China innovation: past, present, future?

I am attending the annual GE CEO summit at a beautiful location in San Diego. In attendance are founders and CEOs of various companies in healthcare, energy, industrial products and digital technologies; GE executives, tech VCs, and other leaders in business from around the country. Its a great opportunity to connect with like-minded folk thinking about hard technologies.

At reception last night an interesting conversation caught my attention. I thought I would share it here. A small group of us were discussing the rapid pace of innovation, and evolving global markets for such innovative products and services. Renewable energy, on-demand services, cloud computing, AI, biotech, and autonomous vehicles are not a US phenomena, but a global one. I was also mentioning that new and breakthrough ideas were increasingly coming to us from new and interesting people/places. In some ways we were discussing how competitive the world had become for researchers at companies like GE/GM/Pfizer to continue as the innovation engine for the world.

And that’s when this came up as a pseudo-chronology of US engagement with China:

  • First we took US manufactured products and ideas to China to sell to affluent Chinese customers (export)
  • Then we started manufacturing products in China, but for US consumption (outsourced manufacturing)
  • Now we are manufacturing US products in China at such low cost that they are accessible to Chinese customers (mass-markets)
  • Future is already here when Chinese R&D driven products and ideas are coming to the US markets to find customers (e.g. import of drones, and soon biopharma innovation)
  • Will the US use advanced manufacturing technologies in near future to produce Chinese R&D driven products and services for US, and later export to Chinese customers? Will US become the low cost manufacturer for China’s R&D?

It is sort of coming around in a full circle, isn’t it?