How Taiwan Is Reinventing Its National Culture From Manufacturing Efficiency To Innovation And IP

15 February, 2017 / Articles
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I recently visited Taiwan with an eye towards learning how the country was fostering innovation and was impressed by the vision and methodical approach.  Much like a top company’s strategic plan, it took stock of:

  • Core competencies and competitive advantages
  • Global high tech industry trends and population needs
  • Historical country-wide bottlenecks and cultural issues that could hinder innovation

Because Taiwan is small compared to the U.S. (23 million people), and the range of industries more narrow, it seemed manageable to plan an economic road map, in a corporate, strategic planning kind of way.

My image of Taiwan, was formed decades ago, as a kid growing up seeing toys and other inexpensive goods bearing the label “made in Taiwan.”  This was also true of goods I remember at the time made in Hong Kong.  Both countries left low cost manufacturing behind, as labor rates in other Asian countries undercut their abilities to compete in those sectors, and both went in different directions.  Hong Kong became a world financial, real estate, luxury fashion and shipping center, while Taiwan used its engineering expertise to enter hardware technology (Foxconn, a Taiwanese company assembles Apple iPhones, ASUS and Acer manufacture Computers, and HTC makes cell phones).  Recognizing that low cost hardware manufacturing is not a way to sustain an economy when lower labor countries can undercut them in price, and recognizing the tremendous, broad spectrum engineering talent it has as a country, Taiwan is once again reinventing itself, focusing on intellectual property and innovation that are less capital intensive.   The chart below from the World Economic Forum, illustrates the evolution.

Taiwan has a 98.5% literacy rate, the fourth highest standardized math test scores in the world (according to the Organization for Economic Development) and over 25% of all university degrees are in engineering.  Seventy percent of the world’s integrated circuits are manufactured in Taiwan, and Taiwanese companies have for years excelled at mobile phone, computer hardware, and electronics engineering.  In a 2014 Bloomberg article, a Global Tech report cited that Taiwan had the highest number of patents per population, and per R&D expenditure in the world.  More recently, the country smartly decided to use its formidable technology and engineering talent to focus, in the words of Wayne Gretsky, on “where the puck is going,” including areas such as virtual reality, robotics, artificial intelligence, internet of things, smart healthcare, smart logistics, smart machinery, green energy, and smart cities.

Four aspects impressed me unexpectedly about Taiwan, that global companies and even other countries can learn from.

  • A clear long-term vision & methodical/multi-pronged approach to achieving it
  • A tremendous sense of humor that is infused in so many areas
  • A sophisticated sense of design, love of color and graphics
  • A motivated workforce with the technical skillsets to both invent and execute

Vision And A Methodical/Multi-pronged Approach To Communicating And Implementing It

One of Taiwan’s goals is to be come the Silicon Valley of Asia, a liaison and facilitator between the U.S. and other Asian markets.  Taiwan feels it can succeed because of its historical capabilities, geographic position in Southeast Asia, relatively equidistant from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and because of the global business partnerships it has forged and continues to explore.

Government Policy And Long-Term Planning

The key government initiatives lead by the Taiwan National Development Council (the body coordinating the country’s move toward an innovation economy) include creating:

  • A startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem and support system
  • Relationships with other global R&D innovation clusters around the world
  • Software applications that build on its historical tech hardware expertise
  • Assistance for innovations coming out of universities and research institutions in getting funded and commercialized
  • Assistance to help innovations move along more quickly into prototypes and testing
  • A culture of innovation and inspiration among children at the youngest levels in fun and interesting ways

Taiwan Startup Stadium

A mentoring and support startup hub for early stage tech companies that have demonstrated proofs of concept and products or services with international potential, Taiwan Startup Stadium connects them with top global accelerators, early stage investors, conferences, business partners and tech companies to help their businesses expand.  It provides boot camps, workshops and educational programs with international experts and corporate partners like Amazon Web Services and Facebook’s FbStart, and promotes these start-ups at tech conferences worldwide, including through international media that cover the conferences.

Start-ups run from apps like FRNCI, a kind of couch surfing for meeting people to take you around Taipei and soon other cities, to Bitmark, a blockchain-based system for establishing and transferring ownership of digital assets, to Lyra VR, an award-winning immersive music creation experience. FRNCI’s co-founders & team members took me around Taipei and the experience was amazing…. An incredibly fun and time-efficient way to literally get the flavor of the city and insights into the culture.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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