China Startups – The Gold Rush and Fire Extinguishers (Part 5 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Kevin Dewalt and Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press. 

China Dragon

The previous post, part 4, was about Beijing’s entrepreneurial ecosystem these are my final observations.

Land Rush
For the last 10 years China essentially closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies with the result that Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Dropbox, and 30,000 other websites were not accessible from China. This left  an open playing field for Chinese software startups as they “copy to China” existing U.S. business models. Of course “copy” is too strong a word.  Adapt, adopt and extend is probably a better description.  But for the last decade “innovation” in Chinese software meant something different than it did in Silicon Valley.

The Chinese Social Media Landscape diagram below from Resonance does a great job of illustrating the players in the Chinese market. (Note that the inner ring shows their global equivalents.)

China Social Media Ecosystem

The downside is that with so much venture and angel capital available, investors have been willing to fund the 10th Groupon clone.  For the last few years, there really hasn’t been a demand to innovate on top of the ecosystem that’s been built.

New Rules for China
Not only is the Chinese ecosystem completely different but also the consumer demographics and user expectations are equally unique. 70% of Chinese Internet users are under 30. Instead of email, they’ve grown up with QQ instant messages. They’re used to using the web and increasingly the mobile web for everything, commerce, communication, games, etc. (They also probably haven’t seen a phone that isn’t mobile.) By the end of 2012, there were 85 million iOS and 160 million Android devices in China. And they were increasing at an aggregate 33 million IOS and Android activations per month.

It was interesting to learn about China’s digital divide – the gap between East China and Midwest China, and between urban and rural areas. Internet penetration in Beijing is  greater than 70% while it’s less than 25% in Yunnan, Jiangxi, Guizhou and other provinces. While there are 564 million web users with 420 million having mobile web access, 74% of Chinese Internet users make less than $500/month and are students, blue-collar workers or jobless.

Unlike U.S. websites that are sparse and slick, Chinese users currently expect complicated, crowded and busy web pages. However, there’s a growing belief that the “design preferences” of Chinese consumers are just bad design. TenCents WeChat, (designed for an international market) is the first incredibly popular app in China to dramatically raise the bar for what a good user interface and user experience looks and feels like. WeChat may change the game for Chinese U/I and U/X experience. The one caveat about online commerce is that while Chinese users will buy physical goods online (Taobao is huge), they seem to hate to pay for music or software, and the model for games seems to be moving to free play with in-app-purchases for accessories and powers. An interesting consequence of the rigid censoring and control of mainstream media is that blogging – reading and writing – is much higher than U.S.

My guess is the current wave of “copy to China” will burn itself out in the next few years as the smart money starts to move to “innovate in China” (i.e. like WeChat.)

Competition
If you’re a software startup competing in China, the words that come to mind are “ruthless and relentless.” The not so polite ones I’ve heard from others are “vicious, unethical and illegal.” Intellectual property protection is great on paper and “limited” in practice. The large players like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent historically would be more likely to simply copy a startup’s features than to hire their talent. The large companies strategy seems to be to cover every possible market niche by copying successful models from others.

The slide below from the Zhen Fund shows the breadth of business coverage of each of the Chinese Internet incumbents.  Each column represents a company (QQ, Sina, Baidu, Netease, Sohu etc.) and the rows indicates their offerings in open platform, group buying, online games, microblogging, Instant Messaging, BBS, Q&A and E-commerce.

Internet Giants Want to do it all

Small startups act the same way, simply cloning each other’s products. Sharing and cooperation is not yet part of the ethos. I can’t imagine a U.S. company setting up some subsidiary here and expecting them to compete while they were following U.S. rules.  In some ways, the best description of the market dynamics would be “imagine you were competing with 100 companies who are as rapacious as Microsoft was in the 1980’s and 1990’s.” Eventually, China’s innovation-driven economy needs intellectual property rights and anti-trust laws that are enforced.

Sea Turtles and VPN – the connections to  the rest of the world
Entrepreneurs in Beijing were knowledgeable about Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship and the state of software and tools available for two reasons.  First, there are continuous stream of “sea turtles”—Chinese who have studied or worked abroad—returning home. (The Chinese government must be laughing hysterically over U.S. immigration policy that’s forcing Chinese grad students out of the U.S.) Many of these returnees have worked in Silicon Valley and startups or went to school at MIT and Stanford. (There is a huge difference between the Chinese who have never left and those who went to school abroad, even for a few months – at least a difference in their ability to relate to me and have a conversation on the same wavelength. It’s clear why families try so hard to send their children abroad. It changes everything for them.)

Second, most websites that a non-Chinese would use are blocked including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google Docs, Scribd, Blogspot, Dropbox, New York Times, etc. Almost every entrepreneur I met was using VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall. When the Chinese government censors (run by their propaganda department) shutdown access to yet another U.S. web site, they create another 100,000 VPN users.  And when the government tools to detect encrypted VPN’s get more sophisticated, (as it did last year), Chinese users just use stealthier tools. It’s an amazing cat and mouse system.

CCP Propaganda Department logo(Note to Chinese Communist party – the best name for your propaganda department should probably not be the “Propaganda Department.”)

Beijing’s Academic Hub
Right next door to Zhongguancun are China’s top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University. Northwest of Beijing is also home to other universities, including technical universities like USTBBITBUPT, and Beihang.  Like Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun also has a critical mass of people who are crazy enough to do startups.  Equally of interest is a good number of them end up in the PLA’s GSD 3rd Department (the equivalent of our National Security Agency. ) And some of their best and brightest have ended up in the organizations like the 2nd Bureau, Unit 61398 tasked euphemistically for “Computer Network Operations.”

