Continuous innovation is Chinese family from Sweden's heartfelt desire
People tend to associate innovation with the younger generation. They are wrong. Innovation has nothing to do with age.
Shanghai Daily recently talked to Weng Zheng, a Shanghai native in her early 60s, who said she is becoming "a better innovator with growing grey hair."
Unlike most Chinese grannies who love to gather in city squares early in the mornings and evenings for leisure dancing, the serial entrepreneur chose to start a new business to bring better health solutions for herself, for her family and for people at large.
Weng and her family have worked and lived in Sweden since the mid-1990s, but they have kept in close contact with the Chinese mainland.
The idea of doing something different occurred to her in 2008, when she was invited to participate in a project on China's low-carbon technology development led by climate change think tank E3G.
During the investigation, Weng went to some remote areas of China, and found that many people there had no or little access to proper and timely medical treatment for heart diseases.
Also, a colleague of hers almost lost his life due to a sudden outbreak of cardiovascular disease, which persuaded her again to work on solutions that can be readily available to patients.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death globally, with hypertension being the main risk factor.
China now has some 330 million CVD patients, with the highest mortality rate in the world, industry study shows.
Worse still, these numbers are projected to grow with its aging population.
To save lives and improve quality of life, Auntie Weng is on a constant search of predicative medical ways.
Her Eureka moment came one day after reading a large number of books and papers in the medical field. Studies showed that pulse waves, one of the most information-dense signals in the human body, can assist in diagnosis of CVD.
The issue is how to spot changes in the pulse wave before symptoms appear.
In 2013, Weng began to lead a team from Swedish universities and well-renowned global companies, with a clear research direction of offering mobile solutions for heart and brain health through wearable devices.
A year later, the innovative idea came back to China and began to grow quickly in the fertile innovation ground of Shanghai, the city which has nurtured her.
Their company, Shanghai Maigan Technology Co, incorporated in 2015, is dedicated to pioneering innovative digital therapy and big data services for people with cardiovascular disease based on the analysis of the human pulse wave.
It has developed a Mystrace solution, a medical-grade wearable wristband which includes a patented self-developed PVDF-sensor and state-of-the-art machine learning algorithm based on pulse wave analysis.
Compared with traditional blood pressure monitors which are obtrusive and difficult to monitor during sleep, Mystrace is easy to use and can make early detections before things become worse by providing additional hemodynamic parameters such as cardiac output and total peripheral resistance.
There is no similar solution currently on the market, the firm said.
Prior to founding the company, Weng worked as a research-engineer at the Department of Environmental Materials at Stockholm University in Sweden.
Her career life started at the Shanghai Institute of Electrical Engineering, where the team she led launched at least one product each year.
At the age of 38, Weng decided to further her study and look for new opportunities abroad.
She came to Sweden with her three-year-old son and reunited with her husband who was working at Ericsson's research centre.
A new life journey started.
One of the great challenges was the language, which made it hard to land a job.
Weng, however, managed to be recruited by Scania, one of the world's leading manufacturers of heavy trucks, buses, and industrial and marine engines, although as a temporary worker.
She was the first female at the department that she joined and Weng was told by the human resources head that they hoped she would bring some transformations.
She made it.
The female Chinese engineer solved two technical problems for the firm, which helped save millions of euros.
"Everybody was overjoyed and I still remember the scene when I was thrown into the sky by my male colleagues as a kind of celebration," Weng said.
With a can-do spirit, Weng won the trust of her colleagues as well as a permanent job due to her outstanding performance.
A couple of years later, when she heard of an opportunity at Ericsson Radio System, she decided to join it.
Such is Weng, a relentless entrepreneur who is always ready to learn new things and embrace change.
At the company, she created another miracle by finishing a project for a robot assembly line in just nine months. Before that, a team had spent almost three years on it without making big progress.
During the period, the mother devoted herself wholeheartedly from 9am to 9pm in the laboratory. Rather than feeling tired, she said she really enjoyed it.
"A rare talent" are the words of the president of Ericsson Radio System for Weng. To recognize her remarkable achievements, he gave a bunch of flowers in person to the Chinese family.
Life is always moving forward.
The next stops of her career life were at Ericsson Telecommunications and industrial technology company Trimble Solutions Sweden, where Weng focused herself on software and charge-coupled device (CCD) technology.
While she has reinvented her careers multiple times, Weng's efforts at innovation has never stopped at these different roles.
Before MaiganTech, she had tried her hands at two other projects.
The first firm, set up in 1993, focused on domestic sewage treatment, which earned her 300, 000 yuan (US$ 46,922) in two year – a huge fortune for a researcher on the Chinese mainland at that time whose average salary per month was just dozens of yuan.
Successful as it was, Weng transferred the company to one of her friends and left for Sweden.
The other more recent startup program of the Chinese family was on how to save energy for buildings by using big data of weather forecasts.
The idea did not turn into a reality as hoped due to its charging model, though.
This time, auntie Weng has much higher confidence in her new firm, which has been joined by her husband Lu Hongsheng, co-founder and chief technology officer at MaiganTech and her son Lu Yang who leads their algorithm group.
Father Lu has nearly 40 years of experience in hardware and software development in the field of automation and digital communications, while the son is a talent who graduated with first class honours from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
"With some savings in hand, we can concentrate on starting a business in our mid-50s without having extra worries," the veteran engineer said.
Decades of work experience makes the couple confident. And such self-assurance was further strengthened with the entry of their son.
"The advantage of starting a family business together is that we can discuss projects all the time, which is highly efficient," Father Lu said. He added with a laugh that sometimes their discussions will turn into an argument, which is much more intense than that among common colleagues.
