Deng Weiwei (front middle), a professor of SUSTech, with other members of his lab on May 4 (XU HAIWEN)
Tech giants Huawei and Tencent were born in Shenzhen, which has become a cutting-edge research and development center in south China's Guangdong Province. Throughout the past four decades of reform and opening up, it has been a pioneer in encouraging hi-tech innovation and incubating the groundbreaking research of entrepreneurs. With more young talented people pouring in, the hi-tech industry and the academic environment are ushering in an era of transformation.
"Before I visited Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, I never thought of returning to China," 40-year-old Deng Weiwei, now a professor in the Department of Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering at SUSTech, told Beijing Review on May 7.
In May 2016, Deng, an associate professor at Virginia Tech (VT), gave a lecture at SUSTech, where he met the university's president Chen Shiyi, who then invited him to come back to China and teach at SUSTech.
After visiting Shenzhen and SUSTech, his wife said to him, "I tried very hard to find a reason to stop you from moving back, but I have to admit that I haven't found one." On January 26, 2017, Deng handed in his resignation letter and flew to Shenzhen with his wife and daughter.
Deng is an example of many overseas returnees who are flocking to Shenzhen. At present, over 90 percent of the teaching and research staff at SUSTech is made up of overseas returnees and more than 60 percent have educational or work experience at the world's top 100 universities. It is one of the few universities in China with the tenured-track system.
Qualified applicants are also encouraged to apply for the Recruitment Program of Global Experts under the state-sponsored Thousand Talents Plan through SUSTech. Successful applicants receive up to 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) in research funds and a 4.5-million-yuan ($704,000) living allowance from the government.
As a university focused on science and engineering, SUSTech is touted as the third fastest growing institution globally, with a thriving array of entrepreneurship, innovation and research. So far, SUSTech has invested over $40 million in cutting-edge lab equipment and offers generous startup funding. It also has established the College for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, encouraging staff and students to combine research achievements with the market. Professors are allowed to take one day a week to do scientific and technological services off campus, resulting in staff members' setting up 22 companies thus far.
He Jiankui, the first professor in the SUSTech Biology Department, came to Shenzhen in 2012, after earning his Ph.D. in physics at Rice University and finishing his postdoctoral training at Stanford University, both in the United States.
"Shenzhen's generosity in encouraging startups, especially venture capitalists—which is comparable to Silicon Valley—is the main reason that attracted me," He said. "I am not a professor in the traditional sense. I prefer to be a research-type entrepreneur."
In 2012, at the age of 28, He founded Direct Genomics to tap into the upstream sector of the DNA sequencing industry. "The university offered great support for my startup business," he said. His company got an angel fund of 1 million yuan ($156,400) due to venture capital and government support in Shenzhen. He went on to raise a total of 200 million yuan ($31.3 million) in five rounds of fundraising over the following years.
In July 2017, GenoCare, Asia's first third-generation gene sequencer developed by He's team, was put into mass production. In the past, Chinese hospitals and businesses paid tens of billions of yuan every year to buy DNA reagents from overseas companies.
"The development of the device is a major technical breakthrough and will significantly improve cost-effectiveness, speed and quality of gene sequencing," He said. "Currently, it costs $1,000 for DNA sequencing. GenoCare allows sequencing in large volumes and the device is expected to largely reduce the cost of creating DNA identification cards to only $100 each by 2019," he added.
Today, He's Direct Genomics is valued at over 2 billion yuan ($312.8 million).
Chen Ning, co-founder of IntelliFusion Technologies, introduces his company to media on May 8 (YUAN YUAN)
Sharp and productive
"Shenzhen is the most suitable city on China's mainland for overseas returnees to start businesses," said Chen Ning, co-founder of IntelliFusion Technologies based in the city.
In 2011, Shenzhen launched a recruitment project called the Peacock Plan to lure hi-tech talent and research teams, which led to a number of new technology companies emerging and the reshaping of the city's hi-tech industry. Chen, who got his PhD at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States in 2012, decided to join this project.
In 2014 he returned to China with his business partner and settled their company in Shenzhen. "Compared with many other places in China, the market and environment in Shenzhen are more mature for business startups," Chen said. "This is very important to us."
The company focuses on research for visual intelligence and intelligent chips. In 2015, their facial recognition and security camera technology aroused the interest of the Public Security Bureau in Longgang District in Shenzhen, which then decided to adopt it to help in the search for suspects.
Since the start of 2017, the company's technology has helped solve more than 4,000 cases throughout Shenzhen. In June 2017, it helped the police find a 3-year-old child who had been kidnapped within 15 hours.
"For a startup of only four years, this is an exciting result," Chen said.
Huang Haoyuan, a returnee from the United States started his business in the city in 2013. ORBBEC, the company that he founded, focuses on the research, development, manufacturing and sale of 3D sensors. Within two years, the company has developed into the world's leading provider of 3D sensing technology solutions. It is also the only company in China that is capable of mass producing 3D sensors for consumer markets. On May 18, the company attained Series D financing of $200 million.
"For hi-tech business starters, talent and environment are the two most important factors. The government of Shenzhen is very professional in providing services," Huang said. "There are many innovators in Shenzhen and everybody is passionate about what they are doing. I never feel alone in this city."
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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