While I didn’t get much time with the academic community, in talking to students, education seems to still be one of China’s bottlenecks – rote lectures, passive learning, follow the process, exam-based performance, etc.  And while startups and entrepreneurship courses are now being added to the curriculum, “How to write a business plan” seems to be the state of the art. China’s education system needs to give more attention to fostering students’ innovative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurial Culture

Fear of Failure
Though they’re familiar with technology in the valley, I picked up some important cultural difference from students and startup engineers I talked to. Even though they’re next to Zhongguancun, the hottest place for startups in China, there seems to be a lower appetite for risk, a lack of interest in equity (instead optimizing for a high salary) and very little loyalty to any one company. The overall culture still has a fear of failure. Most of their parents still tell them to work for the government or a big company.

Talent
I heard from a few investors that as the startup ecosystem is relatively new, there’s a battle for experienced engineering talent and lack of experienced C-level execs. The lack of a previous generation of successful startup CEOs means the current pool of mentors to coach this generation is almost non-existent.

Because salaries are cheap, startups seem to try to solve every problem by throwing bodies at it. Startup teams feel like they are 2-5x the size of American teams. There seems to be little appreciation or interest in multi-skilled people.

Turnover of employees in capital in Beijing is very high. Employees work here for a few months and are suddenly gone. There’s a noticeable lack of tenacity in young, new entrepreneurs. They start a project, and if it isn’t a home run, they’re gone. Perhaps it’s the weather. Silicon Valley has great weather and lifestyle, and nobody wants to leave. Beijing has awful weather and pollution, it’s a temporary place to get rich and then leave.

Management 101
The board/CEO relationship still isn’t clearly understood by either party. I’ve talked to entrepreneurs who view the investors as a “boss.”  A good number of startups in Beijing seem driven by the VCs – and not the founders. This might also be a hangover from the command and control system of a state-driven planned economy. Ironically investors told me that the reverse has been true as well. Some startups acted like the VC was a bank. They took the money and then ignored their board. Over time, as investors add more value than writing checks, this relationship will mature.

Creativity
I was surprised that startup teams ask what seems like the kind of questions Americans learn at their first jobs.

Team: “We keep spending money trying to get people to our web site but they don’t come back. We are almost out of money.”

Me:  “Ok.  Why are you still spending money?”

Team: “long…silence…we need people to come to the website.”

On the other hand, for most of them it probably is their first job. And the educational system hasn’t prepared them for executing anything other than a plan. Iterations and pivots are a tough concept if you’ve never been taught to think for yourself. And challenging the system is not something that’s actually encouraged in China.

They also ask questions I just don’t know how to answer. “How do you know how to be creative? What do we have to do to be creative?”  “You Americans just seem to know how to do things even if you’ve never done them – can you show us how to do that?”  This seems to be an artifact of the Chinese rote educational system and its current system of government.

Innovation Ecosystem
On the plane ride home I started to think about the similarities and differences between the innovation ecosystems of Silicon Valley and the TMT segment I saw in Beijing. The motivations are the same – profit – driven by entrepreneurs and venture finance. And the infrastructure is close to the same – research universities, predictable economic system, a path to liquidity, a stable legal system and 24/7 utilities. But the differences are worth noting – it’s a young ecosystem, so startup management tools are nearly non-existent. But there’s a difference in the culture of failure and risk taking –  the current cultural pressure is to “work for a big company or the government.” Outward facing Universities are just starting to appear, and while there’s a free flow of information inside China, it suffers from the constraints of the Great Firewall.

China vs. US ecosystem

But there are two striking differences. The first is the lack of creativity. The Beijing software ecosystem I saw has spent the last decade in a protected market copying successful U.S. business models. “Copying, adopting and adapting,” is not the same as “competing, innovating and creating” in a global market. Perhaps products like WeChat, designed for an international market, might be the beginning of real innovation.

The second difference in ecosystems – the lack of freedom to dissent – goes deeper to the difference between the two systems. In the U.S. entrepreneurs are encouraged to “Think Different.” Our touchstone for creativity is the Apple ad that said, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers,… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things….” This spirit of rebellion against the status quo got us Steve Jobs.  In China the same attitude is likely to get you jail time. Unless you can speak truth to power, you’ll never have an innovation economy.

Conclusion
China is astonishing. The country has risen. Their economy is the envy of the world. The entrepreneurial and “can do” spirit reminds me of what the U.S. was known for. Chinese citizens are proud of their country and believe the world is theirs in the way Americans did in the 1950’s. Their leadership has shown incredible foresight in engineering an amazing economic engine and formidable military. They come so far, and yet…

To take nothing away from what China has accomplished, a visit to Beijing had all the subtle reminders that this version of capitalism has come without democracy or justice; the guards in the Forbidden City armed with fire extinguishers in case more protestors try to set themselves on fire, the security around Tiananmen Square to prevent protestors from gathering, and the “black jails” to keep rural petitioners out of Beijing.  And of course the “great firewall,” attempting to keep information about the outside world from reaching inside China.

The bet the government is making is that if they can keep the economy cooking and distract the masses with ever increasing consumer goods and foreign adventures, maybe it can survive.

All of these are signs of a weak China not a strong one. They are the signs of a leadership frightened not by external enemies but by their own people.

It usually doesn’t end well.

——

all five China blog posts available as a download here

List to the post here: or download the podcasts here

Zhongguancun in Beijing – China’s Silicon Valley (Part 4 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.

Beijing with Kai-fu Lee

The previous post described the evolution of the Chinese Venture Capital system. The next two posts are about what I saw and learned in my short stay exploring Beijing’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Entrepreneurship in Beijing
In the few days I was in China I met with several VC’s, angel investors, business press and spoke to hundreds of entrepreneurs. I was blown away by what I saw in Beijing. First, I was amazed by the physical impact of the city itself. This was a modern city in a hurry to make a first impression – think of what Rome looked like in the time of the empire or New York in the 1920’s – now it’s Beijing announcing that China has arrived.

