Liang Hong’en belongs to a new generation of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs and dreams of running his own company in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
Known as a “maker”, a term coined in Germany and the United States for a growing breed of inventors and tech savvy professionals, he is constantly working on the next “big thing”.
With a background in engineering, the 40-year-old recently created a device known as “the intellectual planter”, which looks after household plants. It was so novel, Liang’s invention picked up a second prize at the China-US Young Maker Competition in Shenzhen in June.
“The intellectual planter is a high-tech plant pot,” he said. “It has a LED light and a watering system linked to a mobile app. This allows you to monitor the plant’s progress through a smartphone and the app when it needs watering.”
But despite his success, Liang is struggling to manufacture and market his product after working out of one of the 100 “makerspaces”, which are dotted around the city in the southern Chinese province.
These clusters of innovation were launched to help budding entrepreneurs such as Liang get a foothold in high-tech creative industries.
“I would like to see makerspaces provide other services,” he said. “We need help in finding funding and companies that will manufacture and market our products.”
In China, the country’s leadership hopes this emerging group will inject new vitality into an economy that has relied heavily on fixed-asset investment and a massive export drive.
“The maker sector shows the vitality of grassroots entrepreneurship and mass innovation,” Premier Li Keqiang said during his visit to Chaihuo in Shenzhen earlier this year. “It will become an eternal engine to support the growth of the Chinese economy in the future.”
There are no shortages of “makerspaces” in Chaihuo, which is located in the Huaqiaocheng area of the city’s Nanshan district. A hothouse of cutting-edge research and development, up to 4,000 “makers” are registered there.
“Makers do need a place where they can chat, create new ideas and find potential partners,” Lin Wei, 33, who designed a smart exercise bike with a games console, said. “But for those who intend to launch a startup, they need to be connected to potential investors.
“They also need help in sorting out the supply chain and manufacturing,” he said. “Unfortunately, most makerspaces fail to meet those needs.”
The solution to these problems is simple, according to Liang. He would like to see advice centers set up at “makerspaces” to help young entrepreneurs meet potential angel investors and manufacturing companies.
“When a product is ready to be rolled out, we need these ‘makerspaces’ to help us with consumer research to see if there is a market out there,” he said. “If there is demand, then funding becomes an issue, so we need help to raise capital through angel investors or crowdfunding. At the moment, we don’t have those services in place.”
Slowly, that is changing. Higgs Hub, which is located in the Longgang district of Shenzhen, claims to be not only a “makerspace”, but an incubator for new projects and a potential investor.
Yang Cheng, founder of Higgs Hub, is dedicated to helping the best “makers” and startup teams by offering a range of services, including entrepreneurial guidance, supply chain connections, media promotion, marketing and investment strategies.
“The most valuable information a makerspace can provide for young entrepreneurs is business experience,” said Yang, who went to Yale University in the US and is secretary-general of Yale Club of South China.
“Those makerspaces that are not able to produce a business model for young entrepreneurs will die out in the near future,” he said.
With so much high-tech talent concentrated in Shenzhen, major companies are starting to move in to set up their own “makerspaces”.
Li Chunyu is chief executive of Shenzhen MakerSpace, which is part of TCL Corp, a Chinese multinational electronics company based in Huizhou. TCL designs, develops, manufactures and sells products such as television sets, smartphones and air conditioning units.
Naturally, the group is always on the look out for bright, new talent with big ideas. “Apart from offering free places for innovators, we also provide services to help them grow,” Li said.
“More importantly, TCL is there to help makers with research and development. They can use our internal labs, for example. This is the major difference from other makerspaces in the city,” he said.
But more companies such as TCL need to be involved if these big ideas are to get off the drawing board and into the hands of consumers.
Mao Dun, an expert at Shenzhen Nanshan Science and Technology Office, a think tank focusing on studying the city’s technology development, is convinced that will eventually happen.
“The core of Shenzhen’s efforts to become an international makers’ hub is to help the country achieve sustainable economic growth by integrating innovation and industries,” Mao said. “Close cooperation between powerful technology companies and makers can help achieve that goal,” he said.
“Although the number of major companies involved in establishing makerspaces is still small, that will change.”