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Steve Chen

Launching China's ‘Medical Cloud'


Launching China's ‘Medical Cloud'


Taiwan native and supercomputer wiz Steve Chen has now set up a medical cloud for China's poorest regions, and some big Taiwanese high-tech vendors want in.



Launching China's ‘Medical Cloud'

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 449 )

At the end of May, Steve Chen made a whirlwind tour of Taiwan's top information and communications technology (ICT) vendors and their top executives, including Acer Group founder Stan Shih, D-Link Corporation CEO and chairman Tony Tsao, and Quanta Computer chairman Barry Lam. MiTAC International chairman Matthew Miao went so far as to drag Chen to a cafe to discuss the hottest trend in information technology – cloud computing.

At a time when companies and countries are investing heavily in the technology in an epic race to seize commercial opportunities in the field, Chen, a 30-year veteran of supercomputing, has already applied cloud computing to China's countryside and is preparing to put a grand plan into action.

A member of the U.S.-based National Academy of Engineering and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Chen has designed a supercomputer ranking among the world's 500 most powerful computing machines. In recent years, he has quietly built a cloud computing medical application platform covering China's poorer inland regions, such as Gansu, Hebei and Inner Mongolia.

Once news of the discreet project spread among Taiwanese companies looking to gain or expand their footholds in China, there was immediate interest. Taiwanese ICT vendor Wistron Corp. decided on April 23 to invest US$10 million in the project. In the second half of June, a group of Taiwanese medical and technology experts are planning to travel with Chen into China's hinterland to observe for themselves the commercial opportunities that exist.

Chen grew up in Taiwan and developed a reputation as a top supercomputer designer and engineer, but to many Taiwanese people he is still not well known. Who exactly is this man and how has he developed a cloud computing network in China within ten short years?

Making a Name in Supercomputers

The first impression of Chen is the lack of pretension in his appearance, as he eschews designer logos for a simple shirt and khaki pants. The 66-year-old's face may be on the thin side, but his eyes remain as bright and piercing as when he was 44 and made the cover of Time magazine for designing a supercomputer.

Chen was born in China's Fujian Province in 1944, but his father, a military officer with the Nationalists, moved his family to Kaohsiung in Taiwan in 1945. He later received a B.S. in electrical engineering from National Taiwan University before heading to the United States, where he earned a doctorate in computer science. In 1979, he joined Cray Research, the leading supercomputer company at the time.

During Chen's eight years with the Cray as its lead designer, he designed the world's first supercomputers with two and four CPUs.

"My role was like that of a system architect. At a time when the world had only 10-story buildings, we wanted to build a 100-story building. When the technology reached 100 stories, we wanted to design 1,000 stories," Chen says.

Bursting with a real passion for science, Chen has always wanted to design supercomputers that are faster and cheaper. In the 1980s, supercomputers cost between US$10 million and US$50 million and were used in the oil, aviation and weather forecasting fields. Companies such as Boeing, Toyota and BMW all employed Cray computers for scientific research.

In 2004, the focus of Chen's career turned to China when he joined Galactic Computing Shenzhen to ride the crest of a supercomputing wave and develop machines that were competitive with those made in more developed countries.

"When they really get noticed will be when a country like Malaysia or Australia decides to buy a supercomputer from a Chinese company like Mr. Chen's rather than from IBM," a 2004 New York Times article quoted Horst D. Simon, director of the computation center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, as saying.

Supercomputers have become a battlefield of technological prowess, where nations vie to prove who has the fastest computational speed.

IBM China Research Lab deputy director Chen Ying describes cloud computing as a race involving "hardware plus software plus service." Victory will go to whoever can produce storage platforms with huge capacities at a competitive price and also provide back-end services such as data backup, "fault tolerance" (where service can be maintained if a component fails) and analytics.

"For example, if a Sichuan earthquake occurs and the Sichuan data center has been destroyed, are you able to provide backup from Beijing?" explains the IBM executive.

In 2005, Steve Chen developed a "superblade" computer capable of 4 trillion calculations per second that also brought the cost of the machine down from US$10 million per unit to US$1 million.

Today, the field of supercomputing includes such big names as IBM, Google and Microsoft. But few of the top contenders are aware of the threat growing in a science park in the Haidian District of Beijing, where Chen has gathered a 40-strong research team, and is preparing to expand it considerably.

But since returning to Asia, Chen has not been solely dedicated to research and marketing, concentrating instead on cloud computing medical applications.

Penetrating the Biggest Health Care Market

In recent years, China has invested heavily in reforming its health care system, especially to deal with farmers' health issues.

In a report issued in 2009 on deepening health care reform, China's State Council estimated that from 2009 to 2011, governments at all levels in China will invest 850 billion renminbi in the initiative, primarily to build a basic health care and hygiene system and a rural village health network.

This focus has turned China's health care sector into one of the hottest markets in the country.

Unlike IBM and other competitors that have gained the major slice of the electronic medical record market in big city hospitals, Chen has elected to gain a foothold in the market through the vast countryside.

In 2005, China's authorities promoted a "National Medical Scientific Data Sharing" project, but had trouble finding a good model to promote the concept in remote and rural areas. Chen figured out a solution.

As he collected information on farmers' health through assistance provided to the People's Liberation Army General Hospital and Peking Union Medical College Hospital networks, the company he founded, Beijing-based HealthGrid Technology Ltd., began mobilizing equipment for villages. Chen first gave doctors a computer and taught them how to use health management software, turning them into "mobile village doctors."

Now, when farmers head to the village to get a checkup, collect medicine or measure blood pressure and blood sugar, the village doctor records the visit in the patient's personal health record. The information is then posted on the online township and county hospital information system, and then finds its way to doctors in the city for a remote diagnosis.

In 2006, once the system produced results, HealthGrid Technology received approval to use Zhangjiakou City in Hebei Province as a test base for a rural health care digitization network encompassing seven districts, 20 townships and 500 villages, all joined together in Chen's cloud. At county- and township-level hospitals, Chen even installed large-scale cloud computers to process the heavy volume of data being entered into the system.

"The machine is like the brain while the village doctor is like a neuron transmitting information to it," Chen explains.

After that, he was invited by local governments in Gansu and Inner Mongolia to replicate the model, which is now regularly used for distance consultation.

This medical cloud computing system can also provide health analytics. In the county of Kuancheng in Hebei Province, for example, the system discovered that 18 percent of adults had suffered from various forms of stones (kidney stones, gallstones, etc.). Armed with the information, the county adopted methods to soften the water, improve water quality and reduce the incidence of the ailment in local residents.

Intending to build on his basic cloud computing equipment, with its huge calculating and storage capacities, Chen now plans to expand the system's applications to education, culture, agricultural technology and disaster prevention.

Chen has earned seven-figure salaries and reached the pinnacle of his profession during his career, but his goals have changed, opting to become a social entrepreneur in the latter part of his life. Instead of simply selling supercomputers, he wants to put them to a socially beneficial use in China's poorest areas.

"Having reached this age, I discovered that life is not about money or a big house," he says. "It's about leaving behind something meaningful."

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier