Chinese internet industry first boomed from consumer-based services: Alibaba had e-commerce, an instant messaging tool for Tencent, while Baidu had its search engine.

All Chinese tech giants start from relatively straightforward services that people easily can understand. The consumer-focused approach to tech innovation in the early days meant that entrepreneurs with interesting ideas could start their own business if they had a general understanding of their market. Coding skills or a tech background were not essential.

However, as China’s startup scene evolves, companies and investors are shifting quickly to deep tech, a set of cutting-edge technologies based on scientific discoveries, medicine, mathematics, and engineering. This change brings more new professional possibilities for academics in transforming their academic results to real products.

In tandem, China’s younger generation of academics is adopting a more open mindset and willing to embrace these opportunities. The trend is best demonstrated at the healthtech stage of TechCrunch 2018 Startup Competition.

A total of 12 projects demoed at the event, which is sponsored by Merck, a leading science and technology company in healthcare, life science, and performance materials.

The winner of the competition will be shortlisted as a candidate for Merck China Accelerator, a program that focuses on collaboration between startups and Merck’s innovation ecosystem.

Xu Fei, a professor of Shanghai Jiaotong University and a doctor from the university’s affiliated hospital Shanghai Renji Hospital, won the first place with his patent, which combines genomic and proteomic discovery models, called OncoBinder, to identify potential tumor regulators PD-L1.

The first runner-up went to Shenzhen Xingdong Biotech, the developer of Sunscell Bioreactor, which provides efficient production of cell drugs for biotech companies, clinical hospitals, and research institutes. Fertility solution provider Seein Health walked away with the second runner-up award.

Different from what one usually sees at demo events, Xu Fei’s project is still in the early stage of commercialization. It’s more of a research result than a company that’s supposed to have products and business plans.

But commercialization degree of the projects are not the most important thing for the judging panel, consisting of Merck management and VCs.

“We are not looking for fully developed companies that are ready in the market. The pharma and chemistry industry is very deep tech, so it’s not easy to find good startups. Usually, the good teams are coming from academia and one huge benefit of our accelerator program is that it connects the projects with our internal colleagues, who can help them to validate and scale their product,” Hong Wa Poon, Manager of Merck Accelerator Germany, told TechNode.

“The winner is picked because there are huge commercial application potentials for the technology. It targets at the pain point of users. Also, the project is very relevant to Merck’s core business because they are targeting at the field of oncology and drug targeting.” says Guo Mingfei, head of Diagnostics Business in China, Merck Chemicals Shanghai.

Compared with 10 or 20 years ago, Chinese researchers involved in fundamental studies are taking a more open attitude toward commercialization of their research results.

“The transition from academia is going much smoother as more researchers decided to come out of their comfort zone to build a business,” Hong added.

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via or Twitter.

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