Hardware Manufacturing in Shenzhen: An Expatriate Maker Space Spurs Innovation

By Eric Rutledge

After learning about my research on start-up businesses in urban villages, Hans Stam graciously invited me to visit him at Troublemaker, a shared maker space he co-founded in the Huaqiangbei Subdistrict of Shenzhen. 

Hans Stam says he discovered Shenzhen just like most other expatriates now living in the city – by accident. But for the Holland native who sold his first tech start-up to Microsoft for €500,000, his run in with China’s buzzing computer hardware capital seems less fortuitous than he leads on. As the Chinese Central Government pushes for innovation and entrepreneurship to lead the country into the future, Shenzhen is competing with other major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou to be recognized as China’s Silicon Valley. And by many measures the southern Chinese city of 20 million has a good start, including a vertically integrated computer hardware industry, a blossoming cloud computing industry, and leading universities like the Harbing Institute of Technology (Graduate School at Shenzhen) and Tsinghua University (Graduate School at Shenzhen). The city is also home to tech giants like Huawei, the largest telecom manufacturer in the world and Tencent, the company behind WeChat instant messaging with over a billion active users.

In the Huaqiangbei Subdistrict of Shenzhen, Stam and three other co-founders are helping young expatriates turn their ideas into products in a shared work space called Troublemaker. Troublemaker rents desk space to start-ups, independent inventors, and anyone else trying their hand at creating something new. The rent includes access to an adjacent “micro-factory”, business consulting services, and an introduction to angel investors. “I saw a problem and I wanted to solve it,” Stam told me during an interview in the shared space. The problem Stam saw was the difficulty of prototyping and manufacturing products. Troublemaker solves this problem by allowing its customers to turn over a hardware prototype in a matter of hours or days, not weeks or months. By locating above the world famous Huiqiangbei Electronics Market, Troublemaker users have access to abundant, high quality, and inexpensive hardware parts. The innovators simply purchase their pieces downstairs, then come back up to the seventh floor and use the micro-factory, better known as a maker space, to create their prototype. Stam explains, “If you want to build a prototype in Europe, your first prototype is going to take 3 months. Here, it’s one week.”

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Stam (front left), talking to a colleague in the “micro-factory”

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Prototypes on trays

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Huaqiangbei Electronics Market below Troublemaker

But for new innovators and entrepreneurs, navigating the start-up process and taking their  gadget from prototype to mass production can be difficult. This is especially true for expatriates, where building a relationship with factories and understanding the business culture are common barriers that lead to failure. For start-ups that need business support, Troublemaker is ready to help. Robert Mavatne, CEO of Troublemaker told me, “We know plenty of angel investors.” And although Troublemaker doesn’t take equity in new start-ups itself, if a young entrepreneur is interested in obtaining seed capital in Shenzhen, Mevatne can make the introduction. After an introduction, a start-up firm is likely to receive funding. According to recent Financial Times survey of Shenzhen-based start-ups, 92% of respondents said they had received some sort of venture capital funding and only 16% said they had trouble accessing it.

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The front lobby of Hua Qiang Bei International Maker Center, where Troublemaker is headquartered

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A start-up down the hall from Troublemaker, at the Hua Qiang Bei International Maker Center
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A list of businesses that have office space at the Hua Qiang Bei International Makers Center

But back at Troublemaker headquarters, Stam seems less focused on seed money and more focused on bringing people and ideas together. “The maker space is not a space, it’s a community… Troublemaker is about the network,” Stam explained. That network includes mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, printed circuit board specialists, and more. By bringing together the right people in the right environment, Stam believes innovation will happen, “It shouldn’t be all about entrepreneurship, it should be about fun and solving problems”.

Despite catering to expatriates, Troublemaker and other maker spaces around Shenzhen play an important role in developing the innovation and entrepreneurship that the Chinese government is aggressively pursuing. Maker spaces allow students and other emerging innovators to gain practical skills. According to Stam, manufacturing a tangible product is very different than dreaming up a design on a computer screen. Troublemaker’s micro-factory offers an affordable, accessible place for aspiring hardware designers to develop their skills. The company is planning to bring on interns from Chinese universities and Stam and other experts already teach free innovation lessons at local grade schools. “Shenzhen Middle School No. 2 is my favorite… kids speak good english there, so its easy,” Stam said

Looking to the future, both the Chinese Central Government and the expatriate micro-factory have growth on their mind. As local governments across China continue to pour money into innovation and entrepreneurship, Troublemaker has already opened up shop in Norway and is planning new maker spaces in Berlin and Seattle. Stam is planning to fly clients from the German capital to Shenzhen, introducing them to the ease of turning out new prototypes in Huaqiangbei. With regular flights from Germany to China, perhaps the next Hans Stam is just one flight away from discovering Shenzhen like most other expatriates – by accident.

