Nobel Prize for Medicine links to Traditional Chinese Medicine

It would be fair to say that the Nobel Prize in China is a very ambiguous phenomenon. Since the 1950s, 6 Chinese nationals have been awarded The Prize. Given China’s turbulent past and its aftermath, it is not surprising that most of these prizes are domestically blurred by controversy. There are many factors that trigger political sensitivity (historical and distant links to the nationalist Kuomintang would already suffice) and due to anonymous research during the early days of the People’s Republic, only the ruling party could pinpoint candidates. Due to these internal challenges, it may be that China missed out on a few occasions to actually receive the Nobel Prize for scientific achievements. Most notorious has been the chemical synthesis of crystalline bovine insulin, a remarkable achievement in producing active insulin that was published in the journal Science in 1966 and made global news headlines. The President of the Nobel Foundation, Arne Tiselius, visited China in 1966. One can only speculate what happened if the researchers that guided him around would not have remained anonymous. After a lot of internal debates, only in 1978 the Chinese put forward a candidate for the insulin discovery. The Nobel Prize, however, was never awarded. From a Chinese perspective, the bovine insulin project only remained “nominated” for the Nobel Prize.

National strategies for scientific success are highly reflected in the insulin story. Prizes do not fall from the sky: they should be centrally approved, fit a high number of political trajectories, and benefit national progress. Modern-day China has made huge investments, and has witnessed impressive advances, in domestic scientific achievements. A Nobel Prize obtained by a homegrown Chinese investigator, obtained from achievements in the modernized Chinese research ecosystem, would provide objective evidence for China’s success as a world-class science hub. However, such a scientific Nobel Prize has always passed China. Until this year, when it was awarded to Dr. Tu Youyou, who discovered and purified artemisinin, a drug that has lead to a relative successful treatment regime for severe malaria and saved millions of lives.

Tu Youyou and her team started in the late 60s and published the crucial discoveries for this therapy in the 1980s. By digging through ancient Chinese medical literature, Tu noticed that plant extracts from the Sweet Wormwood repeatedly showed up in traditional treatments. She found out that artemisinin was the key component. After optimizing the extraction method, inspired by literature from the year 340 AD, she was able to successfully treat malaria-infected rodents and monkeys. At present, a modified version of the extract is part of the standard prevention treatments against malaria, which has played a significant role in reducing the mortality around 50%. Malaria is mainly a disease of the poor: a large part of the success story is its contribution to poverty alleviation.

The global impact of Dr. Tu’s achievements is still tangible. Dr. Tu has linked Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to a successful treatment method for a grand global health challenge and the Nobel Prize. Needless to say, apart from recognition and praise, in China the Prize remains its controversial allure. TCM advocates want to see more national strategies and priorities for TCM. Critics claim that dr. Tu was only part of a team and recognition should be shared. Chinese policymakers will be scratching their heads. In an era where China strongly bets on modernization of its science ecosystem, the first home-grown Nobel Prize sails in, originated from a secret military project of the early days of the People’s Republic; and rooted in literature from a period some 100+ years after the Han dynasty, a period which produced a wide range of scientific advances.

The first homegrown Nobel Prize in sciences for China is a fact. It derived from a pragmatic approach, ingenuity and a full exploitation of available resources. But it was not planned. In the end, this is about science. Failure is an option, and therefore success should be celebrated.

Further reading




(Dutch) Start Ups in China and 60 Billion RMB State Support Fund

Startups are booming and they will be for the coming years. Recently the state council has decided to increase the intensity of the focus on startups in the years to come. The National SME Development fund is called to life to help the small startups with their first steps. With 15 billion RMB from the government and 45 billion RMB from other partners, there is plenty to share1,2.

Already in 2014 approximately 3.7 million new companies were registered according to the Chinese government3. The goal of the fund is to heighten the chance of success for these starting companies and to further increase the amount of companies that dare to start.

The Chinese connectivity and therefore market also grows in a high pace. At the 15th of October the news was shared that 140 billion RMB is reserved for a further upgrade of the telecommunications network. The goal is to have 98% of the people connected to the internet by 20204. This increases the market for startups which are often internet based of heavily reliant on the internet.

Unfortunately it’s unclear whether only Chinese companies are to enjoy the fund, but this is highly likely. This does not stop several Dutch startups to take their chances. Some examples are ‘Datenna’, ‘Seedlinktech’, ‘Design2gather’, ‘AskLab’, ‘TradeChanger’ and ‘21brains’.

However, the question that remains is: how many of these start-ups will succeed into successful and durable companies that sustain economic growth and provide jobs. Only the future can tell, but off course this is a promising start.



Astronomy: deep insights, deeper impact


An informal science lecture in Shanghai, organized by the Netherlands Office for Science and Technology, took place in June. Professors Röttgering (Leiden) and An Tao (Shanghai) inspired an audience of ca. 25 with insights in the field of astronomy.

In June 2015, professor Huub Röttgering from Leiden University visited professors Hong Xiaoyu and An Tao of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Röttgering is the director of the Leiden Observatory, one of the largest astronomy institutes worldwide. Both institutes jointly participate in a network of global projects.

