SFU strikes business partnership with Chinese firm

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SFU President Andrew Petter (right) poses with Hanhai Chairman Wang Hanguang (left). - Photo courtesy of SFU University Communications

An international partnership took SFU President Andrew Petter and VP Research Joy Johnson to Beijing earlier this month. During the visit, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed between the university and Beijing-based Hanhai Zhiye Investment Management Group. The partnership is intent on helping Canadian and Chinese startups grow into successful businesses.

The agreement has led to SFU-Hanhai China-Canada Commercialization Acceleration Network (C2-CAN). The group Hanhai Zhiye, a partner with SFU, is a “high-tech conglomerate” with incubators in China, Silicon Valley, and Germany.

C2-CAN will allow Canadian startups at SFU VentureLabs to relocate for periods of time to Beijing, and will also allow startups in China to relocate to Vancouver. According to Johnson, C2-CAN could provide “an opportunity for a ‘soft landing,’ an opportunity for business to really find their feet, and to explore whether there might be opportunities for them to develop new markets” in the two corners of the globe.

Johnson described incubators such as C2-CAN as “an opportunity for any student to get a great business idea, and work with mentors, and develop them into a venture that might actually have some profitability. [. . .] We’ve had a number of students actually do that.”

The program will run through SFU but will be open to all Canadian startups, not just those associated with SFU faculty or students. The Beedie School of Business in particular has shown interest in incubators, and in business in Asia. However, said Johnson, “While there’s a lot of students in Beedie interested in [innovation and entrepreneurship], there’s a lot of students across the university also interested.”

A focus area for C2-CwAN will be sustainability and the development of clean technology. Johnson noted that China in particular faces environmental problems such as low air quality, and that SFU has “expertise in this area.” Despite a focus on clean technology, C2-CAN will be open to all types of ventures.

While Johnson could not provide an exact estimate as to the costs SFU would incur, she said, “Actually, right now it’s going to cost us very little.” She went on to say that the space that would be given to Hanhai in VentureLabs was already owned by the university and that the university would be offered similar space in Hanhai’s facilities in Beijing. She said that the university expects travel costs for this year to be under $50,000.

Both SFU and Hanhai might have opportunities to receive financial benefits from C2-CAN. Johnson explained that when businesses approach C2-CAN, agreements are entered into “about taking stake in that venture,” and in some circumstances the venture might pay back C2-CAN for services rendered, or pay back a portion of their profits.

“The idea is that ultimately we would move ourselves into a situation of sustainability,” said Johnson.“I’ll be clear. It’s not the job of the university to be ‘making a lot of money.’”

When asked whether Hanhai had any connection to the Chinese government, Johnson responded, “I cannot answer that, but all I can say about that is every company in China has relationships with the Chinese government.”

Hanhai Chairman Wang Hanguang is a Senior Expert in the Ministry of Science and Technology, and photographs on Hanhai’s website showing Hanhai representatives at a reception for the Communist Party point to potential ties with China’s ruling party. The California Life Sciences Association classifies Hanhai as a “sovereign wealth fund.”

Johnson commented on potential concerns in regards to working with a company possibly connected to the Chinese government: “At this point we haven’t had discussions specifically about it, in part because we haven’t really gotten into the meat of any specific agreements, but certainly all of those issues are going to have get sorted out over time.

“It’s an opportunity, but it is not an opportunity without risks as well, and I think we all recognize that.”

However, according to Johnson, the project has the potential to benefit not only SFU students and researchers, but also Vancouver as a whole. Hanhai’s incubators in China have so far been successful. Said Johnson of the incubators she and Petter visited in Beijing: “They are housing a number of companies and large companies now that have become very, very successful.”

Ultimately C2-CAN falls under SFU Innovates, the new university-wide innovation strategy that places emphasis on growing the existing incubators at SFU.

She expanded, “We are interested in this at SFU in part because we are committed to what gets referred to as ‘knowledge mobilization’: taking great ideas and doing something with them.”