For the younger Lu, the bond between family members has become more fortified for a shared dream.
At first he thought he'd do investment banking, a fancy job that many people around him are courting. But after doing a few internships, he realized that he is not really into the finance culture which has strict dress codes, and people in the circle tend to always brag about their money.
Instead, he fell in love to the Silicon Valley tech culture.
"I had just started coding in college and at that time the smartphone became a thing and lots of startups like Snapchat and Instagram boomed," he said.
As he sees it, tech startups are filled with awkward nerds with brilliant minds and instead of pursuing money and status, all they just want is to create something cool.
Born in 1991, he had considered starting a gaming business, a passion of his, but when he saw his parents' toil on the new firm MaiganTech, he signed up for it.
"Nothing is more difficult than doing a startup", the young man told Shanghai Daily, "I just want to share the burden with mum and dad."
A major hurdle awaited him. He needed to develop an algorithm with medical grade accuracy, something that has never been done before.
Other competitors like Microsoft Research Medical Devices Group and Stanford University failed to go beyond the research stage due to the high complexity of the project.
The younger Chinese did not let his team down.
He finally built an artificial intelligence-based blood pressure algorithm which has been clinically validated on more than 100 patients according to National Medical Products Administration guidelines, and the accuracy satisfies relevant requirements.
"I am really proud of what we have achieved so far," he said.
Using technology to solve a clinical problem is a daunting undertaking and a long journey.
To the family's relief, MaiganTech is seeing early success, having commercialized the consumer version of its product, and is working with top-grade hospitals such as Zhongshan Hospital for clinical trials.
And they are being recognized by experts, the market and consumers.
A recent affirmation is that MaiganTech came in second in the Medtronic Digital Health Innovation Competition.
The event was jointly initiated by the Shanghai Technology Innovation Center and Medtronic China, with eight finalists being invited to present their projects.
Back to 2018, the firm won second prize at the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Asia Summit Innovation Challenge.
"As the number of patients with cardiovascular disease is projected for continued growth with no turning point in sight, it calls for more innovations on medical devices, medical means and medical systems," said Ge Junbo, chairman of China Cardiovascular Health Alliance at the event while presenting award to MaiganTech.
The feedback from the judges and clinical community on their platform was a clear benefit of participating in the challenge, the founders of the startup said.
A Mystrace user told Weng via WeChat messaging that thanks to their product her blood clot was detected early.
As chief executive of the startup, Weng said she loves to keep close contact with their users and improve the product based on their feedback.
Willing to take risks, own success, and be uncommon, that is the quality of Weng and her family.
Their aspiring spirit has attracted investors like Zhu Ning, president of Shanghai Infraswin Energy Co.
Referred by a friend of his, Zhu got to know auntie Weng in mid-2014 and thought highly of their idea of using smart wearables to help monitor health conditions.
Impressed by the couple's expertise in scientific and engineering research, he decided to bet big on them.
"Giving up a comfortable life in Sweden, they come back home for an uncertain future, it is not everyone that has such courage," he said with sincere admiration to Weng and her husband.
Zhu believes the health care sector will have broad prospects, especially for a populous nation like China and added that his staunch commitment to growing with Maigan Tech will continue.
Their efforts also resonate with the Swedes.
Robin Visvanathar is a Swedish partner who was intrigued by the significant potential of the innovation and got involved with the company in 2018.
A friend of the family, he felt excited to support MaiganTech with cross-border collaboration initiatives and investor outreach.
He now works as a strategy consultant for the firm.
With a combined background in medicine and data analysis, Visvanathar said he will support the continuous work on integrating novel artificial intelligence algorithms and improving the medical utility of the product.
"At MaiganTech it was apparent that the management had broad international experience, where both subtle work culture and communication differences were always considered," he said.
Compared with his recent experience at European venture capital and innovation ecosystem, the Swede said Chinese-led innovation "really made an impression" when it came to work-ethics, adaptability and persistence, plus a heavy emphasis on trust and building strong personal relationships.
"It was definitely an exciting and positive experience at MaiganTech," added he.
In the two-and-a-half hours' interview with Shanghai Daily, the Lu family showed much appreciation of Sweden, a country of innovation in which they have lived for around three decades.
With a global outlook, access to government support and a high degree of equality, the European country has long time fostered innovation and entrepreneurship.
It was ranked as the second most innovative nation of 2020 in the world by Global Innovation Index.
From Bluetooth to GPS technology, Sweden has given birth to numerous inventions that have changed our lives.
"Heroes hail from all backgrounds, and people are not hedged in with rules and regulations, they just do things they are really fond of and are passionate about," Weng said about the country's leadership in innovation.
And innovation favors the old.
A study by Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation asserts that the prime age for innovation is now between 55 and 64 years old, and will continue to see an upward trend.
That holds true for the Lu couple.
Looking back on their three new businesses, Weng said it's OK to do startups even as an auntie who is at the age of retirement.
"Getting old does not mean less passion and poorer innovative ability," she said.
Aging has also helped her gain the confidence of others to follow her, the entrepreneur added.
As a leader, she takes great pride in her co-workers who are dedicated to the firm.
For Weng, innovation seems not have an exact expiration date.
A faithful disciple of traditional Chinese medicine under the influence of her grandfather, a famous doctor in the field, she and her team are considering expanding their solutions to that area.
TCM practitioners tend to depend on taking a patient's pulse to judge his or her health conditions. Now Weng aims to facilitate such touch-based judgement with visible pulse waveform images.
Also, they are seeking other pulse-waveform-image-based therapies like hot moxibustion to deliver people better treatment.