Building bridges to China through scientific research
A few weeks ago I stumbled across the story of a small Hampshire-based high-tech materials company who won a £400k order from Zhengzhou University (where my wife and I were students back in 1999-2000). This deal got them quite a bit of attention; last year they were even "favourited" by Prime Minister David Cameron on Twitter! This was all too good to resist, so I phoned them up and asked if I could pay a visit.
Plasma Quest Ltd (PQL) specialise in thin film coatings. For example, using their patented HiTUS deposition system they can "sputter" atoms of gold, which is notoriously un-sticky, onto plastic components so that the final coating is just nanometres thick. And they will sell you machines that can be programmed to "sputter" a whole range of exotic coatings: very handy for making photovoltaic cells, fancy display screens, optical filters, drill bits...all sorts of things.
I ask Professor Mike Thwaites (CEO) and Hayley Brown (Business and Research Development Manager) how the link with Zhengzhou University came about. "It all started about six years ago when one of our colleagues went up to a meeting in London and met Professor Shao Guosheng from Bolton University" says Brown. Prof Shao is from Zhengzhou, and studied at the universities of Surrey and Brunel before settling in Bolton. Prof Thwaites continues, "We weren’t looking to connect with China, he was just interested in the sorts of things we were doing. He came for a look and liked what he saw. Through this relationship we got the order from Zhengzhou University".
That order was placed about three years after the initial meeting, so things didn't move quickly. Once that point was reached, however, there was very little mid-order negotiation to be done, mainly because PQL are selling unique, patented technology – "they looked at ours and said we want one like that", the Professor says with a smile.
The first time Brown went with Professor Thwaites to China, their plane couldn't land in Zhengzhou due to fog and was diverted 300 miles away to Wuhan instead, where they had to stay overnight. Was that challenging? "[Shao] Guosheng's daughter was on the plane too, so at least we were with a Chinese-speaker. She felt a bit responsible for us and gave us lots of help. She was only going on holiday, so it was more than she had bargained for!" ("There was a lot of shouting!" adds the Professor). As usual when travel delays lead to unscheduled overnight stays in China, the passengers were asked to share double rooms in a transit hotel – she and Miss Shao were together, but he had to room with a total stranger (Chinese of course), with whom he couldn't communicate. At least they'd had the foresight not to pack the itinerary too full, so the delay didn't cause a big problem.
These two sound like resilient travelers, how do they like Chinese food? "We make an extremely good team" says Thwaites, "I'm an anti-vegetarian, and Hayley like vegetables, so the table turns and we take different bits from the bowls."
As well as academic meetings at the university, Professor Thwaites has been introduced to quite a lot of provincial- and municipal-level officials, especially since he was invited to be part of China's 1000 Talents program – a government initiative to recruit internationally-acclaimed leaders in science and technology, and a very prestigious honour. He has even featured on Chinese TV – "It's a pity", says Brown, "we asked for a copy of the video but it never came".
I suspect that many British SMEs would love to have the kind of door-opening, trust relationship that PQL have developed with Professor Shao – a friendship built on mutual interest (in this case scientific interest). Is this kind of relationship unusual for British SMEs? Probably so, but it seems to be quite common (and possibly the crucial factor) among those who are establishing themselves successfully there – as you will see from other entries in this blog. "And the 1000 Talents is opening doors" suggests Thwaites, "Now other universities are showing interest too".
Though their China business started through an unplanned meeting, I'm really impressed by PQL's commitment to building long-term relationships there. They typically visit partners in Zhengzhou two or three times a year – that's dedication! So far they have not hosted Chinese delegations to the UK, but that's probably because of the presence and involvement of Professor Shao, who meet and correspond with frequently. Shao is, in effect, a permanent and trusted representative of Zhengzhou University on UK soil – a valuable go-between for both parties.
What do they think it takes for a small, British tech-research business to be successful in China? We chat about this for a few minutes as they point to three traits – credibility, approachability and flexibility. Sounds good to me!
My thanks to Plasma Quest Ltd for their welcome. You can find them at www.plasmaquest.co.uk
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