Astronomy is generally conceived as a complex subject. In spite of this, it sparks the interest of many. Reason might be that it challenges everyone’s ability to conceptualize understanding of time, space and matter, as well as the origin of life. The Netherlands Office of Science and Technology (NOST) therefore gladly responded to the wish of Röttgering and An Tao to organize a popular science seminar on their field of research. To provide a platform, NOST partnered with BioWin (one of the Belgian life-science clusters) to host an informal “Understanding Science” event. As a result, a diverse audience of ca. 25 people gathered in a local café of the early evening of June 30, among which entrepreneurs, students, seasoned managers and even one 11-th grade student.

The two professors set out to make some of their insights understandable to all participants (insights derived from events that took place from 1-e30 seconds after the Big Bang onwards; before this point in history (ca. 30.6 billion years ago) Röttgering and An Tao did not intend to make any claims). Röttgering set himself the ambitious goal to clarify the origin of the universe and life within one hour, as well as the impact of astronomy research on society. An Tao focused on the demand for advances in data technology, in order to deal with the vast amount of data produced by astronomical observations every day.

The audience learned that, most likely, the earliest stars were born from an accumulation and condensation of hydrogen and helium. Within any star, nuclear synthesis introduced novel elements. At some point, a star would explode, filling its surrounding space with its content. Thereby the stars’ first life-cycle would end and a new one would begin. For instance, our solar system is the result of a number of such gas-to-star lifecycles, and the elements that the earth and its inhabitants are composed of hence find their origin in stars that preceded our Sun.

Observing the universe lies at the basis of our understanding of it. The tool of choice here is the telescope. Throughout time, optic telescopes have been enriched by radio telescopes, telescopes have been positioned in space, and nowadays telescopes have become extremely large (such as the EU-Brazil funded Extremely Large Telescope in Chile, with a mirror of >30 meters). Other developments are the use of sensors, which are positioned on arrays spanning large territories (such as the Low Frequency Array in a number of EU countries), or networks that are globally connected (such as the Square Kilometer Array in South Africa and Australia, with a pilot in China). With billions of Euro’s invested, we now know that 73 % of our universe exists of dark energy, a concept that even astronomers find difficult to grasp.

Not quite an anticlimax though. In the slipstream of the observation technology developed by astronomers, the world has been enriched with image processing, GPS chips, X-ray detection techniques and Wi-Fi, just to name a few. Astronomy continues to play a dominant role in the development of information technologies in order to deal with the vast amount of collected data. For instance, real-time data from all astronomical observations combined would occupy an optic fiber spanned around the Earth for nearly 2 weeks. Astronomy has become a true big data challenge, and its solutions are expected to find applications in commercial endeavors as well.

By observing the universe, we have been able to modernize our own societies. This has been achieved by connecting bright minds to enormous investments from the public domain and visionary policies on a global scale. And: the joint presentations in the informal seminar clearly demonstrated the strong international collaborative spirit in this field. As data has become such an important aspect of the economy, it is expected that advances in information technology go increasingly hand in hand with business development. Professor An Tao expressed his wish to position Shanghai as an international data hub. An improved infrastructure and attractive business potential could pave the way, and Dutch stakeholders should be set to go and get involved in this major ambition as well.

Sources, further reading



Automotive Industry in China

Technological developments

Following three decades of rapid growth, China is the world’s largest automotive market and automotive manufacturing country since 2009. In 2014, the total output was 20 million and sales of vehicle units exceeded 23 million. This is larger than the North American and European markets combined. With respect to technological developments, China takes international trends into considerations, for example

  • New/clean energy vehicles: (fuel cell, electric, hydrogen, solar etc); assigned as a key point of development in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan, with Chongqing being the pilot city in terms of R&D, production and infrastructure. It is China’s ambition to provide 15% of the global hybrid and EV market by 2020, described in the “Energy Saving and New Energy Vehicle Development Plan”. R&D investments are provided via the 863 program (a national high tech R&D program of the Ministry of Science & Technology). The EV-market is also stimulated by subsidy programs (f.e. via “10 cities, 1000 vehicles”), but EVs don’t easily compete with conventional cars based on price and achievement. EVs for public transportation, specifically electric buses, do a better job in China.
  • (Lightweight) materials: Chongqing Renewable Resource Industrial Park is intended to introduce foreign and domestic technologies for recycling of electronic waste and scrapped vehicles.
  • Connected Vehicles: China is just now starting to develop Internet connected vehicles. In spring this year SAIC and Alibaba Group jointly invested 1 billion Yuan to develop Internet connected vehicles. Also other Internet giants as Baidu are investing in this field and the first products are expected in 2016.
  • EV Testing Facility & development
  • Intelligent Traffic Systems

but so far most of these developments are coming from other countries, or foreign companies active in China. The Chinese industry is regarded as deeply fragmented, lacking innovative capacity, and dependent on imported technology and know-how. It is expected to improve due to strategic cooperation with domestic top scientific research institutions like China Academy of Engineering and China Academy of Science, as well as joint venture cooperation with famous international enterprises like FEV of Germany and Ricardo of Britain.

