Taipei International Invention Show & Technomart
By Mike Drummond
Most of the world, including the United States, declines to officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country.
Mainland China deems Taiwan a renegade province and vows to rule the island, by force if necessary (although it’s been awhile since China has lobbed missiles over Taiwan’s bow).
So the world cow-tows to China.
But let’s be real.
Taiwan – also known as the Republic of China and dubbed one of the four Asian Tigers for its economic and technological prowess – is about as independent as nations get. It has its own democratically elected government, its own currency, its own flag, its own patent system, and its own military (every male has to serve at least a year).
Taiwan has sat in the crosshairs of Sino/Western desires since and through the Cold War. Over the last decade, however, economics have defined Taiwan’s sense of place more than territorial politics. There was a time when you were hard pressed to pick up a consumer product without it bearing the mark “Made in Taiwan.” Nowadays, many if not most of those same goods are made in mainland China. Not so coincidentally, tensions between Taiwan and China have cooled as the mainland has made huge economic strides.
For the record, Taiwan, with 23 million people or just 0.34 percent of the world’s population, ranks 25th out of some 195 countries in gross domestic product or GDP, the measure of overall economic output. That’s down from its 19th ranking in 2000. China’s GDP is third; the United States, No. 1.
This summer, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technologies, which makes Apple’s iPhone as well as components for other tech giants, fell into the spotlight after 10 workers at its Shenzhen, China, factories committed suicide. Workers’ families say poor wages and conditions triggered the deaths. Foxconn denies this.
Also this summer, Taiwan inked an economic trade agreement with China, a move that gives the island nation a role in an increasing number of free trade agreements in Asia. Meanwhile, many Taiwanese business owners, workers and others – citing growing labor costs, quality-control problems and assembly line theft in China – are embracing “home hire,” an initiative to spur domestic employment.
These episodes highlight Taiwan’s complicated relationship with China as well as its struggle to regain its own domestic manufacturing mojo – issues with which many developed nations, including the United States, can relate.
With all this as a backdrop, Taiwan is eager to remind the global community that it remains an innovative force to be reckoned with. At the end of September, it hosts the sixth annual Taipei International Invention Show & Technomart.
With some 660 exhibitors and more than 80,000 visitors, the four-day event has emerged as one of the largest inventor tradeshows in the world. It also represents Taiwan’s voracious appetite for intellectual property and technology transfer. Taiwan’s government reports that, “In terms of relative scale, Taiwan had 268 approved inventive (utility) patents in the U.S. for every million people (in 2007), which ranked number one in the world, far surpassing the U.S. and Japan.”
Themes at this year’s Invention Show focus on environmentally friendly technologies, so-called smart products connected to the Internet or other networks, and biomedical innovations. This being a massive event, there also will be an abundance of consumer electronics, household products and even hand tools on display.
Inventors Digest paid a visit to Taiwan in the run-up to this year’s show, dropping in on inventors and technology hubs around the country. Here is what we found:
Ene-Green Tech Ltd.
The kitchen table doubles as his demo area. A sign above the kitchen reads, “Christ is the head of this house.”
Ene-Green Tech Ltd., in Jungli, outside of Taipei, specializes in low-energy, low-cost heating elements, some the size of a stick of Wrigley’s. Wu calls the patented technology “our baby.”
Wu’s youth and his passion for the family-run company remind me of the Silicon Valley folks I used to cover for another magazine. Ene-Green developed a line of cordless, rechargeable hair straighteners that fit easily inside a purse to showcase the heating strip.
The company also makes hand warmers and modules for water heaters. Ene-Green is making its debut at this year’s Invention Show & Technomart, publicly displaying its technology for the first time. I recall when I saw a pair of Chinese guys walking a hardware show in Las Vegas.
They were taking pictures of new products in an inventor’s pavilion, and didn’t like it when I started asking them questions. I ask Wu if he’s concerned about knock-offs. China, he says, has “copy cats, copy dogs, copy cows.” His answer – rush to market. “This,” Wu says, “is the only solution.”
Jason Yan’s line of robotic vacuum cleaners look a lot like iRobot’s line of robotic vacuums, right down to the shapes and colors.
Yan, whose Taipei-based company Matsutek has dabbled in radios, CD players, alcohol breath testers and air cleaners, dislikes the obvious comparison. He says his little vacuums cost less and are easier to clean than those from his better-known rival.
And, he adds, his company designed and engineered around iRobot’s formidable patent portfolio. Yet he was forced to retreat from the U.S. market in 2004 following a torrent of negative reviews about his product, which consumers said lacked suction power and likened it to a toy.
Yan says the company has since improved the machines and he’s looking forward to returning to the U.S. market. He’s optimistic about a comeback, and points to South Korea, where his vacuums are a leading seller. So confident his he of his new line of vacuums, they come with two-year warranties, instead of one year.
In his second-floor offices and work area, Yan tests battery life and other improvements to the robotic vacuums. Matsutek is working on a model that can clean stairs and another equipped with a Web video cam that can double as a sentry unit. Current production of his vacuums is in Shenzhen. “But the labor cost is getting high,” he says.
“I want to move tooling back to Taiwan at some point.”
Sun-Good Glue Co.
Tai-chung is about 90 miles south of Taipei. It takes 45 minutes to get there via Taiwan’s high-speed train, which tops 270 kilometers per hour (168 mph). Note to Amtrak – Please pop into the 21st century.