However if you scratch the surface, you can still find a bit of the old Beijing in the hutongs. Drive 50 miles outside the city into the surrounding villages and you see the distance China has to travel to bring the rural areas into the 21st century. In Beijing we hadn’t seen air so badly polluted since we had been in Agra in India in the winter where I swear there was a day you could wave your hand in front of you and see traces of it in the air (and their excuse was they burn dung for heat.)

David Lin and the Microsoft China Accelerator was gracious enough to host two wonderful days of events for me. I trained the Startup Weekend Next Beijing mentors and instructors, presented to several hundred entrepreneurs, and had a great fireside chat with Zhen Fund founding partner Xu Xiaoping in front of another roomful of entrepreneurs.Microsoft Accelerator China

Kai-fu Lee of Innovation Works was equally generous with his time. We had a fireside chat with a room full of eager entrepreneurs. And he was generous in sharing his insights about the current state of entrepreneurship and investment in China. And through it all Louis Yuan my patient and wonderful publisher from China Machine Press kept me moving through the events.

But what made the overwhelming impression for me was finding an entrepreneurial software cluster on par with the Internet software portion of  Silicon Valley. The physical heart of the Beijing startups is in Zhongguancun in the Haidian District, located in the northwest side of Beijing. Startups here are primarily in what they call the TMT (Technology, Media and Telecommunications) segment. Not only does Zhongguancun have Chinese startups, but global technology companies (Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Microsoft, IBM, Sun, Oracle, BEA, Alcatel Lucent, Google) all have offices here or elsewhere in Beijing.

If there ever was any question about the value of China’s Torch Program walk around Zhongguancun. It was the first of the 54 Science and Technology Industrial Parks.

China Venture Capital
An entrepreneurial ecosystem is driven one of two ways; either by a crisis (i.e. innovation in the U.S. during World War II,) or during peacetime by profit.

Finance plus Entreprenuers

If it’s driven by profit then the ecosystem needs both entrepreneurs as well as Venture Finance.

China now has plenty of both.

China has the biggest Venture Capital industry outside the U.S.  To compare the two, in 2011 U.S. venture capitalists invested $26.5 billion in all deals. Out of that total, they funded 967 Internet deals with $6.7 billion.

VC Funding USA

By comparison, in 2011 Chinese VC’s invested $13 billion in all deals. Out of that total, they funded 268 Internet deals with $3.2 billion. About 1/3 of all China’s Venture Capital investment is made in Beijing and the majority of those investments are in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector I’ll describe shortly.

As vibrant as the China venture business has been, 2012 was a different story. VC’s pulled back and only invested $3.7 billion in all deals, funding just only 43 deals with $563 million.

VC Funding China

Closed for You, Open For Us
First a bit of context in what the VC’s in Beijing are investing in. China has essentially closed its internal search, media and social network software market to foreign companies who wouldn’t play with the government rules on the Great Firewall. (China blocks “objectionable” website content and monitors everyone’s Internet access.)

Google retreated to Hong Kong and Baidu took its place.  Facebook was too frightening to Chinese censors, so Renren is the leading social media player. Email? Working professionals/white collar use emails, but most users grew up instant messaging on TenCent’s QQ and most are moving to Weixin/WeChat. Twitter? No, it’s Sina Weibo, and if you want games with your chat – TenCent.  Amazon and Ebay? Nope in China it’s Alibaba’s Taobao or 360buy.com.  If you’re outside of China, you never hear about these companies or interact with them because they’re geared to serve only Chinese users.

This closed but very large market means that greater than 90% of Chinese software startups focus exclusively on the Chinese market. (The <10% that decide to go global early do so by starting outside of China. Another 10% may try to go global when they’re larger and have the resources for two languages, cultures and regulations. )

This has resulted in a completely different consumer software ecosystem than found elsewhere in the world. Given the closed market to U.S. Internet companies, VC’s in China have guided startups to execute the “copy to China” model. Thinking, if it worked in the U.S., copying a known model is less risky than trying something new and untested.  The problem is that this space is getting really crowded – from the bottom up as everyone tries the 200th clone – and from the top down, as the major incumbents try to fill every possible market niche.

The table below maps the type of software in China to their global equivalents in each product category in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector.

China Vs US players 2

A Huge Market Is Finally Real
For a hundred years the fantasy of global marketers was, “ if only everyone in China would buy one…”  That day is final here. The numbers of mobile subscribers are staggering – 1.18 billon, 260 million are 3G. Chinese Internet companies live in a large closed, self-contained ecosystem with 564 million web users with 420 million having mobile web access. 309 million use microblogs and 242 million shop online. (BTW, market research, financial and other statistical information are usually unreliable in China, but even taken with a grain of salt these are staggering numbers.)

The table below from web2asia.com shows the number of users of online social networks as of 2009.  Did I mention this is a huge market.

Social Network Services in China

Investment in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector
The charts below from David Lin, Microsoft Accelerator detail investments in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector – almost all of it is centered in Beijing. (Note that these numbers differ from the Zhen Fund data -welcome to statistics in China – but they both provide an overall sense of the market size and direction.)

45% of all Venture Capital Investment in China went into the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector.

China VC Market

The number of deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications more than doubled in 2011 over the previous five years and slowed back down dramatically in 2012. More than 1,600 VC investments in TMT have been made since 2007, with a record high of 436 in 2011.

TMT Investments 2007-2012

Internet investments makes up more than 50% of all the deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications made since 2011, while, E-commerce investments, in turn, accounts for nearly 50% of the investment deals in Internet. Investments in Mobile Internet makes up roughly 11% of all the deals in Technology, Media and Telecommunications, and have been on the rise since 2011.

