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Building the new from the old

By Eric Jou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-06-13 10:32

Studying schematics in a small office, Wang Jianjun is busy trying to figure out how to build a small robot. Wang isn't exactly building the robot from scratch. Instead, he is creating it from a building block kit akin to Legos.

Wang, 27, the CEO and founder of MakeBlock, is an example of new Chinese entrepreneurs - young people looking at old concepts and developing their own answers. Wang and his ilk are stepping away from the tradition of shanzhai, or counterfeited goods, when it comes to making products.

And while Wang's MakeBlocks resemble Legos, he claims the products are vastly different.

"I studied aerospace engineering, but I ended up working in finance," Wang says.

"I created MakeBlock when I had time off because I really liked making robots and stuff from nothing. I realized this was a good way to stimulate people and that technology is the future."

MakeBlock uses pre-molded parts to allow the user to build whatever they desire, much like Lego. The crucial distinction, perhaps, is that MakeBlock's parts are metallic.

At the end of 2011, Wang took his idea of building robots to market by taking part in HAXLR8R, a Chinese-based hardware and mentor-driven seed-funding program. Through HAXLR8R, Wang traveled and showed off his creation to the world to gather funding.

Wang says the reaction was overwhelming.

"A lot of hackers and DIY enthusiasts were very interested in MakeBlock," Wang says. "It fills a need for them. They are just happy that something is out there for them to express their creativity."

Wang says, ultimately, being called "shanzhai" isn't such a bad thing, because it's part of the cycle of innovation.

"Copying ideas is a part of it, but innovation - true innovation - is used to create a solution to a problem."

Wang Yihe, 26, also saw a problem and similarly created a solution. His problem was traffic, and his fix was carpooling.

While carpooling is not new, he was inspired to come up with something similar after witnessing intense gridlock on the China National Highway 110 out of Beijing in 2010.

"I used to carpool long-distance in Europe to get to places like Germany and Amsterdam, and there was a Web service for it," Wang Yihe says.

"What we came up with was peer-to-peer car rental."

His company,, a Romanization of the Chinese words "I hail cars", is now in full operation, serving clients across Beijing. Some of Wodache's customers include blue-chip companies, such as Google, Baidu and IBM.

Business is good, he says, shrugging off the idea of being a copycat, even as there are competitors who provide similar services and those who have copied his company's Web design and filched their motto.

The reality at the end of the day, Wang Yihe says, is building the best product.

"Innovation doesn't come from a grand slam. Facebook wasn't the first social network. Google wasn't the first search engine. We aren't the first to do carpooling. In fact, it's an old concept. It's all about how you can apply it to new conditions," he says.

"With mobile and Internet technology and the connectivity of social networks, by applying an old concept and a new approach, there is so much you can do to innovate."

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