Auckland UniServices, the commercial arm of the University of Auckland dedicated to connecting its capabilities to business, investors and the community, has recently established an innovation institute in Hangzhou, the "Silicon Valley of China".

Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province and fourth-largest metropolitan area in China, is just an hour by bullet train from Shanghai and showcases China's rapid transition from a low-cost manufacturer to technology-focused innovation centre.

E-commerce giant Alibaba was founded in Hangzhou, and companies such as Siemens, Motorola, Nokia and an increasing number of start-ups have set up there.

Dr Lisbeth Jacobs, General Manager International at UniServices, says "Chinese officials in Hangzhou are well aware of the University of Auckland's success in commercialisation."


She is responsible for all contract research and services activity outside New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific.

In 2014, the MIT Skoltech Initiative identified UniServices and Auckland University as one of the top five "emerging leaders in entrepreneurship", one expected to become a major international powerhouse in the coming decades.

Last year, the university was ranked 27 in a Reuters report on the 75 most innovative universities in Asia, a list that identifies the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies, and help drive the global economy.

"While China is very entrepreneurial and pours a lot of money into innovation, it can still be a struggle to bring new ideas to market," says Jacobs. "China is a large market that offers a ton of opportunities but at the same time is extremely competitive.

"In order to be successful it is important to have a strong local base," she says.

"Successful innovation depends on many different factors, but it must be process driven.

"New ventures are typically more likely to succeed when we put experienced people next to young entrepreneurs."

Jacobs sees Hangzhou as the perfect location for UniServices, matching the type of technology being undertaken at the University.


"Hangzhou has a lot of biotech, e-commerce, logistics, precision manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and nutrition companies, and is attracting top-tier science and technology companies and researchers."

The Government of the Hangzhou Economic and Technological Development Area (HEDA) helped UniServices find a suitable location for the innovation institute, and assisted with administrative processes and other local requirements.

Hangzhou has biotech, e-commerce, logistics, precision manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and nutrition companies, and is attracting top-tier science and technology and companies.

UniServices will initially use the institute to gain traction in China in several areas where the university's internationally-recognised expertise is relevant for the Chinese market, including robotics, high value nutrition, light metals research, water, clinical trials and drug development, particularly in oncology.

The University will also look to offer executive education in specific areas, including tailoring their post-graduate qualification in commercialisation and entrepreneurship, for which it is well known internationally.

While UniServices has already had several contracts with Chinese companies, Jacobs says managing them from New Zealand is not always easy.

"On previous projects we have wanted to hire staff close to the project.

"Without a Chinese entity, it is very difficult to do that. Enforcing contract terms and payment has also been challenging at times."

The institute has been set up as a wholly foreign owned limited liability company under Chinese law.

A local entity and a base in China will make it a lot easier to hire staff, enforce existing contracts and be closer to Chinese customers.

If UniServices can contract from their own entity in China to another in China -- and backed by local government -- it is a lot harder to be ignored.

Jacobs explains it is not possible for UniServices to hire generic staff -- an engineer might be suitable for a programme in light metals but is not interchangeable to work on a drug development project.

Teams will be built around projects and research entities as is done at UniServices in Auckland.

"Our people will travel more, and as projects and research centres grow we will build teams up locally to expand beyond ad hoc projects," says Jacobs.

"We will be able to access more work, and ensure any contracting is more effective, efficient, and enforced.

"If UniServices can contract from their own entity in China to another in China -- and backed by local government -- it is a lot harder to be ignored."

UniServices has previously had an offshore presence, including a large multi-year programme to introduce an English language foundation programme at Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, and it has staff in Oman to deliver a schooling improvement project alongside the government.

But establishing an office that will do everything UniServices does from New Zealand, rather than project-based work, is a first for Auckland University.

Jacobs' vision for the institute is to be actively engaged in contract research, deliver consulting services, spin out companies from the university and incubate start-ups.

"One of UniServices' criteria for investing in spin-outs is that they have the potential to become global players. It is easier to become global on day one from China than from New Zealand.

"We will be able to offer our start-ups the ability to go global and really test their ideas in an international market."

Jacobs says the institute aims to bring together people from all facets of the innovation ecosystem to use the facilities and share their experience and expertise with each other.

"It is my hope that the institute will ultimately provide a link between the innovation and commercialisation in New Zealand and China.

"We want to create impact, a vibe, and a hub for innovation," the UniServices manager says.