In line with our mission to shed light on the many investment opportunities popping up across Asia and Australasia, FinanceAsia is showcasing the entrepreneurs who are leading the wave of technological disruption in different countries and across a range of sectors.
Their companies range in size and maturity, but these people share a common drive and vision to compete against established institutions, whether in financial services, retail, energy, robotics, or logistics, to name just a few of the industries featured.
Following our methodology, we have selected five entrepreneurs from each of Asia Pacific's largest economies. Today we turn to China.
China’s startup scene is quickly evolving; unpredictable government regulation and ever-changing economic circumstances have forced the nation’s entrepreneurs to be adaptable.
Technological advancement and a better quality of life are driving these founders. Unlike the previous generation of Chinese entrepreneurs that flocked to megacities like Shanghai and Beijing, these entrepreneurs are more focused than ever on bringing their services to second and third-tier cities.
Company: Didi Chuxing
Year founded: 2012
Prominent backers: Blackrock, Softbank
Liu, president of ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing, is an entrepreneurial tour de force.
The Beijing-born and raised daughter of Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi is best-known for going head to head with former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick – and winning. DiDi took over Uber’s China operations in 2016 and now dominates the national market.
Under her leadership, the company records 550 million registered users and delivers approximately 10 billion trips a year.
“Our mission is to provide more affordable, comfortable, and efficient mobility service to everyone. And I mean everyone,” Liu told Bloomberg’s Global Business Forum in 2017. “In China, we do not have enough space for cars. That’s why we are trying our best to provide a series of products – not just private ride-sharing.”
DiDi has intelligent taxi and minibuses systems, as well as car-pooling and bike-sharing. International markets include Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Japan and Australia, while DiDi operates in Brazil under the 99 brand and offers a DiDi cashless payment service.
Inside and outside of the company, Liu is a driving force for gender equality in the region. A quarter of management and 40% of DiDi employees are women. She initiated a day-care programme for staff with children and last year signed a memorandum of understanding with IFC to support gender equality.
Liu studied computer science at Harvard. She spent 12 years at Goldman Sachs and rose to managing director before joining DiDi in 2014 as chief operating officer.
Year founded: 2012
Prominent backers: Tencent, Telstra Ventures
Zhou is the founder and CEO of robotics and machine-learning company UBTech. In 2012, he sold off his stock in companies and mortgaged his house to prepare for UBTech’s launch the following year. The startup struggled to attract funding at the seed level, so it was largely self-financed with money borrowed from friends and family.
But the investment has paid serious dividends, both financial and scientific. The entrepreneur views robots, particularly his bipedal models, as more than pieces of tech hardware – one day they “will be an indispensable part of your family”. Until then, Zhou will continue to make robots accessible to everyday consumers through his ranges of superhero and cartoon-inspired creations.
“I just like robots. In the past, few people saw robots’ value – industrial robots or other robots – and investors didn’t see it either,” Zhou recalled in an interview last year. “But I did.”
The self-declared Father of Robots is known for bold marketing stunts, such as when UBTech’s robots popped up across screens in Times Square, New York. In 2018, a video of the robodog Jimu licking its paws at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala went viral.
Zhou and his team made history in 2018 when UBTech raised the most in a single funding round of any AI firm in the world to achieve a $5 billion valuation. Funding was led by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent.
Company: Megvii Face++
Year founded: 2011
Prominent backers: Alibaba, Yitu
When Qi founded Megvii Technologies in 2011 with two Tsinghua University classmates, he set out to transform Chinese machine learning and AI. Megvii’s main offering, facial recognition tech Face++, is the product of these efforts.
The technology is now used in more than 220 countries and Qi was named on MIT Tech Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 list last year.
It has not all been smooth sailing. Megvii struggled to find attract investors in the early years, and now faces questions about the ethical implications of its technology.
Year founded: 2013
Industry: E-Commerce, Social Media
Prominent backers: Alibaba, Tencent
Qu co-founded Xiaohongshu with colleague Charlwin Mao in 2013. She is a worthy addition to FinanceAsia’s Top Entrepreneur List, thanks to her knack for capitalising on Millennials’ consumption habits.
Xiaohongshu – which means Little Red Book in Mandarin – is dedicated to shopping overseas, particularly in Japan and South Korea. Its international e-commerce community boasts many celebrity users including American influencer Kim Kardashian and fashion model Karlie Kloss.
Qu graduated from the journalism program at Beijing Foreign Studies University but chose to turn her passion for shopping and fashion into a career.
Headquarters: Fremont, CA, Beijing
Year founded: 2016
Prominent backers: ClearVue Partners, DCM Ventures
As chief executive and founder of autonomous driving company Pony.ai, Peng is a shrewd innovator with big plans.
Peng studied at Tsinghua University before moving to the US for graduate school. He spent two years as a research associate at Stanford University but was soon drawn to the corporate sector where he worked first as a software engineer at Google before leading Baidu’s autonomous vehicle department.
Pony.ai launched in 2016 and its driverless vehicles can be spotted in southern China. Pony.ai netted $214 million over two rounds of Series A funding last year and raised an additional $50 million this year.
This story has been corrected to amend details to Jean Liu's entry