Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Silicon Dragon: Taiwan tech tour-Southern style

Silicon Dragon: Taiwan tech tour-Southern style

Taiwan tech tour-Southern style

The next episode of the Taiwan tech tour takes place in the Southern Taiwan Science Park. I arrived at the Tainan train station by high-speed rail from Hsinchu (the science park to the north) and a 20-minute highway ride past factories. Only operating for six years, the southern park is newer and smaller than Hsinchu. It's also pursuing a different area of tech--cleantech. Even so, the park is home to 13 integrated circuit companies, 48 optoelectronics producers, 23 in the biomedical area, and 48 in precision machinery along with numerous government-backed research and development centers.
In the lobby of the science park, I had a chance to check my email and do some twittering before I was treated to a Chinese dinner by the Director-General of the park, Dr. Chen Chun-wei and his staff (see photo).
We talked about his goal of attracting more greentech companies to their site, which is in the countryside between Tainan and harbour city Kaohsiung. Among the lures are low-interest bank loans, no business taxes on exports, and a five-year income tax exemption for certain products deemed strategic. Since the park is new, there isn't much of a community base here, though there is a shopping mall and some restaurants.
For lodging, it was to Tainan city, where I checked into the contemporary Tayih Landis Hotel. Spacious rooms, free Internet, a tasty breakfast buffet and to top it off, a fully equipped gym situated on the fifth floor of an atrium. Not much time to work out though. After filing some stories in the early morning, I did a little sightseeing of Tainan's historic sites--the old fort, the ancient building covered in tree roots and limbs--and paused long enough for a tasty luncheon at a joint known for its shrimp rolls. See my plate. I ate nearly everything too, and wasn't hungry for a day afterwards!
Ok, next stop--Motech Solar. Here, I met with the general manager, Chang Kuo-en, for a briefing on the company's progress.And it has been substantial! Motech Solar, which started in Tainan in 1999, is today's the world's eighth largest solar cell manufacturer in the world. It was ranked sixth just last year, but Mainland Chinese producers are coming up fast. Besides its four plants here, Motech also has a so-called "fab" near Shanghai. With revenues nearing $800 million for 2008 and sales evenly divided among the U.S., Europe and Asia, Motech is Taiwan's top solar cell producer with a 51 percent market share. It also owns a plant in Pennsylvania (the former US Steel factory turned into an alternative energy command post!) that I will drive by on my annual trek to Ohio for July 4th festivties and fireworks. Having mastered vertical integration, naturally the company's next goals are to drive down costs and build up power efficiency to as much as 1 Giga-watt (per cell?) As a going away gift, I got a nifty business card holder with a cover design of a solar panel. Before departing, I also had an opportunity to shake hands with the company's chairman and CEO, Dr. Simon Tsuo. Final note: does every tech exec in Taiwan have a PhD?

Taiwan Hot Springs

The weekend before my tech tour of Taiwan began, I luckily got to experience the hot springs at the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi, in the northeastern village of I-lan. Here, just an hour drive and a 14-kilometer tunnel passage from Taipei, I recovered a bit from jet lag, and also found a way to write stories from a Zen-like resort that doesn't offer a writer's chair or desk. It's decorated in Japanese futon style so you can imagine the kind of arrangement I had for writing. I was up Sunday morning at 5 for a delightful hike along the mountain stream that feeds the hot springs--and spotted these locals photographed taking a refreshing swim. Only some stray dogs along the path cut my journey short. I was the only westerner there among the tourists, but that just added to my R&R. The resort, which is newly opened, also offers a spa and a ladies' only bathing spot, but no time for that, unfortunately. I'll be back, I promise!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Silicon Dragon: Taiwan Tech Tour-Hsinchu

Silicon Dragon: Taiwan Tech Tour

Taiwan Tech Tour-Hsinchu

I've recently returned from a wonderfully productive trip to Taiwan, where I had the opportunity to check out what this island nation is contributing to our tech future.
Not only did I meet with CEOs of some of the leading technology companies in Taiwan--semiconductor giant UMC, networking equipment company D-Link and PC maker Inventec-- but I also had the chance to interview several entrepreneurs of up and coming companies.
Did I find much original breakthrough technology? Some. Indeed, the venture capitalists that I interviewed--from YK Chua from WI Harper and Ben Yang from Pacific Venture Partners--are finding it difficult to find new startups to support financially. Many venture capitalists in Taiwan have started to invest in deals across the straits instead, in Mainland China. Still, I did get to visit with two entrepreneurs who claim they have breakthrough discoveries in the field of light-emitting diodes.The first, photographed here, is Jeffrey Chen, CEO of NeoPac Lighting. My driver had a tough time finding the firm, on a side street of Chubei City near Hsinchu Science Park--Taiwan's equivalent to Silicon Valley. But once there, I was treated to a bright display of the firm's LED lights, which shine for up to 50,000 hours with less power. By the way, Chen has a wall of patents in his office to show for his work.
It was unfortunate that we were rushed for time. I didn't want to keep the director-general of the Hsinchu Science Park, Dr. Randy Yen, waiting. He told me that today the science park houses the two largest semiconductor producers in the world, TSMC and UMC, in addition to leading IT design house Mediatek. But it wasn't always that way.In fact, in the early years of 1980s, Taiwan had intentionally copied the Silicon Valley tech model but had trouble attracting firms. It wasn't until 1989, Dr. Yen said, that the government adopted a policy to foster the development of the so-called integrated circuit business. Once the PC took off soon thereafter, the foundries ramped up quickly. Now that sales are slowing with the financial crisis, the science park is developing a biomedical campus, just a 15-minute drive away on the other side of the river. Right now, these companies generate less than 1 percent of the park's revenues, but Dr. Yen predicts it has "great potential to grow," developing new drugs and medical devices.
Later that same day, I interviewed another entrepreneur--Trung Doan--whose firm SemiLEDs has figured a way to make LEDs on copper, not the typically costly material, sapphire. The company has more than 60 patents for the process, which makes those little LEDs relible, high quality and and low cost, according to Doan. Strange but true that this startup has $10 million in funding from the Simplot family of Idaho potato fame! How? Chips and chips? No, not really. Well, Doan tells me he immigrated to the states in 1975 from Vietnam to earn an enginneering degree from UC-Santa Barbara and work at a series of tech firms in the U.S. and Europe, and eventually settled in Boise, working at Micron (which got its start thanks to Simplot). Doan said he chose Taiwan to base his current operation because of the goodies that were offered--no tax for the first five years, and great infrastructure at the Hsinchu Science Park. So far, so good. The company is selling 5 million units per month and chalked up revenues of $16 million last year with a team of 230 people.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Silicon Dragon: treats in Beijing

Silicon Dragon: Silicon Dragon has fun in Beijing

Silicon Dragon has fun in Beijing

Ok, I admit to having a little fun during my recent trip to Beijing. For one thing, I had a chance to stay at the new Park Hyatt and check out the gym, the high-tech toilets (yes!), and even attend the opening of the hotel's spectacular new rooftop bar, Xiu. There I heard a Canadian band performing western rock tunes, in China. See photos. I wondered why the Hyatt didn't hire locally, but then again the band was superb and they'll be there for another few months.
What did I like about the hotel? The wrap-around, picture windows that offered a 360 degree view of Beijing--and on a long holiday weekend, when the air was exceptionally clear. I saw the mountains that ring Beijing! Stunning. I also liked having breakfast on level 66--that's the top floor of the Hyatt. The reception, by the way, is on the 63rd floor.
What is also great about the Park Hyatt is its location. It's at the intersection of two main thoroughfares in Beijing--the East Third Ring Road and Chang'an Avenue.
This is the most popular business meeting area in town, with convenient access to the airport from the newly opened Subway line 10. Several of the people I wanted to interview came to meet ME at the Park Hyatt, and we sat in the lounge chairs, chatting on the 63rd floor, undisturbed. I even did some video interviews there with Silicon Dragon subjects. I'm used to doing all the treks to their offices, so this was a pleasant change and could spoil me for future visits.
What I didn't like about the Park Hyatt is the elevators, or lifts. To get to my hotel room on the 46th floor, I had to take one bank of elevators to reception, round the corner and take another elevator down to reach my floor. Going to the main gym and spa requires similar maneuvers. Anyhow, it's not a big deal, but IS a time waster.
The rooms are light and airy with several special touches like the rain showerhead and the deep soaking tub, as it's called. I particularly liked the walk-in dressing room, the mood lighting and the electronically operated blinds--fully open! Everything with high-tech worked well in the room--flat-screen TV, high-speed Internet connections, DVD. I bring this up because usually there is a problem figuring out how everything works (or doesn't), even in a five-star luxury hotel.
Business guests who really want to wow a would-be client might consider inviting them to a meal in one of the level 5 private dining "suites"--some with their own terrace. Here, guests can select from traditional Cantonese cuisine, and be catered to by their very own butler. Talk about being spoiled!
Lest you think that's the only fun I had, I did venture out one summery night to have dinner at a new restaurant, aptly named The Meat and Wine Co. My taxi driver had some trouble finding the address, Ch'ien Men 23. Understandable, because it's the former site of the stately U.S. Embassy compound transformed into a restaurant and bar complex. Memorable tasting times: the New Zealand pinot noir and the extra-tender steak I just couldn't resist ordering.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Nanjing: Life Science Valley?