TMT Investments by sector 2007-2012

Series-A round investments dominates Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) deals, making up 60% of all.

TMT Investments by round 2011-2012Beijing, Guangdong (including Shenzhen) and Shanghai came out as the most dynamic spots for Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) investments.

TMT Investments by region 2011-2012

Beijing Venture/Angel Ecosystem
While Beijing has VC’s and Angel investors happy to write a check there aren’t as many angels/VCs in China versus US per capita. Several VC’s mentioned that there’s a funding gap for seed stage investments. The Angel/Seed network in Beijing feels fragmented and mostly inexperienced (as are a good number of the China VC’s). Kind of reminded me of the drivers in Beijing – they were all driving in a way that made me think they all just got their drivers license – until I remembered that they did. Car sales in China went from 1 million in 2001 to 14 million in 2011.

Active Player in China VC

Other Beijing ecosystem issues I heard about were the things we take for granted:  the lack of knowledge sharing (“pay it forward” isn’t part of the culture,) limited mentoring (few experienced mentors,) and a lack of open source education, and no AngelList model. In the U.S. it’s easy to share and browse ideas and deals, but in China there’s a long legacy of guarding knowledge as power, and the justifiable paranoia of someone copying your idea prevents sharing.

Liquidity
Unlike the U.S. there are almost no mergers or acquisitions in this market segment. It’s much easier to just steal their ideas and hire their employees. So big companies rarely acquire startups. Liquidity for most Internet startups happens via IPO’s. 70% of exits in China are via IPO (in the U.S. on NASDAQ or the NYSE or on ChiNext, China’s equivalent of NASDAQ) compared to the 90% of exits in US via mergers or acquisitions. Alibaba (commerce), Tencent (games/chat) and Baidu (search) all have market caps over $40 billion.

The next post, the Gold Rush and Fire Extinguishers – Beijing entrepreneurs, startup culture and some conclusions.

Lessons Learned

  • China has the biggest Venture Capital industry outside the U.S
  • For software, the action is in Beijing
  • China has closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies
  • Beijing’s VC’s primarily invest in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications segmentLiquidity is via IPO’s not buy outs

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

The Rise of Chinese Venture Capital – (Part 3 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.

China speaking 2

The first post described how China built a science and technology infrastructure to support advanced weapons systems development. The previous post described how the Torch program built China’s innovation clusters. This post is about the rise of Chinese venture capital and how it helped build the countries entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The Rise of Chinese Venture Capital
China’s move away from a state system that solely depended on a command and control economy started in the 1990s. The first wave of startups began when R&D centers and universities began to provide the technology and seed capital for new startups that were spin-outs or spin-offs. This could be a group of individuals leaving a university or research center or an entire department leaving. For example, in the 1990’s 85% of the start-up funds of the new technology companies founded in Beijing came from the research center or university they left.

China Startup Funding

The second wave of technology investors were Chinese banks, who provided the majority of the later stage investments in the Torch Program. By 1991, 70% of the Torch funded startups were getting bank financing for expansion and later stages of the new ventures, with local governments acting as guarantors. Like the U.S. SBIR and STTR programs, the Torch Program’s funding for new ventures was limited to seed funding the front end. Being designated as a Torch Program startup gave banks comfort to provide loans to these ventures for technology commercialization.

Technology zones with Science and Technology Industrial Parks were the third source of support for new ventures. Inside the zones were Torch Technology Business Incubators with startups licensed by the local governments.  These local governments financially supported the startups because, by locating in these zones, the new ventures were seen as contributing to local economic development. This helped the startups qualify for funding from banks and venture capital firms.

By the mid-1990s, Chinese leaders realized that the Torch program couldn’t be the source of all capital for startups. At the same time neither banks nor local governments had the cash to finance startups on the scale the country needed. The problem was that in China the government didn’t recognize venture capital firms as a legitimate organizational type. The founding of domestic VC firms began with the establishment of local government-financed venture capital firms (GVCFs), followed by university-backed VC firms (UVCFs). (The State Science and Technology Commission and the Ministry of Finance formed the China New Technology Venture Investment Corporation in 1986, but it was a government agency supporting national technology venture policy objectives, rather than a profit-oriented private enterprise. It went bankrupt in 1997.)

A few foreign VC firms like IDG Capital Partners entered China in the early 1990s. Gradually, from the mid-1990s, the perception of venture capital shifted from its being a type of government funding to being a commercial activity necessary to support the commercialization of new technology. But it wasn’t until 1998 that corporate-backed VC firms could be established, and that started a wave of VC funds backed by government, corporate and foreign capital.

A great summary diagram below from OECD’s Report on China’s Innovation Policy traces the evolution of China’s Innovation Ecosystem.

Evolution of China's Innovation Ecosystem

Investing in China Today
Fast forward a decade, today the Private Equity and Venture Capital business is booming in China with over 1000 firms actively investing. Most of the early deals were done by offshore venture funds – with their fund registered in countries outside China and using dollars. The latest trends are as Renminbi (“RMB”) funds (the Renminbi is the official currency in China.)  In the past foreign funds who wanted to invest in China had to set up funds using dollars with complicated offshore structures with exits through offshore listings. The Renminbi funds have fewer restrictions on what industries the fund can invest in, less regulatory oversight and access to listing a portfolio company in China. There are two types of Renminbi funds: domestic funds and foreign-invested funds.  Domestic Renminbi funds are fully owned by Chinese investors, while foreign-invested Renminbi funds may be partially or fully owned by non-Chinese investors.  Both types of funds are organized under Chinese law and use Renminbi to invest in Chinese companies.

