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Eastern promises - Why China is the Promised Land for UK start-ups and SMEs

26 October 2015

Paul Blackburn, Executive Chairman of Aston Eyetech, discusses why China is his business' next step.

It's a warm day in Beijing and I'm sitting in a Starbucks, watching the world go by. I might look like any tourist on a quick coffee break but really, I'm on a mission.

China is very topical at the moment, particularly following President Xi's visit to the UK (not to mention that selfie with Sergio Aguerra at Manchester City football ground). The relationship between the UK and China is just starting to develop, and the sentiment within the British population is markedly split.

On the one hand, China is a fast growing economy that presents a lot of exciting growth opportunities for our country. On the other hand, they are a global superpower with a population that vastly outnumbers our own, and many believe that the UK should tread carefully before committing its energy supply and economy to any binding relationship. Personally, I am here because I believe the former.

Beijing at night

[Photo credit: Yiannis Theologos Michellis, Flickr.com]

The day before, I met with the first of two potential joint venture Chinese partners who could potentially help me to turn Aston Eyetech, our Birmingham-based business, into an international eye care service provider. You only need to have a quick look at the numbers to realise what this could mean - despite being considered a "niche" product, Aston Eyetech has over 34,000 potential B2B customers in China. At £5000 a product, even selling 1000 could mean exciting opportunities for the business.

The eye care opportunity in China

In actual fact, I'm on a two-fold mission. The first, you may have gathered, is to kick sand in the face of the nay-sayers and do some business in this huge and fascinating country. The second is to fulfill the objective we set when we were first spun out of Aston University, and safeguard the eyes of the world!

I'm not naïve, and I'm aware of the difficulties. Nevertheless, it's a shame that, despite all of the current "big" high profile deals announced in the wake of the state visit, both the UKTI (UK Trade & Investment) and the BBC have reported a shortage of SME and medium-sized organisations attempting to do business with China, including those in our own Life and Health Sciences sector.

Our business in particular has real potential to be a disruptive and innovative part of China's economy. This is because the distribution of eye health care services in China is poor and, despite impressive economic progress, it has one of the world's lowest rates of cataract operations per million.

China only has 22 ophthalmologists per million of population, compare to the UK which has 200. Perhaps more shockingly, the eye health of young children in China is often neglected by many parents because securing an eye examination at a hospital is tricky, usually involving hour long queues out of the door. Needless to say, this exacerbates potential problems as the children get older. Rural communities in particular still have great difficulty in accessing any sort of health care.

In order to achieve better eye care, you first have to broaden the reach of better eye testing. In China, achieving this requires a different approach, as rural communities will not suddenlly decide to get their eyes tested, no matter how many awareness campaigns you may use. This is for a variety of reasons, be that cost, a worry that the treatment won't work (or will cause more problems than it solves), or simply because they cannot make the journey. In addition, there is also a worrying shortage of trained professionals for them to go and see.

Eye testing is important as the population ages

The answer to all of these difficulties is highly portable, affordable, robust and accurate eye testing equipment that can be operated with very little training. This is where the vision scientists and bio-medical engineers at Aston come in, with our newly designed modular eye testing system that, I am pleased to say, meets all of these requirements.

We at Aston Eyetech are optimistic about the opportunity available to us in China, not to mention confident of the benefits we can bring to the wellbeing of the population as a whole. With 1.3bn citizens, 320m of whom are over the age of 60, and the largest, fastest growing population of over 80 year-olds in the world, there's certainly a lot of much needed eye testing to be done!

With all of this in mind, I'm feeling positive about my two-fold mission. I think we will achieve substantial sales, even if we only secure 10% of the market. On a personal level as well, I'm starting to feel increasinlgy confident and ever more determined to be one of the UK SMEs that went for it, and made China the next step in their growth journey.

For more information on the work being done at Aston Eyetech, click here.

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