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A young inventor assembles an electronic piece at Troublemaker

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Stam (right) and a visitor to the micro-factory

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Troublemaker customers talk over a beer

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A seating area in the Hua Qian Bei International Maker Center

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Desk space at Troublemaker

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Beijing, An Active City

Urban design influences human behavior. The layout of public spaces, the street, the buildings, the stores and all the physical elements that make up a community affect the availability of activities and how people use space. As Fred Kent from PPA puts it – If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.

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Kids playing hide and seek while the older ones play some basketball

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Pedestrians taking one car lane because the sidewalk was not wide enough

Physical inactivity is a health problem in various countries, causing premature deaths and chronic and non-communicable diseases. However, sometimes there is a lack of consideration of how the urban form affects physical activity and how it can be used to address this growing problem. But not everywhere. While wandering around Beijing wearing our planning glasses we saw how culture and urban design merge to produce a very interesting city to work on those muscles!

It is now 6 p.m. and it is time to explore the city. It is not hard to find a park or a plaza within a short walk. There is music and laughing and color and food and smells and something else that we cannot see. Walls of people curious like us make it very hard to make out what is happening in the square. After struggling to get to the first row of the event we finally see it, at least 20 couples dancing. All ages are here. The music comes from a special motorcycle modified to carry a speaker. A party in the middle of the square. We cannot believe it. And It is free! (as a student this is an important consideration). Our friend Huayei gets surprised of us being surprised. She tells us that every night people (mainly retired folks) gather to dance in the main public spaces all over Beijing.

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Kids playing hide and seek while the older ones play some basketball

This popular tradition is seen as an alternative to more demanding exercises and is accessible to all kind of people. It began around the 90s, as an activity for retired middle-aged women who wanted to keep themselves busy while getting the benefits of exercising and socializing in one shot. The “Damas” are in the squares and parks dancing in group, couples, solo – whatever they feel like. Every night.

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The “Damas” dancing in Wangfujing St

 

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More couples! and it is only 10 p.m.

While some people who participate in this activity feel an improvement both in their mental and physical health, others complain about the noise pollution during late hours in residential areas (I don’t get it, this music is very relaxing!). This is just the result of its big success and lack of spaces available for it. The Damas dance in parks, plazas, streets, sidewalks, malls, hutong alleyways, everywhere. One day we will find them in our place! Now, I am practicing my salsa dancing skills so that next time I see the Damas I can burn up the dance floor.

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For those not dancing in the square, just getting around Beijing is a great workout. Beijing’s street network is organized into massive superblocks. As a pedestrian, this means that getting places can take a long time. The layout is not very conducive for quick trips – it makes everywhere seem impossibly far away on foot. But, people still walk. Around 21% of Beijing residents commute to work on foot. Because there are so many people on the street, there are always interesting things to see – so it is easy to loose track of how long you have been walking. Sometimes, I set off for a quick stroll only to get sucked into the gravity of a superblock. Hours later I return, physically invigorated – after having walked only a couple of blocks.

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Walking to the office

Riding the subway is also physically demanding. Beijing subway stations are mazes of hallways and stairs. If you want to transfer lines, it often requires passing through a network of long tunnels. Intermittent gusts of wind blow through the tunnels, which adds an element of resistance training to the ordeal. Escalators are often out of service. Subway cars are packed and you usually have to stand for the whole ride. There is no need to go to the gym with a subway system like the one in Beijing.

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Transferring to another line can take a while

When my muscles are feeling tight from a long day navigating Beijing, and I need a moment to limber up, I like to go to one of Beijing’s many stretching parks. The yellow and blue stretching stations are on nearly every block. They are especially popular with older adults. At the crack of dawn, they are packed with people starting their days off with some low-impact exercise. There is one outside our window and I wake every day to the sounds of physical activity. During the day, they are usually empty except for the occasional tired pedestrian (me).

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Stretching!

I appreciate how space in the city is set aside for stretching. In the U.S., it rarely occurs to me to do stretches in the street, and it is a little embarrassing when I get the urge. There are specific times when I am exercising – I can tell when that is by what kind of pants I am wearing – and that is the only time when I’m comfortable engaging in physical activity. Here, there seems to be less separation between when and where it is appropriate to be active. Everyday existence is a workout, and any place can be a venue for playing around. In this context, proper stretching is an important public health issue.

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We live on a University Campus next to a bunch of exercise facilities. These include Basketball and tennis courts, soccer and badminton fields, a race track and stretching facilities. While I was (me, Alvaro) trying to adapt to the new schedule, I woke up every day around 5 a.m. with a lot of energy and awareness of not waking up my roommate. I decided to explore the campus and I noticed that the soccer field was packed with people doing exercise. Running, jumping, walking, playing basketball, tennis, and soccer. There were also seniors doing Tai Chi. Everybody has a space to exercise before going to work. And this is not only during mornings. After work, the field is full with families, adults, kids playing around and having some fun. One night they let us play some basketball but after realizing how bad we were the preferred to take pictures with us and talk about the NBA.

