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New-age startups get a leg up from elite universities

Ma Si
Updated: Sep 28,2015 7:29 AM     China Daily

As the innovation tide sweeps across China, the country’s elite universities are stepping up their efforts at helping cultivate the next generation of high-tech enterprises and budding entrepreneurs.

Tsinghua University, for instance, is improving its services for tech startups through Tsinghua Holdings Ltd, a spinoff in which the university holds a 45 percent stake.

Li Zhiqiang, director with the administrative committee of the Tsinghua University Science Park, which is run by Tsinghua Holdings, said: “We have developed our own system of incubating new businesses, offering many ways of helping them develop.”

The services, for instance, involve classes related to the creation of new companies, advice on attracting investment, and most importantly, providing a platform for converting cutting-edge technology developed by the university into viable commercial operations. So far, the company has incubated more than 2,000 companies and even helped 18 businesses get listed on stock-markets.

Among them is Chinergy Co Ltd, which is already leveraging some of the nuclear technology developed at Tsinghua University to build what is considered the world’s first commercial modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor.

HTGRs can discharge surplus heat on their own, making them a better alternative to water-cooled reactors which need additional safety systems to stay cool. In theory, HTGRs can reach higher outlet temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees centigrade.

According to Tsinghua Holdings, the new generator is already under construction in Weihai, Shandong province, using coated-fuel particles developed by the university’s Institute of Nuclear And New Energy Technology.

“These particles are coated with multi-layer silicon carbide ceramic materials and can effectively prevent the spread of nuclear fuel radioactivity,” the company said in a statement.

Tsinghua Holdings is just one of a growing number of university-backed or alumni-funded institutions that have been incubating tech startups.

Another is the Entrepreneur’s Training Camp, an organization run by Peking University’s alumni association, which also focuses on creating commercial operations from its own innovation.

“Young Chinese are grasping the opportunities being presented by the mobile Internet to carve out their own businesses,” said Wang Jian, the camp’s founder and head.

“We offer a package of services to help them convert their entrepreneurial spirit into success, such as free offices for six months, seminars by commercial leaders, legal assistance and opportunities to be introduced to investors.”

Since becoming operational in 2013, the camp has helped more than 7,000 individuals, with 1,000 of those managing to receive startup funding.

“Starting a business straight out of university is no picnic,” said Liu Tongyi, a second-year graduate student at Peking University, who developed a social-networking app called Duckr aimed at tourists.

“The camp helped a lot. It made it easier for me to take care of administrative matters and meet investors so I could focus more on building a team to market my app,” Liu said.

Some of the country’s leading professors, meanwhile, have also become actively involved as angel investors.

Cao Jiantong, an associate professor at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, for instance, is leading a campaign to encourage fellow academics with commercial experience to become involved in early-stage investing.

“Teachers who have spent time in industry are in a good position to be angel investors because they are familiar with working in a team, they understand the technological limits and barriers to commercial applications, and are able to steer student startups in the right direction,” Cao said.

To encourage more professors to invest in startups, the administrative committee of Zhongguancun science park already runs a scheme whereby they will match any investment made by an academic, to the tune of 50 percent of their commitment.

Last July, Cao and other BUPT alumni crowdfunded a new coffee house on its campus, the Zero One Time cafe, which now functions primarily as an innovation incubator. So far, the outlet has helped eight companies rake in investment worth 120 million yuan ($19.3 million).