In general the traditional industries (oil, car makers) change slowly. It is up to the government to change the value chain towards the benefit of new technologies.

Key-players and networks

The market is dominated by roughly 4 State Owned Enterprises named SAIC, Dongfeng, Wuling and Chang An. These 3 all have foreign joint venture partners. The biggest private players are Chery, Great Wall and BYD.

SAIC Motor Corporation is China’s largest vehicle manufacturer. It is a state-owned enterprise (SOE), comprising 16 subsidiary companies. SAIC Motor operates three of China’s most financially successful international joint ventures, one with Volkswagen and two with General Motors (one together with Wuling, manufacturing microvans in China). It recently started the Research & Advanced Technology Division, which will perform research on new technologies in the automotive industry.

DongFeng Motor Co. Ltd. achieved a market share of approximately 11.6% in 2014. Most notable JV of DongFeng Motor at this time is the Dongfeng Nissan Passenger Vehicle Co. This JV invested 500 Million CNY in building a Venucia modelling centre, an advanced engineering technology centre, and an enterprise-university centre, aiming to improve the R&D technology, modelling & design and attract innovative talents.

Chang’an is the number three producer of finished vehicles in China and invested 300 million RMB in its Automotive Engineering Research Institute conducting research related to NVH development, engine technology, electric fitting technology, crash safety, chassis & CAE technology, new energy technology etc. Chang’an also acquired R&D institutes in the UK (engine and systems), USA (chassis), Japan (engineering) and Italy (body and interior design).

In Chongqing the China Automotive Engineering Research Institute (CAERI) hosts four national-level research and engineering centres, such as NGV Engineering Centre, State Key Laboratory for vehicle NVH and Safety Technology, National & Local Engineering Lab for alternative fuel and Chongqing branch of the National Motor Vehicle Quality Supervision Inspection Centre.

Last but not least there is the China Automotive Technology & Research Center (CATARC), with a strategic partnership with Volvo Car Group. CATARC is specialized in standardization, technical regulations, programs on development of energy conservation and new EVs.

Role of the government

The role of the government is very important in China. Therefore it is of great value to follow government policies in this respect. China focuses on the development of light pure EVs by technological developments in key technologies such as batteries, electric motors and control systems. The following goals are specifically mentioned in the 12th Five-Year Plan;

– 50% less production costs of batteries

– More than 1 million EV’s on the road by 2015

– Expansion of production capacity of batteries to 10 GW per year

– Development of a standard system for EVs

– Expansion of “EV model cities”

– Installation of 2.000 charging stations and 400.000 charging spots in model cities.

Relevant development/ actuality

A recent article about the Chinese automotive industry highlighted that international companies wary as mainland’s middle class turn to cheaper clones made by domestic brands originally designed overseas. Domestic brands seem to have gained market share without cutting margins to the bone. Great Wall Motors, JAC Motors, Chang’an Automobile Group and Landwind see more of more of interest to Chinese car buyers. The fact that more and more consumers are choosing domestic brands brings opportunities for especially in auto parts. The demand for higher quality and innovative products are wanted by domestic Chinese car manufacturers.

The Netherlands already picked up this trend and early this year (2015), the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs Mr. Henk Kamp led a company delegation to China. During his visits to West-China he discussed potential cooperation in the automotive sector with Chinese officials and industry leaders. In July 2015, the Netherlands Office for Science and Technology (NOST – Innovatie Attache Netwerk in Dutch) organised a Safety, Connectivity and New Materials in the Automotive Industry seminar. In September 2015 an automotive fact-finding mission took place, with various Dutch players participating. And later, in November 2015, Stella Lux will come to Shanghai. Stella Lux is the energy positive family solar car, built by students from Eindhoven University. During this two-week visit NOST will organise various events and meetings related to technological developments in the automotive industry.

Opportunities for Dutch companies and knowledge institutes

The Dutch and Chinese automotive industries seem complementary. Chinese manufacturers and end users could benefit from Dutch technology and expertise, whereas Dutch suppliers would be able to access new markets for their products and services. The fast growing number of legally registered automobiles provides a large Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and replacement market for automotive parts with opportunities existing for EU SMEs with specialised components, equipment and technologies to supply to the leading manufacturer of premium cars. Opportunities for the Netherlands:

  • Battery techniques and production methods in order to improve quality and reduce costs. New materials with higher energy density (link topsector Chemistry).
  • Battery management systems
  • New materials and constructions for safer cars and weight reduction
  • Certification for European market
  • Platform electrification (integration electric systems), with links to software, mechatronica, embedded systems and nano electronics
  • Intelligent Transport Systems for more efficient and safer use of the road (link topsector Logistics)
  • Optimal conventional internal combustion engine
  • Industrial design of interior, exterior, human-machine interface
  • Training

Especially the EV in public transportation is growing quickly. Please note that EV Zone signed a MoU with the automotive campus in Brabant and work together with traffic light optimization with TuDelft.