It’s hard to believe that a small spark of creativity snowballed into the incredible experience that I had in Beijing last week. Secretary of State John Kerry and VP of China Madame Liu wanted to hear me talk. Though, I didn’t know that until the day before we met.
Last year, I met a group of software and hardware engineers at a 48-hour hackathon where we simply wanted to stretch our creative muscles. We invented a smart bicycle light, providing more visibility with an array of LEDs that auto-dim when sensing oncoming headlights to prevent the blinding of drivers. It offered increased safety without the annoying feeling and danger that occurs when your rearview mirror gets blasted with LED high beams from a car behind you.
A handful of months later, Intel invited our team to present our innovation in China during its Young Maker Competition. Intel flew us out to Chengdu, the rapidly developing tech center of China, where millions of pushy people lived in perpetually thick moist air. Sort of like an endless Black Friday sale during a Virginia summer. With nearly no English speakers. And pandas.
Alongside the 42 other Chinese teams and the 5 U.S. teams, our tiny bike light seemed, cute. Like we deserved a blue ribbon for effort. Some of the Chinese innovations were truly impressive. Of course, many teams had been working on their projects for weeks or months. I assume our invite stemmed from Intel’s intention to cross-pollinate tech cultures. With hopes of not disappointing our hosts, we presented our innovation, singed off some taste buds while eating hot pot, and then headed home.
A few seasons later, Intel again invited us to present our smart bike light. The request, shrouded in a curious vagueness, would bring three U.S. teams and three winning Chinese teams from the Young Maker Competition to Beijing. 21 million people, a ceaseless stream of orderly traffic, and the greatest wall in existence, until Donald Trump took office, awaited us under a blanket of smog, which causes as much lung damage as a pack of cigarettes a day. And a lady with ill intentions walking on a street who spit on my arm. She awaited us as well.
There we were, once again securing our bike light with duct tape next to some highly sophisticated technologies. Another U.S. team also sought to promote safety by creating a sensor that alerts sleepy car drivers, i.e. detecting yawning and drooping eyes. The winning Chinese innovations included a toy that took selfies of pets, a device to measure the height and rotation of snowboard tricks, and a sensor for gym weights to better record reps. It appears that the culture of tech remains steadfast worldwide; whether in Beijing or California, technology for excitement or entertainment draws attention, awards, and capital. Young people just want novelty. Even in a communist country. Even when the sky has turned opaque.
Intel took care of us in Beijing like a best friend, providing flights, a hotel room, meals, transportation, cultural activities, introductions to local makers, and one world-class massage. All this for a two-minute presentation. Little did we know, the audience of our presentation would be John Kerry, Madame Liu, and U.S. Director of Science and Technology John Holdren.
To strengthen ties between the U.S. and China, the two countries held theirPeople-to-People Exchange, which included our presentation. The nations intended to build bridges between them through a formal congregation of sports, tech, and culture, gathering the usual suspects: us, Yao Ming, Duke’s female soccer team, Yale’s choir, etc.
The politicos spent a couple minutes with each young maker team. Their questions for us mainly revolved around how we would commercialize our product. You know, how to help raise the GDP.
We felt slightly unworthy of such political superstardom. Just because we had a short sprint of creativity, we were privileged to hold the ears of some of the world’s most important decision makers. But, yin quickly came after yang. The following night at a U.S.-style bar our incomprehensible English order for gin and tonics produced awkwardly blank stares from the bartenders. Apparently it’s pronounced, GIN-TON-LI, with an accent on every syllable. Such was our fall from political grace.