For a company whose software speaks to more than half a billion people, iFlytek tends to keep its voice low. Founded by a group of researchers in 1999 and headquartered in the relatively sleepy eastern city of Hefei, the company was ranked as the 6th smartest firm in the world in 2017—just one place below Google—by MIT Technology Review. Over the past two decades, iFlytek developed software that can understand several Chinese dialects fluently—a feat Apple’s Siri still struggles with. It can transcribe it into text, and translate it into English instantly. In this interview, Jiang Tao, Senior Vice President of iFlytek, who joined in the firm at the very beginning, explains how the company reached this point and how it keeps hold of its world-class researchers.
China is now home to many of the world’s largest and most dynamic private companies. But apart from a few exceptions such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, little is known outside China about the intrepid entrepreneurs who built these business empires, often against astonishing odds. Professor Peter Cappelli at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and author of Fortune Makers: The Leaders Creating China’s Great Global Companies, is trying to change that.
The first wave of Chinese entrepreneurs are now in their 70s and 80s and it’s time to hand over the family business to their children. But in many cases it may not happen. With greater opportunities and a more international worldview, the younger generation has their own plans. Will this lead China to a business succession crisis?
China’s financial sector used to be famous for its poor service and imperviousness to innovation. Even today, when customers go to make a transaction at one of the country’s big state-run banks, they often take a bag of snacks with them—they know they’re in for a long wait. But things are changing fast in the Middle Kingdom. A new generation of digital finance firms is taking the country—and the global markets—by storm in everything from digital payments and micro-lending to insurance and wealth management. How will China’s lumbering state-run banks react? Will tightening regulation nip this revolution in the bud?
How do big multinational companies innovate? According to Kapil Kane, Director of Innovation at Intel China, there are three ways: partnership, acquisition and in-house development. The problem with the last of these is that in-house R&D laboratories may be good at invention but not at innovation—that is, finding new uses for, or making improvements to, existing products and processes. Kane aims to fix this at Intel China with his Ideas2Reality (I2R), a startup program nested inside Intel’s China operation that encourages employees to submit ideas, which are vetted, incubated and accelerated using the same principles used by leading Silicon Valley accelerators like Y Combinator.
Medical spending in China is increasing every year, and people have started to buy medicine online, with nearly 3 million people buying medicine through mobile apps, among which the largest one is Yiyaowang–the”No.1 pharmacy.” Set up by Yu Gang and his partner, the founder of China’s first large online supermarket, Yihaodian, Yiyaowang is also a key part of a healthcare ecosystem that combines an online hospital, a drugstore and patients. Yu, an experienced businessman and a scholar, tells how he built the ecosystem, how it simplifies the medical process and gives patients access to cheaper drugs.
NetEase is the Chinese internet pioneer you have probably never heard of. Founded in 1997, before its bigger and better-known Chinese internet peers Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (collectively known as BAT), it is largely unknown outside of China. NetEase is currently making big pushes into many new businesses: e-commerce, online learning, music streaming and a host of other businesses, but it still has a long way to go to climb back to the top of the China tech tree. Analysts note that NetEase lacks the breadth of its rivals’ businesses, and that will likely stymie its growth, unless it can continue to diversify successfully.
The Chinese internet industry has developed at an amazing speed with a number of tech firms becoming “unicorns” worldwide. A major force behind those fast-growing companies and young CEOs is the venture capital firms who play a crucial role in spotting and supporting innovative models. Over the past 10 years, VC has evolved from a non-mainstream form of finance to one of the hottest areas in the Middle Kingdom. Ramon Zeng, with a number of successful investments in “unicorns”, talks about his observation of the industry and what the next big trend will be.
One of the topics favored most by Chinese tech people is which city, or region, in China will become the next “Silicon Valley”. While observers have not gotten bored of guessing which one will be the next “unicorn” company, those who are really in startup companies have realized the fact that the China startup scene has peaked: many companies have died, using up the money given by investors but keeping no loyal users at all. Read our story about China’s startup bubbles and find how these bubbles, blown up by ambitious yet empty ideas, business plans and investors’ ignorance, finally fall and burst.
Inspired by the unicorn WeWork in the US, Chinese entrepreneurs have been starting their own co-working spaces. And renting a spot in a co-working space has become a popular option for startups. At the end of 2015, there were over 16,000 of these co-working spaces in China. Are they being formed because of real customer demand or just inflated by a startup bubble? Can they really save cost? What’s their future? How do they differ from US co-working spaces? Read our interview with Mao Daqing, CEO of URwork, the largest co-working space in China in terms of scale, to find the answers.