Shenzhen, the Hardware Paradise

My Experience at TechCrunch Shenzhen 2017 Hackathon, Conference, and Innovation Tour

Me riding the SegWay Loomo Robot at the TechCrunch Shenzhen Hackathon

The Craziest Summer Trip Ever

I am Simon, and I am a die heart hardware lover. I grew up in Shanghai and started playing with electronics since very young. I have never gone to Shenzhen in my life. Being away from China for two years, I heard about some crazy hardware innovation going on there. I also found out TechCrunch was hosting a conference in Shenzhen in the summer. I immediately signed up and start planning my one-week trip there in Summer 2017. It has been one of the most eye-opening and mind-blowing experience I ever had, (and also the first trip that I planned and went on my own.)

Shenzhen the City

Shenzhen is in the South of China, right beside Hong Kong. In fact, you can take the subway to Hong Kong. It is a city created by the Chinese government to become China’s first Special Economic Zone. Growing up in the most advanced city in Mainland China, I always think Shanghai represents the best level a city can even be like. However, Shenzhen completely blew my mind. It is so new and modern: The airport is enormous and clean; the subway is wide and super organized. Constructions are going on everywhere. You only see young people living there, and they are from all over China. Unlike other Chinese cities, the air quality is amazingly good because it is near the sea. Everything is also super digitalized. I never had to use my wallet once; everything was paid on weChat pay; I transport from places to places through dockless sharing bikes. There is no menu in restaurants, you order from your social media app. The only thing I didn’t enjoy much was there were too many police everywhere. It is just crazy to realize that nothing was here 30 years ago and the city is still growing exponentially. There is one banner all around Shenzhen which was admired as the Spirit of Shenzhen, by the former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping.

时间就是金钱,效率就是生命 — 邓小平

Time is Money. Efficiency is Life. — Deng Xiaoping

Skyline of Shenzhen, everything is built in the last 30 years

TechCrunch Hackathon

I love going to hackathons, and this is the first hackathon I did outside of North America and my first TechCrunch Disrupt. I did not know anyone in China, and I met my teammates through friends’ referrals — 2 students from Hong Kong, 1 software engineer traveling between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and 1 Google engineer from Shanghai. The theme the hackathon was about Bike Sharing and Blockchain. Dockless share biking boomed in China. You can see dozens of them at any intersection. The problem was that they are usually damaged or uncomfortable to ride. It is also a huge waste of resources since many bicycles already exist in China. Thus my team designed a solution that uses Blockchain smart contract to create a P2P Bike Sharing system. It aims to use existing enormous amounts of bikes in China and provide different levels of bike selection while ensuring safety. The product is a simple bike seat you replace with your original bike seat. It has a GPS tracker and a blockchain algorithm to create smart contract to let other’s rent your bike. You can gain income by renting out your bike with guaranteed security; or you can ride different levels of bikes for a nice hike in the city instead of the uncomfortable share bikes. The hackathon was especially exciting because it is the first time I can use some Chinese developer tools. We used Mobike’s API and DianRong’s Blockchain as a Service Backend. We received the 3rd place at the hackathon and it is my first time winning a TechCrunch event.

My team on Stage receiving award
Bike equipped with the Smart Bike Seat System.

TechCrunch Conference

I was very fortunate to receive a conference ticket through participating in the hackathon. It is a world-class conference featuring some of the most innovative companies and smartest leaders in the Asian tech industry. All the talks were especially interesting, such as how can share biking create a set of personal credit record, use Uber data to speed up traffic realtime, to solve the last kilometre transportation problem, use selfie app data to improve skin, how to create truly immersive VR environment, and how to use the Shenzhen hardware resources to target oversea market. It was a truly eye-opening experience. I learned a ton about the cutting-edge technology that the Chinese are building and how it is shifting ordinary Chinese’s lifestyle. I got to meet some industry leaders personally and had great discussions about China’s next big tech boom. A fascinating trend in China that summer was sharing economy. Bike, power bank, even basketball can be added with an IoT system and became shareable for everyone while profitable. We have not seen anything like this in North America, and the China tech industry had push such concept into every Chinese’s daily life in less than one year. I found myself so out of touch when I come back to China after only two years, I can barely live without my weChat pay, Alipay wallet, and Mobike Bike. China’s tech industry is growing at an exponential speed, and the period of implementing new technology into daily life has become so short.

Founder of ofo share biking talking about sharing economy and credit city
Panel talking about bringing Shenzhen based hardware to global market
Founder of kik talking about ICO fundraising. Go Canada!

The Big Players: ZTE, Huawei, Tencent

Many big tech players are headquartered in Shenzhen. I had the chance to visit the ZTE headquarter and its demo room. This government-funded company, together with Huawei, dominate the domestic and some international market of telecom hardware. They are developing new technology from 5G stations, more powerful mobile phone chips, faster wireless charging, and applications in National Security. The most impressive (and scary) was the Skynet — a set of systems which can connect to every road camera in China and identify anyone within seconds in real time. It is equipped for the Chinese police for criminal investigation.

