All it took was a pen, a piece of paper and some scientific principles honed at Shanghai's Fudan University, but for chemistry student Meng Ge the pay-off was particularly sweet. By successfully meeting the R&D challenge posted anonymously on a website in 2003 by a large foreign company, she won US$5,000.
This is about four times the average yearly income of a Chinese city dweller.
"I am going to use this sum of money to support my brother or fund my future research," said Meng, now a teacher at Xian Jiaotong University.
"The work [on developing drugs to tackle obesity] was closely related to my own research and, as it was all on paper, I just did it in my free time."
Meng found the challenge through InnoCentive, a Massachusetts-based company that acts as a knowledge broker between global companies and the scientific community.
InnoCentive was set up in 2001. With most of the world's scientific research capacity lying commercially untapped in an array of institutions, InnoCentive used the internet to link companies with questions to scientists with answers. It now has a network of more than 100,000 registered "solvers" across 175 countries and its "seeker" clients include the likes of Eli Lilly, DuPont and Proctor & Gamble.
The seeker posts a challenge on InnoCentive's website and solvers then post their solutions, with the prize going to the best solution. The solver gets his hands on the money once the seeker gets his hands on the intellectual property rights.
More than 108 challenges, worth in excess of US$1.5 million, have been met. Prizes range from US$5,000 – for basic theoretical solutions – to US$100,000, for which solvers have to supply significant amounts of background lab work.
Two "solvers" from China have won US$5,000 awards: Meng Ge was the first and a China Academy of Sciences (CAS) researcher at Shanghai Pharmacy Institute followed. But this small number doesn't do justice to the level of interest InnoCentive is drawing in China.
"China has overtaken the US and is now responsible for at least 30% of our solver competition," said Ali Hussein, chief marketing officer and president of global markets for InnoCentive.
Emerging markets are well represented among InnoCentive participants, with China now the number one source of solver scientists, India third and Russia fourth. For individual scientists, the prizes translate into large sums. University departments, which have the resources to meet bigger challenges can earn academic credibility as well as the prize money.
The role InnoCentive plays in China, where it has built partnerships with at least 26 academic institutions, goes beyond material gain.
"It's a very good way for Chinese scientists to know what is happening in the industry and understand what problems international enterprises are facing right now. As a result, they will be able to serve the industry better," said Chen Siliang, deputy director of CAS's Center for International Scientific Exchanges, who has been involved with InnoCentive since it arrived in China in 2002.
Fostering commercial awareness within the scientific community figured highly in a national science and technology development plan issued at the beginning of last year. The government sees it as a blueprint for improved innovation in China through to 2020.
For decades, China's scientists have been far removed from product manufacturers – a structure copied from the Soviet Union – and this means they have been unable to tailor their research to market needs. Cultivating more open and market-oriented R&D would signal a movement away from this.
Should China's innovation goals be achieved – and an inefficient R&D structure is only one of the hurdles – the rewards promise to be significant. China could step away from being a country in which 87.9% of all high-tech exports are produced by foreign-owned enterprises, as in 2005. In their place would be high-end goods based on Chinese designs, with royalty payments staying at home.
Government encouragement is already reaping rewards, according to Xia Xiaoke of CAS's Institute of Biophysics.
"In the past, researchers were only measured by the number of articles published," he said. "But now, according to the institute policy, we have to transform these results to the market and make them more commercial."
He also points to the success of Biosino Biotech, a bio-chemical fluid-producing unit of CAS that was launched as a commercial entity on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2001, as evidence that things are moving in the right direction.
As a vehicle designed for the West, Chen believes InnoCentive must tweak its system to be a success in China.
A key issue is the dynamic between the collective and the individual. Chinese scientists tend to operate in teams and, with access to facilities and funding limited, there is little opportunity for independent work.
If a scientist does win an award, there may be complications as to exactly who owns the intellectual property.
Finding the way
But there is little doubt that InnoCentive can play a role in transforming the Chinese scientific machine so that technology can find a direct and cost-effective path to market. At the root of it all is a need to ensure that the vast resources China is pouring into R&D are channeled towards projects that will generate the best return.
Ultimately, this may depend on closer ties between Chinese business and academia, as well as a more laissez-faire approach within the scientific institutions as to where available funding can flow.
"In our university, the science research fund is now open to undergraduate students. We can apply for project funding just like our professors," said Zhu Zhiqiang, a chemistry student at Beijing Normal University. "This is encouraging."