Pedestrians walk along the bund as the Lujiazui Financial District stands in the background in Shanghai, China, on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017. The Chinese central bank's tight leash on liquidity is straining the bond market, with the benchmark sovereign yield climbing to near the highest level since April 2015. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
It is unclear how much enthusiasm foreign financial groups will have for increasing their investments in China © Bloomberg

Innovation and technology are key to lifting billions of people out of poverty and to solving the existential challenges facing our world. For the past decade, large investments and innovation in renewables and electric vehicles by the state and private companies are paving the way for a much less polluted world and the last age of oil. Technology creation and innovation such as artificial intelligence, big data and robotics are key for sustained growth — and the world needs more innovation.

For the past 15 years, we have seen an impressive rise in technologies created in emerging Asian economies. Measured by the number of patents granted in the US, the “Asian Miracles” are already contributing more than the major European economies to global technological progress. China’s patents granted in the US went from about 100 in 2000 to over 8,000 in 2015, more than the UK or France (about 6,500 in 2015).

Such an advance in technology creation is of benefit to all economies, encouraging innovation and competition, as well as promoting growth and standards of living. In other words, emerging Asia no longer fits the standard growth storyline of FDI inflows and low costs of production. It is also becoming the region of dynamism, entrepreneurship and ingenuity.

In financing innovation, angel investors, venture capitalists and private equity firms sift through new technologies and young companies, invest in them and attempt to create value for both investors and society at large. Silicon Valley is celebrated as the epicentre of innovation and risk-taking but perhaps even more so is Boston, where difficult and risky R&D in biopharma takes place.

In 2015, less than 20 per cent of total US venture capital went to biopharma, compared with about 45 per cent in internet companies, mostly in California. About 60 per cent of biopharma start-ups are led by PhDs bringing cutting-edge science to the market compared with about 6 per cent for internet start-ups. The total US venture capital funding of about $50bn-$60bn is dwarfed by the flows in financial markets while risky ventures in key fields suffer from a lack of early-stage financing.

When the state intervenes, the usual suspect of failed support (for instance, for the US solar producer Solyndra) springs out but the support received by Tesla from the same programme is less publicised.

To promote innovation, we need both the state and the market. Mariana Mazzucato has argued in her bestseller The Entrepreneurial State that most of the cutting-edge technologies that the iPhone has were funded by public programmes. Of course, Apple’s role should not be underestimated. We need more companies putting technologies together to create path-breaking products and services. I believe we will see more of these groups coming from Asia.

In fact, China’s recent initiative “Made in China 2025” in promoting the creation of key technologies should encourage Chinese companies and entrepreneurs to innovate. Technology creation by domestic companies is key to escaping the middle-income trap as argued in the IMF working paper The Leap of the Tiger by Reda Cherif and Fuad Hasanov.

The continued focus of the Asian economies on innovation and technology creation is not only beneficial to society but also to global markets and investors. As more innovative companies come out from Asia, more competition and innovation will provide opportunities for investors. We see many large hedge funds active globally but, unfortunately, we do not see as many funds playing the role of a big angel investor or a venture capitalist investing in path-breaking innovation from all over the world.

The huge bets on dubious financial instruments that led to the global financial crisis should make us question our approach to investing. Early investment in innovative companies stemming from hard science may not be such a risky proposition after all. If the market does not provide enough support to young innovative companies, the state should provide support as it does in most advanced economies. Perhaps the creation of public venture capital funds would encourage the market to create more private funds.

Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald in their book Creating a Learning Society argue that the gap in knowledge differentiates developing from advanced economies. Technology and innovation, including in developing economies, can create miracles. The state and the market are the two wings of the same bird and it takes both to fly.

Min Zhu is the chair of the National Institute of Financial Research at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and a former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund

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