The other big change was the creation of ChiNext, China’s equivalent of NASDAQ stock exchange for start-ups, in 2009. The market was created to provide startups and their investors liquidity. Over 100 startups were listed on ChiNext the first year of its launch at sky-high valuations (average of 66 times earnings.) About 60% of the startups listed on ChiNext were backed by Renminbi funds, making the investors of these funds one of the main beneficiaries of the exchange.

The next posts Part 4  Zhongguancun in Beijing – China’s Silicon Valley and part 5, the Gold Rush and Fire Extinguishers describe the Beijing entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Lessons Learned

  • China’s venture capital system has made a remarkable journey from the “state owns everything” to the free market
  • It’s done it in a series of evolutionary stages, each new one learning from the last

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

China’s Torch Program – the glow that can light the world (Part 2 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese and Chinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual. In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view.Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.China Book Unveiling

The previous post described how China built its science and technology infrastructure. This post is about the how the Chinese government engineered technology clusters.

The Torch Program
In size, scale and commercial results China’s Torch Program from MOST (the Ministry of Science and Technology) is the most successful entrepreneurial program in the world. Of all the Chinese government programs, the Torch Program is the one program that kick-started Chinese high-tech innovation and startups.

In the last decade Torch managed to break free of China’s state central planning bureaucracies. Of all the Chinese innovation programs, Torch is the one that was run like a startup – iterating and pivoting as it learned and discovered. This enabled Torch to evolve with China’s rapidly global economy.

Torch has four major parts: Innovation Clusters, Technology Business Incubators (TBIs), Seed Funding (Innofund) and Venture Guiding Fund.

Innovation Clusters
Industries have a competitive advantage when related companies cluster in a geographical location. Examples are Hollywood for movies, Milan for fashion, New York for finance and today, Silicon Valley for technology entrepreneurship. The early clusters occurred by happenstance of geography or history. But the theory is that you can artificially create a cluster by concentrating resources, finance and competences to a critical threshold, giving the cluster a decisive sustainable competitive advantage over other places. Israel, Singapore and now China are the three countries that have successfully put that theory into practice.

STIPS in ChinaThe Torch program created Innovation Clusters by creating national Science and Technology Industrial Parks (STIPs), Software Parks, and Productivity Promotion Centers.

The first Science and Technology Industrial Park was Zhongguancun Science Park in Beijing. It has become China’s Silicon Valley. (This was the area I visited in this trip to China.) In addition to the one in Beijing, China has set up 53 additional industrial parks and in them are ~60,000 companies with 8 million employees. Industry or technology specific versions of these clusters have been set up; for example Donghu in Wuhan – specializing in optoelectronics, Zhangjiang in Shanghai – focusing on integrated circuits and pharmaceuticals, Tianjin – biotech and new energy, Shenzhen – telecommunications and Zhongshan – medical devices and electronics.

The Science and Technology Industrial Parks contributed 7% of China’s GDP and close to 50% of all of China’s R&D spending.

In addition to the 54 Science and Technology Industrial Parks, the Torch program also set up an additional 32 Torch Program Software Parks.STIPs revenue

Another key part of China’s cluster strategy was collaboration between research and business, as well as between large enterprises and tech-based small and medium enterprises. It did so by building a national network of a 1,000+ Productivity Promotion Centers. They provide consulting, promotion, product testing, hiring, training and incubation services to startups.

Technology Business Incubators (TBIs)
While the Innovation Clusters designated specific areas of the countries where high tech was to occur, it’s the Technology Business incubators located inside these clusters where the startup companies physically reside. Much like incubators worldwide, they provide startups with office space, free rent, access to university technology transfer, etc.

By 2011, there were a total of 1034 Technology Business Incubators across China, including 336 as National incubators, hosting nearly 60,000 companies. (20% of the National Incubators were privately-run and their percentage is steadily increasing.) In recent years Business Incubators have developed into diverse models. For example, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology teamed up to put 45 incubators in universities. There are close to 100 specialized incubators for companies founded by returned overseas Chinese scientists and engineers. There are a dozen sector-specific incubators (a Biomedicine Incubator in Shanghai, Advanced Material Incubator in Beijing, a Marine Technology Incubator in Tianjin, etc.) These incubators are mostly clustered in the eastern coastal regions, and disproportionately target TMT (Technology Media and Telecom) and Biotech.

Some of the startups coming out of these incubators have become large international companies including Lenovo, Huawai, Suntech Power, etc.

Seed Funding (Innofund).
The best analog for China’s InnoFund is the U.S. government’s SBIR and STTR programs. Set up in 1999, Innofund offers grants ($150 – $250K), loan interest subsidies and equity investment. Innofund is designed to bridge early stage technology companies that have innovative technology and good market potential but are too early for commercial funding (banks or VCs.) Innofund applicants have to be in high-tech R&D, have less than 500 people, at least 30% of the employees have to be technical and the majority of the company owned by Chinese. The ultimate goal of Innofund is to get the startups far enough along in technology and market validation so other sources of financial capital (banks, VC’s, corporate partners) will invest.

Since its establishment, there’s been over 35,000 applications with 9,000 projects approved and close to a $1 billion allocated.

Most Venture Capitalists in China viewed the Innofund the same way most U.S. VC’s treat the SBIR and STTR programs – they never heard of it, or they think it takes too much time to apply for too little money. And with the same complaints; tedious, relationship driven application process, bureaucratic reporting requirements, and outcomes often measured in quantity and not quality. However, for startups who have gotten an Innofund grant, it does provide the same positive cachet as an SBIR and STTR grant – the government has reviewed your technology and thought it was worthy.

