Technode’s Yu Uny Cao reports If you want to invest in new technology, Chinese universities are a gold mine—even the ones you haven’t heard of. Consider Bi Yusui at Shandong University of Technology, who invented an breakthrough ozone-friendly foaming agent that was sold for RMB 500 million (about $74 million) back in 2017. That RMB 500 million payday landed Bi’s university at the very top of university technology transfer amounts in China in 2017, beating out prestigious universities such as Tsinghua, Zhejiang University and Shanghai Jiaotong.
Universities and the talent within produce a very large proportion of all inventions in China. One indicator is invention patents: universities own about 30% of all invention patents granted by China’s patent office; the equivalent US figure is 2%.
But commercializing university research remains especially difficult in China. On top of the normal issues, university-generated intellectual property is considered a state-owned asset—exposing anyone accused of undervaluing it to criminal penalties under rules on “preventing the loss of state-owned assets.”
When most state-owned assets are privatized, the law requires a formal valuation. But valuations are not appropriate for untested technology: there’s no good way to know what they’re worth, so third party companies tend to guess—or take the word of the parties for whose deal they’re supposed to be providing authoritative values.
Worse, in hindsight, prices may look wrong, sometimes by orders of magnitude. In the China context, when a piece of state-owned technology is sold at, say, RMB 1 million, but in a few years, the company that bought the technology makes billions, then some will opine it was undervalued—and, ominously, ask whether the officials who approved the deal did everything they can to “prevent the loss of state-owned assets.” People have been jailed for less.
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