It's first thing on a Saturday morning and the foyer at Beijing's Tsinghua University is echoing with the busy chatter of more than 100 wannabe startup entrepreneurs.
The crowd of mostly 20-somethings had all given one-minute presentations the night before. Those with the strongest ideas – or, perhaps, the most magnetic personalities – are allowed to recruit team members from those who didn't make the cut. Tomorrow, they will present their pitches to an audience of fellow entrepreneurs, mentors and venture capitalists at a Startup Salad roadshow.
Chen Xu, 25, moved to Beijing five years ago to develop a job seeking platform for blue collar workers, believing there is a yawning gap in a market where websites mainly cater for white collar professionals. Yang Lu, 26, is working on a healthcare and nutrition monitoring system targeted at simplifying the work of aged care homes straining to cater for the country's rapidly greying population.
Much of Tian Shuo's future happiness, meanwhile, could well depend on the success of her idea. The 28-year-old is hoping to find love and riches by developing a smartphone dating app, but one that eschews the casual hook-up culture engendered by existing phone apps. She says her brainchild is targeted at "older" singles in their late-20s who are serious about settling down. As a further way to filter out the duds, only those within two degrees of separation will be able to contact each other.
The epicentre of China's innovation boom is in Beijing's Zhongguancun, where a cluster of tech incubators, startup accelerators and shared workspaces have sprouted near the capital's university district. It has drawn some of the country's brightest young entrepreneurs, programmers, venture capitalists and angel investors – seeking to alter China's lingering image of technology copycats to world-beating innovators one idea at a time. As Wired magazine put it, "The next Silicon Valley has emerged – and it's in the East".
The risk-taking mindset required for success, though, has taken time to evolve. Chinese graduates are still brought up through an educational system rooted in rote-learning. And most are still drummed by their parents and peers to seek solid, respectable jobs at solid, respectable state-run companies.
While Chinese youngsters have arguably long had the talent, they are now immersed in an environment where they can see what is possible. The more ambitious among them might have once sought to make it in Silicon Valley.
Like most things in China, the country's startup and innovation scene is exploding because the government actively wants it to. The huge cash influx is part of the government's effort to bolster the Chinese economy through innovation as it transitions away from its traditional dependence on heavy industry and cheap exports.
But the huge influx of cash in such a short space of time has raised natural concerns over whether, like the country's property industry and stockmarkets before it, the hot tech boom is yet another government cash-fuelled bubble primed to pop. This is especially given the government wants to attract money for riskier startups shunned by private investors who generally only back surer returns.
"To go from nothing to something, and then from something to fast-paced growth, there's bound to be some bubbles appearing," says Startup Salad founder Jim Zhao. "The bubble will grow to a point, and then people will discover it, and then it deflates, that's how markets mature."
Back at Tsinghua, 32-year-old Bi Jingyuan says the government support helps encourage young people to not be afraid to try and fail, and then try again. "Whether or not we can discover some opportunities, make the most of our worth to realise our dreams, this type of environment for entrepreneurship is really beneficial for our generation."