Venture Guiding Fund
In 2007 the Ministries of Science and Finance raised the stakes to get VC’s focused on funneling more VC money into growing startups – they set up a Venture Guiding Fund. The Venture Guiding Fund invests directly into VC funds, co-invests with VC’s, and covers some VC bets. It does this with four programs: 1) A fund of funds, holding < 25% equity in VC firms, requiring only a fixed rate return; 2) the fund will co-invest with other VC firms matching up to 50% of other VC firm’s equity investment or a maximum of $500K; 3) Risk subsidies for VC firms, where the fund will be compensated for the cost and loss of VC firms which have made investments in technology-based startups; and 4) Grants for portfolio reserves, where the fund will provide grants for technology-based startups which are being incubated and coached by VC firms.

Funding for MOSST Programs

Part 3, the next post describes the rise of Chinese venture capital.

Lessons Learned

  • The Torch Program is the worlds largest “lets engineer entrepreneurial clusters” experiment
  • Torch has four major parts: Clusters, Business Incubators, Seed Funding, and Funds to support Venture Capital firms
  • Torch was the rare government program that was run like a startup – iterating and pivoting as it learned and discovered.

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

China – The Sleeper Awakens (Part 1 of 5)

I just spent a few weeks in Japan and China on a book tour for the Japanese Japan bookcoverand China bookcoverChinese versions of the Startup Owners Manual.  In these series of 5 posts, I thought I’d share what I learned in China.  My post about Japan will follow. All the usual caveats apply. I was only in China for a week so this a cursory view. Thanks to Kai-Fu Lee of Innovation Works, David Lin of Microsoft Accelerator, Frank Hawke of the Stanford Center in Beijing, and my publisher China Machine Press.

Summary: I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 35 years, I’ve taught in entrepreneurial clusters in New York, Boston, Helsinki, Santiago Chile, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Prague, and Tokyo, but the visit to the heart of the Beijing startup world Zhongguancun has truly blown me away.

Each of these clusters has wondered how to become the next Silicon Valley.  Beijing is already there.

———-

What a long strange trip China has been through. After the creation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, all industry was nationalized, agriculture was collectivized, and the private sector was eliminated. All companies were owned by the state, all planning was centralized, and the state determined the allocation of resources. This was the China I grew up with – the one where private enterprise was a crime and marketing wasn’t a profession.

To say China has transformed itself is perhaps the biggest understatement one can make. China has embraced state capitalism in a way Wall Street can only dream about.

Startups, Venture Capital and the Communist Party: how did this happen in China?
The best analogy to describe the relationship of science and technology and the Chinese startup scene is to understand its parallels with the United States during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  During World War II, the U.S. mobilized scientists in a way no other country had. For 45 years – post World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union – the U.S. viewed science and technology as a strategic asset. We made major investments in it, understanding that establishing basic and applied science leadership was necessary for us to build advanced weapons systems to defend our country and deter and if necessary, wage and win a war with the Soviet Union.

These investments took the form of building national research organizations, several for basic science (NSF, NIH) and others for applied weapons research (DOD, DARPA, DOE, etc.) Research universities also became an integral part of the military ecosystem as the federal government pumped billions into supporting science.

Startups, entrepreneurship and commercial applications are happy byproducts of those military investments. For example, as the semiconductor business started, the largest customers for Fairchild’s and Texas Instruments new integrated circuits were the Apollo Guidance Computer and the guidance system for the Minuteman II ICBM.

China is following the same path...
Over the last three decades, to achieve strategic parity with the United States and to construct a modern military, the Chinese have made massive investments in building their science and technology infrastructure. China has gone from a land-based army to one that can support its territorial claims to the South China Sea and Taiwan with anti-access/area-denial weapons. This evolution required a transition, moving from a reliance on the numerical superiority of its land army toward a force boasting sophisticated aircraft and naval platforms, precision- strike weapons, and modern C4SIR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities. Its Second Artillery Corps not only controls China’s ICBMs, but also its short range missiles pointed at Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, and U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa. And its new terminally guided ICBMs have put U.S. aircraft carriers in harms way in any regional confrontation. Its air force and navy have gone from a self-defense force to one that can project regional power effectively to the first island chain and beyond.

DongFeng 21C (CSS-5 Mod-3)

China’s military modernization depends heavily on investments in China’s science and technology infrastructure, reform of its defense industry, and overt and covert procurement of advanced technology and weapons from abroad.

Building China’s Science and Technology infrastructure
Science and startups have come a long way since the 1980’s when the Chinese government owned everything and controlled it through a central planning system.  But before startups could happen, China’s basic science, technology and finance infrastructure and ecosystem needed to be built.  Here’s how a national policy for science and technology emerged.

Beginning in the 1982, China started a series of science and technology programs in five areas: support of basic research, high technology R&D, technology innovation and commercialization, construction of scientific research infrastructure, and development of human resources in science and technology.

The majority of the science and technology programs are driven by MOST (Ministry of Science and Technology) and NSFC (National Natural Science Foundation). As we’ll see later, the MOF (Ministry of Finance) also has had a hand in funding new ventures.

MOST logoThe diagram below from OECD’s Report on China’s Innovation Policy puts the ministries involved in science in context. (Note that it does not show the military technology ministries.)

MOST in China

  • Basic research: National Natural Science Foundation (equivalent to the U.S. National Science Foundation,) ~$1.75 billion budget. The 973 program (National Basic Research Program) part of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
  • High technology R&D: 863 Program (State High Technology R&D Program) headed by ex leaders of Chinese strategic weapons programs, and the National Key Technology R&D Program.
  • Technology innovation and commercialization: National New Product Program, the Spark program for rural innovation, and probably the most important one for startups in China , the Torch Program
  • Science research infrastructure:  National Key Laboratories Program, and the MOST program for the construction of research facilities, R&D databases, and a scientific research network
  • Development of human resources in science and technology: Programs for attracting returnees or overseas Chinese talent: from the Ministry of Education – the Seed Funds for Returned Overseas Scholars, Chunhui Program, and the Cheung Kong Scholar Program. From the Ministry of Personnel – the Hundred Talents Program. From the National Science Foundation – the National Distinguished Young Scholars Program.

