I am back in Wuhan, Hubei Province, pitching for grant money.
Wuhan Biolake, two hours flight time west of Shanghai, runs an annual funding competition called ‘The 3551 Scheme for Talents’, providing ‘free money’ to enterprises that bring high quality technology and technical knowledge to Wuhan.
The 3551 competition is a fantastically successful program and is worth entering, if anyone is interested. Winners gain up to £500k in cash for use as you see fit in your proposed project, plus the opportunity to gain a similar additional amount through investment. I haven’t seen the statistics for this year yet, but last year 602 teams applied (very few from the UK), of which 231 were successful in competing for RMB 285,000,000 (about £30m).
My pitch is done: a 10 minute presentation (timed by the officials – warned at 8 minutes and stopped precisely on 10 minutes) in front of a panel of 8 judges.
Over the last 12 to 18 months I have been fortunate enough to gain significant profile in Wuhan thanks to the help of Yangtze River Daily journalist Mrs Xiao and the local Talent Office. The Talent office – a government agency charged with bringing new skilled individuals to Wuhan – has helped us significantly by promoting our participation in the initial application at the start of the year and with advice during the preparation for the pitch. The Talent Office and our local Chinese Contract Research Partner (CRO) were extremely positive about the chances of success. “As long as you don’t make some dramatic error in the presentation, and you show enthusiasm for the competition, your project and Wuhan, then the chance of success is 100%” they assured me.
Of course a ‘sure thing’ seldom is.
The pitch was scheduled for 5pm on Saturday. As is usual in China, this had been changed at the last minute and brought forward by a day. Luckily I am getting quite familiar with the way of doing business here and my team and I had prepared the final documents well in advance. One can never resist tweaking a Powerpoint slide or two right up to the last minute of course, but the pitch was ready and so was the accompanying 2cm-thick, bound A4 book of completed forms and technical descriptions.
I am applying as an entrepreneur, rather than as a technologist, so the submitted information and presentation had to be biased towards descriptions of my experience of innovation and China connections to date rather than on the technical aspects of the Alzheimer’s Diagnostic that we are developing.
At 4:45pm my local Chinese colleague and I are instructed to proceed to the waiting area next to the presentation room: three chairs, in an empty corridor, filled only with reminiscences of waiting outside the Headmaster’s office to be scolded for some misdemeanour. Our mobile phones are ‘confiscated’ – placed in a brown envelope, as instructed, and handed to the stern attendant.
Having just flown in from Vancouver, my body clock was challenged. It felt like it was 2am in the middle of the night, my UK cell phone said it was 10am in the morning but my watch told me it was indeed just before 5pm in the evening here in China.
At 5pm the door opened and we were instructed to deliver the so-called Oral Defence of our proposal. My newly appointed colleague Nicole was with me to act as interpreter. “No need for interpreter” stated the leading judge as we entered. “We all speak English here.” It was a ‘brisk’ welcome.
The presentation itself was unremarkable. I am used to the polite but impassive attitude of Chinese professionals when listening to a presentation. Little emotion and little movement is shown. The pitch fitted exactly in to the 10 minute slot as planned – and as strongly advised by the Talent Office.
As soon as the questions started however it became clear that the judges didn’t have the Talent Office’s view of a ‘sure thing’. They dismissed 50% of the presentation with a curt “we all know about you”. Perhaps all the publicity in the local and national newspapers was getting a bit much. “But where is the technical information and research papers?” they asked. “You don’t have biology training” said another “… so how can you possibly undertake this work without a team?” And so on.
I provided all the information that I could. I reiterated the support we have from Professor Graham Ball and Professor Bob Rees, specialists in the relevant fields. I provided details of the CRO partnership that enables me to galvanise a large workforce here in China. And I outlined the extraordinary technical simplicity and elegance of the technology itself. Repeatedly. One of the judges confirmed her own bias – that bioinformatics companies are “just about some numbers, but without ‘real science’” – whilst another judge clearly had diagnostics knowledge and provided positive feedback when I replied to his highly relevant questions.
But the overall tenor of the questioning was tough, sceptical and unrelenting from a very smart group.
Lively debate was halted abruptly on the stroke of 5:20 – 10 minutes presentation, 10 minutes questions. The head judge said “Thank you” and the judges disengaged. Clearly there was no room for comment or contribution. Our allotted time was up. Nicole and I left the panel to decide our fate, and went to re-claim our phones.
We won’t know the outcome of the panel’s deliberations for almost a month. We shall see. Strangely my prediction is still positive – because I know that we have the relevant data if follow-up questions need to be answered and because I know that what we are doing is extremely popular with the local Talent Office. The Talent Office gets to make the final decision so I hope they really do like what we are doing.
Next year will be the 10th 3551 competition here in Wuhan. If you want to know more about it for your company and to learn from our experience, then give me a call. I am absolutely delighted to help anyone who wants to access this valuable funding source, to bring a company to Wuhan Biolake or indeed to engage with China in any way.
But be warned: free money is never a sure thing.