Asia’s universities are the new innovation hot spots

By Eugene Sebastian

Martin André Rosanoff, a Russian-American chemist visiting the great American inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison at his Laboratory, asked, “Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe.” Edison spat in the middle of the floor and yelled out, “hell, there are no rules here. We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!”

More universities in Asia are trying to do something. In fact, according to a new Reuters ranking, 75 of them are doing the most to advance science and invent new technologies. – See Top 75: Asia’s Most Innovative Universities

These institutions are moving beyond their traditional role of education into the innovation space. They are turning basic research into business applications.

The ranking covers the Asia-Pacific region and measures volume. Universities in the region have benefited significantly from an increase in government spending and improved policy environment. South East Asia and North East Asia’s R&D, in particular, are performing at least 10 percent higher that their peers for their level of GDP. For volume, the ranking measures the number of academic papers produced and patents filed by universities.

In the top 20, 17 are Japanese and Korean institutions. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) leads the pack. Ranked number 2 is Japan’s University of Tokyo. Outside Japan and Korea is the National University of Singapore, ranked 11th. China’s Tsinghua University (ranked 13th) and Peking University (ranked 16th). 

Japan and Korea’s performance is not surprising. In the latest Global Innovation Index – which uses R&D investment (corporate and government) as primary measures – ranks Korea 11th in the world in global innovation. Japan is 16th and China appears at number 25.

Japan’s dominance, in particular, reflects a change in culture as more Japanese institutions and corporations adopt a “startup culture”. This shift is boosting business creativity and country’s economic prospects. Stanford Researcher, Kenji Kushida says Japanese social norms are shifting from being highly unfavourable to a tech startup culture toward one much more supportive. “We can see that over the past 15 years or so, changed to the overall Japanese political economic context as it undergoes gradual but substantive reform over the past couple of decades has created a far more vibrant startup ecosystem in Japan than most people.

Why are Chinese universities not performing as well as their competitors? One reason according to David Ewalt, contributor to Forbes Magazine, Chinese universities tend to submit less of their research to international patent authorities. “Universities outside of China are more likely to file patents in the United States and Europe as well as in their home country, indicating that those institutions are invested in protecting and commercializing their discoveries.”

Chinese universities also don’t spend as much time collaborating with private industry. “They publish relatively few journal articles in collaboration with industry co-authors, and are cited less often in articles published by corporate researchers,” said Ewalt. 

The Chinese universities in the economically autonomous territory of Hong Kong are the exceptions with the Chinese University of Hong Kong (ranked 21) and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (ranked 30).

Top 75: Asia’s Most Innovative Universities

Rank  Name                           Location

    1  Korea Advanced Institute of    South Korea

       Science & Technology (KAIST)   

    2  University of Tokyo            Japan

    3  Seoul National University      South Korea

    4  Osaka University               Japan

    5  Pohang University of Science   South Korea

       & Technology (POSTECH)         

    6  Tohoku University              Japan

    7  Kyoto University               Japan

    8  Sungkyunkwan University        South Korea

    9  Yonsei University              South Korea

   10  Keio University                Japan

   11  National University of         Singapore


   12  Tokyo Institute of Technology  Japan

   13  Tsinghua University            China

   14  Korea University               South Korea

   15  Hanyang University             South Korea

   16  Peking University              China

   17  Gwangju Institute of Science   South Korea

       & Technology                   

   18  Kyushu University              Japan

   19  Nagoya University              Japan

   20  Hokkaido University            Japan

   21  Chinese University of Hong     China


   22  Ajou University                South Korea

   23  Zhejiang University            China

   24  Shanghai Jiao Tong University  China

   25  Kyung Hee University           South Korea

   26  Hiroshima University           Japan

   27  University of Auckland         New Zealand

   28  University of Sydney           Australia

   29  University of Tsukuba          Japan

   30  Hong Kong University of        China

       Science & Technology           

   31  Tokyo Medical & Dental         Japan


   32  Monash University              Australia

   33  University of Queensland       Australia

   34  University of Melbourne        Australia

   35  Nanyang Technological          Singapore


   36  Fudan University               China

   37  Chonnam National University    South Korea

   38  Okayama University             Japan

   39  Shinshu University             Japan

   40  Kumamoto University            Japan

   41  Tianjin University             China

   42  Kanazawa University            Japan

   43  Ewha Womans University         South Korea

   44  Inha University                South Korea

   45  East China University of       China

       Science & Technology           

   46  Chiba University               Japan

   47  Beijing University of          China

       Chemical Technology            

   48  Waseda University              Japan

   49  South China University of      China


   50  Kyungpook National University  South Korea

   51  Chonbuk National University    South Korea

   52  University of New South Wales  Australia

   53  Catholic University of Korea   South Korea

   54  Pusan National University      South Korea

   55  Nanjing University             China

   56  University of Hong Kong        China

   57  Huazhong University of         China

       Science & Technology           

   58  Southeast University – China   China

   59  Konkuk University              South Korea

   60  Kobe University                Japan

   61  Dalian University of           China


   62  Nankai University              China

   63  Harbin Institute of            China


   64  Xian Jiaotong University       China

   65  Chung Ang University           South Korea

   66  Hong Kong Polytechnic          China


   67  Sichuan University             China

   68  Sun Yat-sen University         China

   69  Gyeongsang National  University         South Korea

   70  Nihon University               Japan

   71  Indian Institute of            India

       Technology (IIT)               

   72  Indian Institute of Science    India

       (IISC) – Bangalore             

   73  Putra University Malaysia      Malaysia

   74  University of South Australia  Australia

   75  University of Malaya           Malaysia

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