SUZHOU, China --(BUSINESS WIRE)
Artificial Intelligence is set to be the great frontier for technological development over the next decade, reaching into all aspects of our lives, from how we interact with our devices and vehicles, to how we receive education and medical treatment.
For companies at the forefront of this exciting yet costly endeavor, finding a base that offers support and access to talent is a huge question.
The answer for an increasing number is Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP).
SIP currently has some 160 enterprises whose core focus is AI, with some 400 whose operations are AI-related. The 160 AI-focused tenants account for nearly 20,000 employees, and have a total industrial output of about 36 billion RMB in 2017.
According to Mr Xu Huimin, Party Secretary of SIP (who is also a CPC Suzhou Standing Committee Member), the park is fully committed to the AI industry, and aims to place itself at the vanguard of its development.
This is highlighted by the fact that initial committed investments already amount to as high as 1.5 billion RMB, in addition to a specialty PE fund of 20-30 billion RMB.
"By 2020, we will have established a minimum of five devoted vertical parks, as well as incubators and accelerators, to nurture AI technology and its application," Mr Xu said.
"We hope to see a whole cluster of AI-related enterprises thrive here, among them at least two-to-three champion companies with valuations of over 1 billion RMB, and another one-to-two champions with valuations of 10 billion RMB."
In 2016, SIP saw a total GDP of 215.06 billion RMB, a 7.2% y-o-y growth rate. It also ranked top among all China's industrial parks in terms of overall competitiveness according to latest figures from the Ministry of Commerce.
Laying specific foundations and systems
In the first half of 2017, SIP came up with a strategic roadmap, an action plan, and then detailed policy support and deliverables, according to Mr Du Feng, Deputy Director of Economic Development Committee at SIP.
These included establishing a state-owned holding company to support AI enterprises, setting up an AI park -- with first-phase land-area of 262,100 sq. m. -- within SIP, and launching a PE fund devoted to the AI sector.
The second half of 2017 saw an influx of research centers to SIP by national leaders and internationally-famous institutions. These included education leaders such as MIT, Cambridge University, Harvard University, Oxford University, Shanghai Jiaotong University; and industry giants such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent - China's three biggest tech companies.
Other labs and R&D centers established in SIP over the period included Huazhong University of Science and Technology’s Neuro-information Technology (NIT) Research Institute, the University of Science and Technology of China Robots & AI Center, Tsinghua University Ultra-Smart City Lab, the XJTLU (Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University) Cognition Computing Application Lab and the iFlytek Research Institute in SIP.
According to Mr He Bing, Deputy General Manager of SISPARK, the SIP AI park already saw a cluster of flagship leaders and category champions such as: AISPEECH and CHIVOX in the field of voice recognition, a market with over 40% compound annual growth rate in China; New Vision in machine image learning; Carrobot, which specializes in smart heads-up display (HUD) devices; and BR Robot, an industrial robot maker.
“We see tremendous opportunities for China to raise its productivity and long-term economic growth through the use of AI technologies. AI can drive growth in China through intelligent automation of products and processes, augmenting the productivity and skills of workers, and spurring wider innovation in the economy," said Mark Purdy, Managing Director of Accenture Research.
A big picture approach
While there has lately been a flurry of initiatives to support AI at SIP, this does not mean that the park has only recently turned its attention to the area.
As Mr Du Feng points out, the park's interest in AI is well-founded. SIP's pedigree in spearheading the cloud computing and big data sectors also make for a strong foundation.
"We have very much taken a big-picture approach, that has set us in good stead," said Mr Du. "SIP has historically been a famous magnet for multi-national corporations, especially those known for advanced manufacturing. In recent years the park has also devoted its efforts to nurturing an ecosystem of tech focused start-ups who are at the forefront of new technologies and concepts."
Du added that the most promising growth areas at SIP are electronics and ICT, which account for more than half of the park's total industrial output.
Of particular note are the emerging industries of nano-tech, biotechnology and what Du refers to as "ABC" - AI based on Big Data and Cloud Computing.
As part of its strategic planning to support AI, SIP has instituted a number of programs to increase momentum. These include SISDC (SISPARK Data Center), which serves as a platform for AI companies, offering data storage and pay-as-you-go cloud services.
Another key area of SIP's focus is talent attraction. The park's “Jinji Lake Leading Talent Program” established 10 years ago has helped supply and nurture a significant amount of expertise. It allows applications from tech leaders to be filed throughout the year, rather than setting an annual cut-off date. Meanwhile, its incentive package for coveted tech-leaders includes house-purchasing stipends, rent subsidies, special allowances, bonuses, support for the schooling of dependents and healthcare packages, among many other initiatives.
In late December, SIP hosted the 7thawarding ceremony of Wu Wenjun AI Science & Technology Award, known as the highest intelligent tech award in the nation. Other high-profile conferences and forums to be held at SIP include 2017 China AI Industry Convention, and 2018 Global AI Product and Application Exhibit.
In He Bing’s view, the city’s location, transportation and convenience are also major draws.
"Suzhou’s livability is a key factor for talents thinking of relocating here,” he said, “for its attractive culture, and mix of both traditional and metropolitan lifestyles."
A home for startups and big players
Qingrui Education is one of many AI-focused startups that have been attracted to SIP. The company moved to SIP in 2012. Soon after, SIP helped Qingrui to go public.
"The talent recruiting office in SIP is very active and hard-working. They kept contacting us and offering opportunities to our advantage. We joined one of the many start-up road-shows, and got financial support from SIP. Then we moved here," said Dr Zhu Qifeng, Founder & CEO of Qingrui and a Chinese-returnee from Silicon Valley.
"As long as the company is doing well, SIP has many opportunities. That’s all a startup can wish for," he added.
Some 15 million students in 15,000 schools across China now use Qingrui’s virtual campus and AI tutor service, which focuses on developing speaking and listening skills in English through voice interactive and pronunciation correction.
SIPs efforts have also contributed to a trend that has seen multi-national companies (MNCs) shift from merely establishing manufacturing plants in the park to making it a place where they can materialize new growth opportunities, according to Du.
"Such opportunities may include new ideas, proprietary technologies, and all sorts of 'local market know-how," he said.
For example, Philips has been integrating AI into its medical devices to carry out intelligent diagnoses. Dushu Lake Alliance, a consortium of start-ups at SIP specialized in the medical field, has formed a mechanism for sharing data and collaborating with MNCs such as Philips.
Meanwhile, US semiconductor firm AMD helped set up a specialist industrial PE fund focused on promising technologies, and encouraging burgeoning startups to relocate to SIP.
Johnson & Johnson is another MNC that has played an active role in fostering connections between industry players at the park through forums and discussions.
When it comes to the applications for AI in wider industry, Du gave two examples - medicare and education.
Du said that AI technology can help level the playing field so doctors from across the country can intelligently search the vast amount of information to come up with accurate diagnoses.
Similarly, when it comes to education, AI can help provide rural communities with levels of education that have to date been only available in more populous and prosperous areas.