after Tianjin launched a 'double creativity' pilot zone for entrepreneurship and innovation, on the instructions of China's State Council.

That has enabled TEDA to move further up the value chain by developing clusters in sectors such as new energy, biomedicine and high-end equipment.

"Those companies, representing the industries of the future, are upgrading the overall sector landscape and will eventually reshape the whole industrial ecology of the region,"says Ma Xuan, chief engineer of TEDA Science and Technology Development Group.

Ma is talking about companies such as Deep&far Ocean Technology. Founded in 2013, the TEDA-located firm develops robot autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and has won numerous innovation competitions across China.

Deep&far Ocean's founder Wei Jiancang says the public AUVs came to the public's attention following the search for the missing Malaysian airliner in the Indian Ocean. But he says there is a $1.5 billion market in China alone for AUVs in areas such as aquaculture, offshore exploration and archaeology.

"New generation entrepreneurs are chasing a big dream and want to have an impact on society,"he says.

But Hou Yongzhi, a director at the State Council's Development Research Center, says, still, entrepreneurs benefit enormously when the government manages to create a collaborative atmosphere.

"If sophisticated technology gets locked in the shelves, nobody will benefit from it so it's imperative for the government to develop a kind of 'common ground' mindset by nurturing an environment where technology can exert a positive 'neighborhood effect' that all can benefit from,"he says.

Hou is upbeat about TEDA's prospects within China's mushrooming constellation of innovation centers.

"Tianjin has manufacturing, universities and research institutions and there is a good talent supply,"he says. "Also, Tianjin does have an inclusive culture due to its historic heritage."

That inclusive culture is attractive to the more than 4,000 returnees to China who have found their way to TEDA, bringing with them valuable experience and ideas from the rest of the world.

Xuefeng Yu is the founder and CEO of biotech firm CanSino. He studied and worked in Canada before returning.

His firm is building a plant at TEDA to manufacture a vaccine against Ebola, the deadly virus that killed more than 11,000 people in parts of West Africa. The vaccine was developed by a team of biotech scientists at China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

China approved the experimental vaccine for clinical trials, putting the company among the global leaders in the development of vaccines to treat the disease.

The list of incubators at TEDA is long, covering a wide range of sectors and types of assistance.

There are incubators focused on bringing in financial resources, such as JJ-Link Tech Start-up Club, and incubators focused on providing training and coaching, such as the Asia America Multi-Technology Association, with roots in Silicon Valley.

Other incubators such as Chinese tech blog 36Kr - China's equivalent of TechCrunch in the US - which is an online platform for venture capital news and professional services, focus on incubating startups in the media and information fields. In October, 36Kr received funding led by Ant Financial, the financial services arm of Alibaba.

Incubators at TEDA specializing in nurturing makers include YOU+International Youth Community, set up by Chinese entrepreneur and venture capitalist Lei Jun, the founder of smartphone behemoth Xiaomi and Forbes' Businessman of the Year in 2014.

YOU+International Youth Community is similar to US firm WeWork, a real-estate startup that takes out a cut-rate lease on a floor or two of an office building, divides it up into smaller parcels and then charges monthly memberships to startups and small companies that want to work close to each other.

The industrial park also has vertical incubators such as Tianjin Academy for Intelligent Recognition Technologies by Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Automation, which was set up earlier last year in May, and is focused on smart recognition technology.

TjAb, a maker-space that began operations in July, nurtures very early-stage pharmaceutical innovation projects. TjAb is also endorsed by Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine, TEDA's award-winning accelerator in the life science sector.

"By nurturing an eco-system where various professional incubators and accelerators are offering expertise, we see an amazing self-screening effect taking place and innovative ventures are drawn to this place,"says Ma, of TEDA Science and Technology Development Group.

To help service the incubators and their start-ups, TEDA has collaborated with Ali Cloud to provide tenants with cloud computing and big data technology. The move has helped new entrepreneurs avoid purchasing new equipment and keep their costs under control.

The development park also provides free services to labs and research centers, as well as special training programs for early stage companies. In addition, there is assistance with accounting, legal issues, human resource development and marketing and sales.

Each year the park budgets $31 million for its Annual Innovation Development Fund to assist small- and medium-sized firms. It also encourages banks to lend to startups and in the first 11 months of 2015, 500 companies in the park have received a total of $6.2 billion in seed capital.

Young entrepreneurs also benefit from TEDA-organized business competitions that aim to push the limits of technology and what is possible in order to improve society.

Recent winners from TEDA Start-up Competition 2015 include fresh graduates from Tianjin University for their industrial-robotics design, a project team that developed an APP for smart travel scheduling, and an entrepreneur's artificial intelligence enabled learning platform for students in kindergarten to Grade Twelve.

In addition to the cash prizes, TEDA offers winners services such as training programs, one-on-one mentoring opportunities, and access to funding. Since the competitions began, about one-third of all contestants have chosen to locate their projects in the park.

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