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Targeting mars

By Andrew Moody | China Daily | Updated: 2016-04-06 08:14

A new book says a growing army of engineers is helping China advance in cutting-edge technologies. Andrew Moody reports.

Max von Zedtwitz believes the Chinese may not only be the first to land a person on Mars but also the first to cure cancer.

The managing director of the Center for Global R & D Management and Innovation (in short, Glorad), a research and development think tank, says the sheer number of science and engineering graduates being churned out by Chinese universities could dramatically speed up 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 says.

"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 was recently in Beijing to promote his new book, Created in China: How China Is Becoming a Global Innovator, which he has co-written with Georges Haour, a professor of technology and innovation management at the IMD Business School in Switzerland.

The book was released in January.

Although now based in San Francisco, the 46-year-old Swiss is no stranger to China. His think tank is 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 the Chinese capital.

"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," he says.

"Outside of 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.

Currently, the figure is the same as Europe, 2 percent - despite the European Union setting a target of 3 percent in 2007. This has resulted in a 17 percent annual increase in patents in China since 2005 with applications reaching 2 million in 2014 - three times as many as that of the United States, although importantly, a smaller proportion is of 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 says it would be wrong to expect instant breakthroughs since the lead time for scientific development can often take decades.

He cites 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 to 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 the market. So what we are doing now in terms of research and development might not have any impact until 2046," he says.

Von Zedtwitz, whose parents were originally from Germany, was born in Switzerland. He studied computer science at ETH Zurich, a leading technological institution, before an early spell in Asia, working at a research institute in Kyoto, Japan in the mid-1990s. He returned to Switzerland for his doctorate from University of St. Gallen and then moved to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow.

At 29, he became one of the youngest professors at IMD, one of Europe's top business schools.

In 2002, teaching opportunities came up both in California and Beijing, and he chose the latter.

"There were not many people then who could say they had gone and worked in China," he says of his decision.

After Tsinghua, he helped build a global innovation practice at a management consultancy before running Glorad, which has a base at Shanghai's Tongji University.

One area where China arguably has not been as fast as the US is in space exploration. American Alan Shepard went into space in 1961 and it took just eight years for Neil Armstrong to be the first man to walk on the moon. China had its first man in space in 2003, but is not expected to land an astronaut on the moon until 2023.

"I suppose it is like Christopher Columbus sailing to America. After he had done that, it was hard to replicate.

"The purpose of going to the moon now is not the achievement itself but the commercial aspects of space exploration. It is not about planting a flag but about having permanently manned stations on the moon."

Many believe that China is likely to be the first to land a person on Mars by, according to some estimates, 2060. The return journey may take at least 21 months.

"I wouldn't be surprised if China gets there first," he says.

Despite the massive investment in research and development in China, some argue that creativity here is stifled by hierarchical structures.

Yet, he says, there's emphasis on education, which in turn can drive innovation.

"And, that is where China's advantage currently lies."

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Targeting mars

Max von Zedtwitz was in Beijing recently to promote the book, Created in China: How China Is Becoming a Global Innovator. Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

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