 

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People start to run at 5 a.m. (maybe some do it before but that is too early for us to notice it)

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Some people run, some people play tennis, some people play basketball and others do Tai Chi

The active culture is not only in the streets but also in the workplace. Here in our office, we are lucky to have a long lunch break where we can disconnect from work every day and have a very calm and relaxed eating moment. But we are twice as lucky every Wednesday when we have the chance to play some soccer, basketball or badminton with our coworkers! From 4 to 6 p.m. (when it is not a busy week) everybody stops their work and goes to the field to have a great time! After playing with them for a while, they fell in love with our “very professional soccer skills”. We were even hired by the CADG Urban Planning Department to play on the department team in the company-wide soccer tournament. We will let you know how it goes!

 

Alvaro and Daniel.

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WOOF! Canines in Shenzhen

Many of you will not be shocked by my first topic of choice for Transplanet. My beloved pooch, Hank, is in Portland while I am abroad and I’m sure he is just as happy as when I am home. This blog works to describe a dog’s life in Shenzhen. I will attempt to draw out different angles regarding the topic such as: Shenzhen’s street dogs, new fads of dog ownership and the weird market of the selling and buying of such dogs.

It’s no lie that Chinese culture feasts canine cuisine for over centuries, particularly during the Lunar New Year. Today, it is even still a respected cuisine that is still visible in Shenzhen’s night markets. However, alongside urbanization, an individual’s need for status has transformed canine culture from slaughtering for dinner to actually, their most loyal companions.

Many shop and business owners within Shenzhen city limits and within the many urban villages have what are visible to the average person as a street dog, but many are actually guard dogs. I should know as I approached one to say hello and it fiercely growled at me. Lesson one so far about dogs in Shenzhen: Do not pet a guard dog and avoid eye contact with them. They mean business. However, not all dogs that appear homeless are really without home. Many wander the streets with their owners just behind them, maybe 50 to 100 feet away, with no leash at all. It is obvious they know the path to wherever as they maneuver thru traffic without a scratch or scare. They are agile and resilient. At home, we consider giving chicken bones to dogs deadly and harmful. Here in Shenzhen, dogs feast on chicken legs consuming meat, bones and all in nearly one gulp. Other street dogs can be loving as they crave attention. I approached one for a photo using ‘kissy’ noises and her ears perked and gently approached me. I held out my hand and she licked my salty, sweaty skin. She loved my pets and head scratches and even followed Eric and I for a bit before she realized we were not going to feed her. Lesson two: be cautious with the street dogs, some are pleasant, others not so much.

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Collared and leashed dog in street protects its chicken leg.

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He nearly eats the entire bone in one bite!

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Saying hello to a friendly street dog.

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She enjoys my pets and head scratches.

Much like the United States, one must register their dog in China. However, most cities regulate a household to only having one dog, known as the One-Dog Policy. Somewhere in the midst in the shift of perspectives to own dogs there were complaints about barking and other such nuisances. The policy also outlines size and breed restrictions which millions of dogs in China do not comply. Authorities offer a discount to licensing if you spay or neuter your dog, similar to the Unites States. Many refer to this policy as a solution offered Public Security Bureau. As with many regulations, there are loopholes around having more than one dog. Residents may register only one dog per household, yes, but if say your uncle of another household does not have a dog, you can register your additional dog to that address.  I do not think Shenzhen enforces this policy but, I do not know for sure.

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Owner of what it looks to be two dogs, takes them for a walk through Baishizhou urban village.

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The two play and wrestle in the street off leash.

Speaking with a few Chinese natives, they will tell you dogs are trendy here. Right now, the big thing is to have these white fluffy dogs known as Bichon Frise. There is another dog here that is very popular and looks much like a Bichon, but it is brown and fluffy, however, I am unsure of its breed or mix. While visiting Dafen, an urban village targeted for artists, a seller of Bichons was standing outside a gallery hoping to make a sell.To the eye he did not seem  to have any takers on his six Bichons but there were many photographs being taken including from yours truly. Back in 2013, all the hype was about Tibetan Mastiffs, which sold anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 USD. Although it is still said, that if you can afford to purchase, board, and feed a large animal you rank a high status in China’s society.

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Bichon Frise dog breeder awaits tourists and Dafen urban village goers to hopefully make a sell of this trendy breed.

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Owner of a large Mastiff shows off his status through the streets of Shui Wei.

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Two puppies await a home in Baishizhou urban village. They were very happy for attention and love from Eric and I.

Many of the streets at night are filled with dogs and owners, as it is very hot here during the day. People look to bring their dogs out to socialize with other canines and children. With dogs roaming off leash, people are not afraid or angry about this, they embrace it, greeting each friendly dog that approaches them. Often you can tell a young dog from an older one if it is on a leash or not. Somewhere in Shenzhen you can get your dog or puppy fix and much like in America be cautious when approaching a dog you do not know.

Enjoy!

Olivia H

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