Awaiting me when I arrive is David Ou, who heads the Sun-Good Glue Co. Ou possess some 20 patents, as well as one of the most glorious comb-overs I’ve ever seen.
Sun-Good makes a variety of novel adhesives – strong, gel-like “eco-synthetic resin” substances that you can use to pin things to walls, glass, scrapbooks, what have you. The company uses a patented, solvent-free solution in its line of adhesive products.
Sun-Good’s Q-Pad, a clear, rubbery non-sticky pad that nonetheless sticks to windows, earned a gold medal and its Q-Dots, nailhead-size poster and picture adhesives that come spooled on a paper roll, earned silver at the 2010 Concours Lépine, billed as the world’s largest international invention show.
The company, a sponsor of the Taipei International Invention Show & Technomart, also will exhibit its line of no-strap sandals – informal footwear that you paste to your feet. Ou’s factory looks the part. Flats of boxes stand in formation in one area. Rows of industrial fluorescent lighting are suspended overhead. A few risqué posters are thrown up here and there.
Workers in t-shirts toil at small machines that spit out plastic bits and pieces that form the foundation of Ou’s empire. We lunch at a Russian restaurant across the street. Ou insists I try the kvass, a semi-fermented drink made from black or rye bread. He’s concerned that increasing import regulations could hamper shipments to the United States, and says his major U.S. retailer, the Dollar Store, is making it hard on him because it wants Sun-Good to ship to various ports, rather than just one.
“When it comes to innovation,” he says through a translator, “America still has the lead so far.” And then, for emphasis, he adds, “So far.” He says Taiwan’s government is pushing initiatives that encourage business risk-taking and entrepreneurship.
While that’s nice, he notes that entrepreneurs “are like the cockroach – it can survive anywhere, any time.”
Silicon Valley East
Industrial Technology Research Institute
The government founded the sprawling city/campus in 1973 and is the key behind Taiwan’s meteoric economic growth. It employs more than 6,000 researchers and support staff.
Together with nearby Hsinchu Science Park, the area is home to more than 400 high-tech companies and is the hub of the country’s semiconductor manufacturing. Taiwan has 20 such technology centers. ITRI is larger than all the others combined.
ITRI also is home to the Technology Transfer Center, which runs the Technomart part of Taiwan’s annual invention. Founded in 2000, the center seeks to commercialize cutting-edge technology in communications, electronics, nano science, energy/environment, biomedical and advanced manufacturing systems.
The center is a marketplace for intellectual property-based business and since 2003 it has sold or licensed more than 2,480 patents. The center evaluates IP, facilitates meetings for buyers and sellers and offers financial aid for homegrown technology entrepreneurs.
“Even inventors,” says Dr. Samuel Yu, the center’s program leader, “often don’t know all the potential applications of their technology.”
A short stroll across campus is where a research team is trying to perfect a commercially viable hydrogen power generator. A prototype powers a large flat-screen television. I’m intrigued by the off-the-shelf components they’re using, including the radiator from a car.
“We are two or three years from market,” says Wen-Chen Chang, a manager of the project.
Tai Juan Enterprise Co.
A brochure for the Magnetized Micro Bubble or MMB notes that after 10 minutes of soaking, “horniness emerges.” I suspect there’s something lost in the translation, but I’m eager to try this technology nonetheless.
The suitcase-size MMBs use “magnetization” and a patented “microbubble technique” to make water molecules smaller. This promises better penetration of skin pores and a superior way to exfoliate, says the company.
Tai Juan’s CEO Hsien-Cheng Kuo says a Taiwan hospital has been using his product as a way to help clean certain types of wounds. But at $2,700 a pop – a version for pets is even pricier – such cleanliness doesn’t come cheap.
Kuo acknowledges his super soakers are expensive, but he says his MMBs “are for people who want quality.”
I want quality. I soak my feet for half an hour. Kuo says that his techno bath won’t cause skin to prune or wrinkle with prolonged soaking. And he’s right. Or at least my feet didn’t prune. They felt silky to the touch. “Like a baby’s butt,” I tell my delighted host through a translator.
Kuo also submersed a couple of heads wilted lettuce (not in the same tub I soaked my feet). The soaking rejuvenated the romaine.
N-Kung Industrial Co.
I’m interested in the messy array of empty vodka bottles, milk containers and various plastic cups he has in his crowded work area. Each of the containers sprouts tubes and wires attached to strips of magnesium and copper or silver or gold submersed in water.
Positive water particles produce hydrogen. Negative water particles produce oxygen. Shen, who earned a masters degree in aeronautical engineering from Ohio State University, says he’s producing electricity from water. Not much electricity. He’s been able to generate a sustained 1.5 volts.
But he dreams of scaling his experiment and one day offering power as pure as the rain.
Of all the innovators I met during my week in Taiwan, he is my favorite – a true and determined genius working in a grimy garage-like office. The disarray is comforting. It reminds me of my grandfather’s basement.
He orders parts via mail and scrounges at local hardware stores. He shows me his other inventions, including an air purifier and a deodorizing solution that uses gold nano particles to kill funk for up to a year.
However, Shen is clearly most proud of his electricity experiments, which he has tested at university labs.
“If you don’t believe in your idea, it will not happen,” he says. “I have been able to prove my doubters wrong.”
Taipei International Invention Show & Technomart
Sept 30 – Oct 3
2,000 Inventions & Technologies
Editor’s note: This article appears in the September 2010 print edition.