The Skynet surveillance system in real-time demo at ZTE Demo room

Some of the other China’s tech giant, such as Huawei and Tencent, are also based in Shenzhen. Its tech community really provides strong and competitive talents.

Startup Culture: Government Support, Huge Community

the VC PE Tower in the StartUp Area

I visited many startup areas in Shenzhen. The most impressive one was the startup Park in the Nanshan Area. It is surrounded in a perfect triangle of the HQs of China’s three most prominent tech giant: Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent. In the middle, there is the VC PE tower, where you just need to run up the entire tower full of VC to pitch your idea. There are tons of accelerators and incubator scattered inside the big triangle. The whole startup community is well supported by the government. The government even invested to start its own incubator, such as the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System Incubator. I also visited a few of the incubators there such as TechTemple and Tencent WeStart.

BeiDou Navigation Satellite System Incubator, Funded by the government

Besides the startup area, I visited several specific hardware incubator and accelerator, such as Shenzhen Valley Venture and HAX. Hardware startups in Shenzhen are extremely convenient, but meanwhile very competitive because of the convenience. They really know how to utilize the local resources to create world-class products. They are all highly intensive but produced very successful hardware startups, like MakeBlock and Particles.

DJI Demo Room

Many successful startups started in Shenzhen. One such example is DJI. I visited their flagship shop in Shenzhen. The interior of their flagship shop, the different versions of drones, the interactive demo all really impressed me. I had a great time talking to some staff about the advanced drone technologies they invented and implemented on their product. There are startups like DJI from Shenzhen who are pushing technological breakthrough and leading the entire industry.

Special Mention: Makeblock & Upper Canada College

Two years ago, my friends and I started a program at my high school to teach elementary school kids robotics for free. We chose a product called mBot because of its friendly UI and excellent material. We always thought it was some product from Silicon Valley, but it turns out to be born in Shenzhen. I had the chance to visit MakeBlock, the company who created mBot and talk to their product team about the feedback our students provides. They were really welcome, and I really appreciate their culture of taking in feedback and active innovation.

Me explaining some of the feedback our students have while assembling mBot

Huaqiangbei 华强北 and Hardware Factory

Before I left Shenzhen, I took the subway to visit the famous Huaqiangbei electronic market. It is almost paradise to me. I can find all the electronic parts you can ever imagine with the lowest price possible. You can basically assemble an iPhone by shopping parts here. Another surprising thing was you get your customize hardware in a few hours or days. You can literally order in the morning, and you can pick it up at night. Unlike here in North America, the process takes weeks or months, and you cannot talk to the manufactures directly.
Left: a store station selling wires. There are hundreds of this kind of shops in huaqiangbei.

I also went to tour the factory where Huawei and Xiaomi make their phone and smart IoT hardware. To my surprise, it is not the stereotypical Chinese labor-intensive factory; In fact, it is highly automated and requires almost no human. Most employees were making machines that will speed up the automation process. The workflow is really complex but well organized. Now I know how all my electronics are made.

TechCrunch Innovation Tour Group at Huawei and Xiaomi’s Factory

WHY You Should Care about Shenzhen:

  1. World’s Hardware Centre: the manufacture is here, the supply chain is here, the start up community is here, the talent is here. Anything you need to create a hardware product can be found here.
  2. Innovations are happening here: Both hardware and software innovation at happening at an incredible speed here. The innovation has shifted Chinese’s lifestyle entirely in the last several years. Disrupters of the industry are also growing from Shenzhen, such as DJI, ZTE, and Huawei.
  3. Community, Capital and Government Support: the enormous startup community and areas, funds generously given out by the Chinese government, and the crazy amounts of funds and VCs all make Shenzhen a unique tech community.
  4. Great City and Hustling Culture: This China’s youngest megacity always has a hustling culture. You will almost never see people stopping in the city. Stuff is happening at an incredible speed, outrunning the other parts of China and the world.

It was a crazy trip to Shenzhen and I learned so much about the Hardware Silicon Valley and the tech industry here. I am looking forward to visit more amazing cities around the world and discover its tech community.

If you are interested in learning more about the tech scenes in China and my hometown Shanghai, you do not want to miss the upcoming TechCrunch Shanghai 2017 hosted by TechNode and TechCrunch China this November 25–28. Learn more: http://tc.technode.com/2017-shanghai/en/

Accelerating Deep Tech | Robotics, Blockchain, Neurotech | EECS @UCBerkeley | Teaching @CalBlockchain, Director @BB_Xcelerator | prev @hax_co, @SOSV, @Interaxon