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Innovation Award: Next Generation Steps Forward

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China's youth showed their capacity for innovation even during the ongoing economic downturn in a just-concluded competition by Manchester Business School (MBS) in the UK that evaluated business ideas by would-be entrepreneurs.

The 2009 Manchester Innovation Award was given for the first time in the Asia-Pacific region to discover the next generation of entrepreneurs from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Singapore.

All top 10 finalists came from the mainland, the top two of which MBS said it would support in developing their business plans into commercial reality.

"I'm glad to see the great success of the debut of this event in China," said Martin Henery, from the Enterprise Academic at the Manchester Enterprise Center of the MBS.

"I would say all the plans have specific innovative elements showing entrepreneurial spirit, which is vital to the modern business development."

After it was announced in February, the competition attracted 120 business plans from more than 200 applicants across the region.

Winners receive a 1,500 pound prize and an all-expenses paid trip to the Manchester campus where they will have the opportunity to discuss their business plans with a team of professors.

Top-10 business plans ranged from hi-tech manufacturing designs to a tour agency to advertising and even a cleaning service.

"The sort of ideas that a business would be looking for (during a downturn) are something that would actually reduce costs without having to spend too much money," said Henery.

He added that opportunities to start businesses actually "increases in terms of ideas" in times of economic hardship, although starting a business in such an environment presents obvious challenges.

"A good opportunity is based on finding a problem to solve and now there are just more problems," he said. "So if you can keep your eyes open and even anticipate what's coming next, customers will be happy."

With increasing entrepreneurial activity in China, more people now work for small companies, said Henery. "They are beginning to get used to that fact and know they need to be more active and entrepreneurial in their thinking as soon as they start."

With the Internet, startups can also more easily attract customers and can do so earlier in a business lifecycle, he noted. Quick revenue can then grow a business.

As a mentor at the Manchester Enterprise Center for individuals and teams developing business ideas, Henery has had experience coaching Chinese students, who he said are "among the most proactive in coming to us with ideas".

"I wasn't surprised with the number of entrants we received in the competition. I've seen over the last few years how thirsty Chinese students are for this type of thing," he said. "Sometimes I think it's in their genes - the desire to run a business and be creative."

Although many Chinese students at Manchester originally started in businesses like textiles because they have relatives in the industry, Henery said that very soon they start thinking about other opportunities.

He noted that Chinese students also have a strong base to draw upon in their business ventures because of "a deep heritage and experience over centuries".

Henery cited a competition entry that proposes making comfort belts containing traditional Chinese medicine. By combining practices that have been around for centuries with the technology of today, such a business plan is attractive, he said.

"While Chinese students also like fun things, like fashion and games, they also look to the past, and make links in between. So when they come up with new fashion ideas, maybe we see some sort of inclusion of traditional Chinese icons, which is great," he said.

Sherry Fu, China manager of MBS, said promising young entrepreneurs in the competition shows that the younger generation is increasingly creative and innovative, as opposed to the stereotyped image of only focused on their studies.

"Students today have a lot of information, support and resources at their hand, and there are also big initiatives from the government to encourage them to start their own businesses. The times have changed," she said.

(China Daily July 14, 2009)

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