Part two the next post, describes China’s Torch Program, the largest government-run entrepreneurial program in the world.

Lessons Learned

  • China is working to build basic and applied science and technology leadership
  • Like the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War they are using science and technology to build advanced weapons systems
  • Technology startups are a side effect from these investments

Listen to the post here: or download the podcast here

The Endless Frontier: U.S. Science and National Industrial Policy (part 1)

The U.S. has spent the last 70 years making massive investments in basic and applied research. Government funding of research started in World War II driven by the needs of the military for weapon systems to defeat Germany and Japan. Post WWII the responsibility for investing in research split between agencies focused on weapons development and space exploration (being completely customer-driven) and other agencies charted to fund basic and applied research in science and medicine (being driven by peer-review.)

The irony is that while the U.S. government has had a robust national science and technology policy, it lacks a national industrial policy; leaving that to private capital. This approach was successful when U.S. industry was aligned with manufacturing in the U.S., but became much less so in the last decade when the bottom-line drove industries offshore.

In lieu of the U.S. government’s role in setting investment policy, venture capital has set the direction for what new industries attract capital.

This series of blog posts is my attempt to understand how science and technology policy in the U.S. began, where the money goes and how it has affected innovation and entrepreneurship. In future posts I’ll offer some observations how we might rethink U.S. Science and National Industrial Policy as we face the realities of China and global competition.

Office of Scientific Research and Development – Scientists Against Time
As World War II approached, Vannevar Bush, the ex-dean of engineering at MIT, single-handledly reengineered the U.S. governments approach to science and warfare. Bush predicted that World War II would be the first war won or lost on the basis of advanced technology. In a major break from the past, Bush believed that scientists from academia could develop weapons faster and better if scientists were kept out of the military and instead worked  in civilian-run weapons labs. There they would be tasked to develop military weapons systems and solve military problems to defeat Germany and Japan. (The weapons were then manufactured in volume by U.S. corporations.)

In 1940 Bush proposed this idea to President Roosevelt who agreed and appointed Bush as head, which was first called the National Defense Research Committee and then in 1941 the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).

OSRD divided the wartime work into 19 “divisions”, 5 “committees,” and 2 “panels,” each solving a unique part of the military war effort. These efforts spanned an enormous range of tasks – the development of advanced electronics; radar, rockets, sonar, new weapons like proximity fuse, Napalm, the Bazooka and new drugs such as penicillin and cures for malaria.

OSRD

The civilian scientists who headed the lab’s divisions, committees and panels were given wide autonomy to determine how to accomplish their tasks and organize their labs. Nearly 10,000 scientists and engineers received draft deferments to work in these labs.

One OSRD project – the Manhattan Project which led to the development of the atomic bomb – was so secret and important that it was spun off as a separate program. The University of California managed research and development of the bomb design lab at Los Alamos while the US Army managed the Los Alamos facilities and the overall administration of the project. The material to make the bombs – Plutonium and Uranium 235 – were made by civilian contractors at Hanford Washington and Oak Ridge Tennessee.

OSRD was essentially a wartime U.S. Department of Research and Development. Its director, Vannever Bush became in all but name the first presidential science advisor. Think of the OSRD as a combination of all of today’s U.S. national research organizations – the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Energy (DOE) and a good part of the Department of Defense (DOD) research organizations – all rolled into one uber wartime research organization.

OSRD’s impact on the war effort and the policy for technology was evident by the advanced weapons its labs developed, but its unintended consequence was the impact on American research universities and the U.S. economy that’s still being felt today.

National Funding of University Research
Universities were started with a mission to preserve and disseminate knowledge. By the late 19th century, U.S. universities added scientific and engineering research to their mission. However, prior to World War II corporations not universities did most of the research and development in the United States. Private companies spent 68% of U.S. R&D dollars while the U.S. Government spent 20% and universities and colleges accounted just for 9%, with most of this coming via endowments or foundations.

Before World War II, the U.S. government provided almost no funding for research inside universities. But with the war, almost overnight, government funding for U.S. universities skyrocketed. From 1941-1945, the OSRD spent $450 million dollars (equivalent to $5.5 billion today) on university research. MIT received $117 million ($1.4 billion in today’s dollars), Caltech $83 million (~$1 billion), Harvard and Columbia ~$30 million ($370 million.) Stanford was near the bottom of the list receiving $500,000 (~$6 million). While this was an enormous sum of money for universities, it’s worth putting in perspective that ~$2 billion was spent on the Manhattan project (equivalent to ~$25 billion today.)OSRD and Universities

World War II and OSRD funding permanently changed American research universities. By the time the war was over, almost 75% of government research and development dollars would be spent inside Universities. This tidal wave of research funds provided by the war would:

  • Establish a permanent role for U.S. government funding of university research, both basic and applied
  • Establish the U.S. government – not industry, foundations or internal funds – as the primary source of University research dollars
  • Establish a role for government funding for military weapons research inside of U.S. universities (See the blog posts on the Secret History of Silicon Valley here, and for a story about one of the University weapons labs here.)
  • Make U.S. universities a magnet for researchers from around the world
  • Give the U.S. the undisputed lead in a technology and innovation driven economy – until the rise of China.

