Taking British smart city technology to China

UtterBerry founder Heba Bevan discusses the challenges and opportunities with exporting her company’s smart sensors to the Asian market

Smart technology in China

Data is already playing a significant role in reshaping our world, from small things like the smartphones we carry around in our pockets to the ambitious development of Internet of Things (IoT) driven smart cities. For the latter, being able to collect and analyse data generated by these high-tech cities is key – everything from air quality to weather, transport infrastructure and construction feed into how efficiently they run.

British tech company UtterBerry specialises in creating a vital piece of that smart city puzzle. Founded by University of Cambridge graduate Heba Bevan in 2013, UtterBerry produces small, lightweight smart sensors that operate on low power. They collect, process and interpret data at the source and relay information in real-time. The sensors’ onboard artificial intelligence also allows for analysis of data trends to trigger alerts about future events.

In the UK, UtterBerry sensors are used to monitor large-scale infrastructure projects by London Underground, Crossrail, Thames Tideway and Network Rail. They detect minimal environmental changes – think temperature, humidity, vibrations and displacement – that could affect structures and safety. They go to places people can’t, too. For example, one Crossrail project required closure of an Eleanor Street shaft to allow access for nearby excavation. However, with contractors still needing to monitor the area during the work, UtterBerry stepped in to quickly install 29 sensors, giving real-time 24-hour access to the data gathered so that the work could be carried out safely.

From the UK to China

In 2015 UtterBerry began to look at expansion into Asia with help from the UK government’s Department for International Trade (DIT). “The initial interest derived from China,” Bevan explains. “We were approached by a Chinese company to expand into the region and DIT provided an incredible amount of support. The DIT team helped with ensuring security, connections and assistance as we expanded, and they also included us in trade shows and other events that provided us with a tremendous amount of market exposure.”

She continues: “It’s one of the markets we think would be good for us because [China has] huge expansion in their infrastructure. Smart cities are on their agenda and that’s what we do as a company.”

UtterBerry has made inroads in Hong Kong, winning deals to place its sensors with the region’s public transport network MTR, the Lyric Theatre Complex and Kowloon City Pier. Bevan admits that there have been challenges along the way, most recently on the Kowloon project, where work was due to take place just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit earlier this year.

“When China closed in January-February, we carried out our first virtual installation,” Bevan says. “Usually when we do installations for larger projects, we go onsite to set up the network and sensors.” UtterBerry dispatched the calibrated sensors to Hong Kong, then remotely helped with installation on the pier. “We literally had to do this from the UK and it worked well with a successful outcome,” notes Bevan.

For any business looking to partner on smart city infrastructure in China, it’s worth looking at the ethical considerations over the use of facial recognition and AI in mass surveillance and China’s new Social Credit System. For more information and guidance visit the UK government’s Digital and Tech China online resource.

Invest the time

Prior to Covid-19, Bevan travelled back and forth to China frequently, in one year even hitting double figure trips. It’s something she recommends for UK tech companies looking to do business in the Asian market. “UK tech companies need to invest a huge amount of time, a huge amount of effort and they have to travel to Asia if they would like to do business there,” she says.

Bevan also suggests “using the DIT to your advantage”. “We have a really, really good Department of International Trade compared to other countries and they are very knowledgeable. We've worked with them from day one and I can’t overstate how helpful they are,” she says.

One significant area of concern for Bevan was IP protection. China’s Foreign Investment Law gives UK organisations more legal protection over their intellectual property, but UK firms can still fall down in this area. China, like many markets, has a first-to-file trade mark registration system, meaning international trademarks are not automatically protected unless they are registered in China first. Networks like techUK (which represents the tech industry in the UK) and the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) both work with experienced legal advisors to help companies navigate these issues.

“We have had various conversations with IP lawyers. Because of the rules and regulations, there are grey areas and it's often very hard to actually pinpoint what infringement is and what isn’t,” says Bevan.

She adds: “We have always been extremely cautious about our IP. We've got multiple trade marks and patents in China. We were very careful when we started looking into the market.”

Taking the right steps to protect your assets, data and IP is crucial for any UK business considering setting up in the region. Counterfeiting and intellectual property rights (IPR) infringements are major issues in China, so it’s important to be secure in that regard. The UK government has an IP Health Check tool that can answer your questions and provide guidance on protecting IP, while the Intellectual Property Office has an IP attaché team in China available to offer advice on navigating issues in the region.

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The risks and challenges

Bevan believes it’s important for UK tech businesses to weigh up these risks and challenges before embarking on expansion into the Chinese market. She speaks positively about her experiences as a female entrepreneur, noting that China “respects female founders and women in tech and engineering” and that the country “loves Western tech”. However, any business looking at the region should think about a sizable time commitment. “You should not underestimate the amount of time and effort that needs to be put in to enter the market and you must be willing to learn Chinese rules and regulations.”

Due diligence is vital. Even if, like UtterBerry, you are not setting up premises in China, it’s essential to be aware of the legal and ethical challenges of doing business in the area. The Chinese Cybersecurity Law, for instance, governs the collection, use and transfer of data. Prior government approval is required for handling data and rules on personal data are similar to GDPR, with opt-in consent needed. The CBBC produced a report last year with guidance on keeping compliant.

It’s also worth consulting lawyers in regard to the Chinese National Intelligence Law. This states that organisations and citizens may be called upon to cooperate with national intelligence and share any company data.

Moreover there are ethical considerations, such as understanding if your business is being used to violate human rights or contribute to the Chinese military. This can lead to reputational damage and potential legal implications or sanctions if it’s deemed you have violated UK Export Controls.

For tech companies like UtterBerry, with ambitions to establish globally, understanding and navigating these complex regulations is a must. The tech firm is eager to keep its roots in the UK but currently sees China as part of its overall expansion strategy. 

“It’s definitely an area that’s very important for us because the growth opportunities in China are enormous and as a company we want to be international,” Bevan explains. “We’ve been working in that area for a couple of years very successfully... We’ve got aspirations to be one of the leading UK tech companies for wireless sensors. But we do our manufacturing, create our software and hardware, and do all our R&D here in the UK.”

Confidence in your product and technology is key; when a UK business has that, then Bevan says “if China is willing to trade, the move can be very worthwhile.

Learn more about doing business in China at china.theweek.co.uk. For further information visit techUK and CBBC.org.


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