Most people know Nanjing as the site of the Japanese invasion during World War II and subsequent Nanking Massacre. But few realize that Nanjing, an eastern Chinese city of 8 million located along the Yangtze River, is today angling to be known as "the famous software city of China" - to quote promotional materials from the Nanjing Municipal People's Government. Granted, a lot of Chinese cities from Shenyang to Hangzhou are vying to become hubs for information technology, particularly cities like Nanjing and Shenyang that have long had industrial economies.
I recently had the opportunity to to make my own assessment of Nanjing's prospects as a Silicon Valley. Invited to join a delegation of business executives and investors traveling from the U.S. to check out the city's high-tech ecosystem, I spent several days in this historic city that has served as the capital of China through several periods, including when the Republic of China was founded in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen and later, in 1927, under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.
I toured the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, climbing endless steps to reach its perch on Purple Mountain above a vast forested park. And I peeked in rooms of the Presidential Palace, situated downtown near an ultra-modern building that houses the city's library.
But most of the time in the city was spent exploring the Nanjing High-Tech Zone, which was established just 10 years ago, and a newly opened biomedical business development center there. See photo taken at the opening ceremony, held in the ballroom of the five-star Jin Ling luxury hotel, where we listened to a translated Chinese speech by Zhao Xiaojang, Nanjing's deputy mayor. At a Chinese luncheon banquet to celebrate the opening, seemingly endless ganbei toasts were made by party officials, high-tech execs and the visiting delegation - which by the way included some who's who firms in U.S. investment banking leagues. A charm offensive meant to facilitate more such exchanges was launched by both sides, with individuals circling around the tables, saying they are all friends and downing the potent Chinese liquor baijiu in one shot to show they meant it. One stand-out example of grace under pressure - particularly for a first-timer to China - came from New York businessman James Gomez who spoke of "cooperation for common benefit" and praised one party secretary in attendance for "great vision."
While most of the delegation was jet-lagged, having arrived on a flight from New York City the night before, we trudged off in the afternoon to tour the still-unoccupied offices of new anchor tenant - NJ Pharma Tech Corp. of Raritan, N.J. CEO Chuck Zhu showed us around. He told of the reasons why he decided to base his operation there, key among them the abundance of talent from 48 universities and colleges in Nanjing, including three even within the 82 square kilometer zone, to staff his budding operation. He has the company of 200 enterprises, including 50 high-tech outfits, that have already set up here. Indeed, the high-tech park is a miniature city with its own international school, two hospitals, three supermarkets, banks, a golf club, hotel resort, villas, gardens - and what else could you want (though Nanjing is known as one of the three furnace cities of China for its soaring summer temperatures). The high-tech park is so new that freshly planted trees look more like shrubs. While impressive compared to many such zones in the Valley, I must admit that it pales next to the mammoth software parks I've visited on the Pudong side of Shanghai. The Nanjing park could use better rail transport links to the city, which are coming by 2015, and some in the delegation pointed out the tech zone, at 50 kilometers from the airport and separated by bridges from the main part of the city, could be more convenient too.
That said, the highlights of the tour was yet to come. And one has to keep in mind that Silicon Valley took some 20 years to develop, while China has only begun to tap into this high-tech arena for economic development.Back to the tour, we got a glance at the research center of a facility that is seeking to standardize the process of using herbs in traditional Chinese medicine. See photos. The brains behind this operation is Zisheng Xu, a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences from Osaka University of Japan, who has just moved here from a research post at a Hong Kong university. Ok, it may not be a San Diego or Singapore Biopolis yet!
At what's called the Transportation Industry Park - one of three key areas of the zone - our delegation hopped on golf carts and proceeded through a sparkling clean plant that has the capacity to churn out 200,000 spiffy MG sedans. Yes, the Chinese have bought the assets of the former British automaker, though "Charles," the deputy general manager of the operation, tells me that the cars are still designed by engineers in the U.K. The cars cost $30,000 and 10,000 were sold last year in China. I'm pictured with a few classic MGs that the operation now owns.
What's more, we got a pitch about the Enterprise Park, one more element to fertilize entrepreneurship here. With funding from four governmental bodies, this initiative offers an attractive incentives package of tax holidays, free office space and free residential housing for overseas students returning home to establish a base here. More than 100 students have taken up the offer and founded 50 research enterprises here.
That night for dinner we feasted at a banquet with yet more toasts at the Pearl Spring Hotel, overlooking a tranquil lake that we could see from our picture windows. As 9pm neared, we called it a day and our delegation headed by police-escorted bus back to the Jin Ling Hotel, ready for a good night's rest.
Not finished yet! On the Sunday morning of the Dragon Boat weekend holiday in China, we listened to a speech by Zhu Shanlu, a "Standing Member of Jiangsu Provincial CPC Committee and "Secretary of Nanjing Municipal CPC Committee." His talked was peppered with phrases that were translated like this: "We appreciate that you have shown confidence in our cooperation." At a luncheon where I was seated close to the provincial party leader, I had the opportunity to 'gift' a copy of my book to him. Through a translator, we exchanged a few words. He likes my Silicon Dragon book title and said it reminded him that he wants Nanjing to be known as "Life Science Valley." Sounds like good branding to me, I said. It's connections like these that may have led to my sudden VIP-like treatment on my Air China flight back to the U.S. One has to wonder.