The U.S. Nationalizes Research
As the war drew to a close, university scientists wanted the money to continue to flow but also wanted to end the government’s control over the content of research. That was the aim of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report, Science: the Endless Frontier. Bush’s wartime experience convinced him that the U.S. should have a policy for science. His proposal was to create a single federal agency – the National Research Foundation – responsible for funding basic research in all areas, from medicine to weapons systems. He proposed that civilian scientists would run this agency in an equal partnership with government. The agency would have no laboratories of its own, but would instead contract research to university scientists who would be responsible for all basic and applied science research.

But it was not to be. After five years of post-war political infighting (1945-1950), the U.S. split up the functions of the OSRD.  The military hated that civilians were in charge of weapons development. In 1946 responsibility for nuclear weapons went to the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In 1947, responsibility for basic weapons systems research went to the Department of Defense (DOD). Medical researchers who had already had a pre-war National Institutes of Health chafed under the OSRD that lumped their medical research with radar and electronics, and lobbied to be once again associated with the NIH. In 1947 the responsibility for all U.S. biomedical and health research went back to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each of these independent research organizations would support a mix of basic and applied research as well as product development.

The End of OSRD

Finally in 1950, what was left of Vannevar Bush’s original vision – government support of basic science research in U.S. universities – became the charter of the National Science Foundation (NSF).  (Basic research is science performed to find general physical and natural laws and to push back the frontiers of fundamental understanding. It’s done without thought of specific applications towards processes or products in mind. Applied research is systematic study to gain knowledge or understanding with specific products in mind.)

Despite the failure of Bush’s vision of a unified national research organization, government funds for university research would accelerate during the Cold War.

Coming in Part 2 – Cold War science and Cold War universities.

Lessons Learned

  • Large scale federal funding for U.S. science research started with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) in 1940
  • Large scale federal funding for American research universities began with OSRD in 1940
  • In exchange for federal science funding, universities became partners in weapons systems research and development

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Why Facebook is Killing Silicon Valley

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

John F. Kennedy, September 1962

Innovation
I teach entrepreneurship for ~50 student teams a year from engineering schools at Stanford, Berkeley, and Columbia. For the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps this year I’ll also teach ~150 teams led by professors who want to commercialize their inventions. Our extended teaching team includes venture capitalists with decades of experience.

The irony is that as good as some of these nascent startups are in material science, sensors, robotics, medical devices, life sciences, etc., more and more frequently VCs whose firms would have looked at these deals or invested in these sectors, are now only interested in whether it runs on a smart phone or tablet. And who can blame them.

Facebook and Social Media
Facebook has adroitly capitalized on market forces on a scale never seen in the history of commerce. For the first time, startups can today think about a Total Available Market in the billions of users (smart phones, tablets, PC’s, etc.) and aim for hundreds of millions of customers. Second, social needs previously done face-to-face, (friends, entertainment, communication, dating, gambling, etc.) are now moving to a computing device.  And those customers may be using their devices/apps continuously. This intersection of a customer base of billions of people with applications that are used/needed 24/7 never existed before.

The potential revenue and profits from these users (or advertisers who want to reach them) and the speed of scale of the winning companies can be breathtaking. The Facebook IPO has reinforced the new calculus for investors. In the past, if you were a great VC, you could make $100 million on an investment in 5-7 years. Today, social media startups can return 100’s of millions or even billions in less than 3 years. Software is truly eating the world.

If investors have a choice of investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for fifteen years or a social media application that can go big in a few years, which do you think they’re going to pick? If you’re a VC firm, you’re phasing out your life science division. As investors funding clean tech watch the Chinese dump cheap solar cells in the U.S. and put U.S. startups out of business, do you think they’re going to continue to fund solar?  And as Clean Tech VC’s have painfully learned, trying to scale Clean Tech past demonstration plants to industrial scale takes capital and time past the resources of venture capital.  A new car company? It takes at least a decade and needs at least a billion dollars. Compared to IOS/Android apps, all that other stuff is hard and the returns take forever.

Instead, the investor money is moving to social media. Because of the size of the market and the nature of the applications, the returns are quick – and huge. New VC’s, focused on both the early and late stage of social media have transformed the VC landscape. (I’m an investor in many of these venture firms.) But what’s great for making tons of money may not be the same as what’s great for innovation or for our country. Entrepreneurial clusters like Silicon Valley (or NY, Boston, Austin, Beijing, etc.) are not just smart people and smart universities working on interesting things. If that were true we’d all still be in our parents garage or lab.  Centers of innovation require investors funding smart people working on interesting things – and they invest in those they believe will make their funds the most money. And for Silicon Valley the investor flight to social media marks the beginning of the end of the era of venture capital-backed big ideas in science and technology.

Don’t Worry We Always Bounce Back
The common wisdom is that Silicon Valley has always gone through waves of innovation and each time it bounces back by reinventing itself.

[Each of these waves of having a clean beginning and end is a simplification. But it makes the point that each wave was a new investment thesis with a new class of investors as well as startups.] The reality is that it took venture capital almost a decade to recover from the dot-com bubble. And when it did Super Angels and new late stage investors whose focus was social media had remade the landscape, and the investing thesis of the winners had changed. This time the pot of gold of social media may permanently change that story.

What Next
It’s sobering to realize that the disruptive startups in the last few years not in social media – Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Google driverless cars, Google Glasses – were the efforts of two individuals, Elon Musk, and Sebastian Thrun (with the backing of Google.)  (The smartphone and tablet computer, the other two revolutionary products were created by one visionary in one extraordinary company.) We can hope that as the Social Media wave runs its course a new wave of innovation will follow. We can hope that some VC’s remain contrarian investors and avoid the herd. And that some of the newly monied social media entrepreneurs invest in their dreams.But if not, the long-term consequences for our national interests will be less than optimum.

For decades the unwritten manifesto for Silicon Valley VC’s has been; We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. Here’s hoping that one day they will do it again.

If you can’t see the video above click here.

Listen to the post here: or download the podcasts here

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