Few people outside China will have heard of Bytedance, the Beijing-based software startup that creates fiendishly addictive content apps using world-leading artificial intelligence technology. However, more than 200 million people in China—or over one in four of the country’s mobile users—use Bytedance’s products every day, and now the company has ambitions to hook the rest of the world on its apps too. Huge traffic brings customized contents to Bytedance users, which is the magic code for its success. But copyright lawsuits and competition from the BAT companies are just two of the challenges Bytedance faces.
Cities across China are making huge investments in order to transform themselves into world-class innovation hubs. So far, the Pearl River Delta Greater region, led by Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, is the most promising area. Connected by high-speed railways and land bridges, barriers between Hong Kong and mainland have been removed. With Hong Kong as the financial hub, Shenzhen as the innovation center and Guangzhou as the long-term trade harbor, China’s “Greater Bay Area” is taking shape. Will the regional integration create a new innovation engine that China urgently needs?
In the eyes of insiders, if you are not talking about “AI and Finance,” then you risk being left behind–just as stubborn holdouts in another era were stranded when they failed to accept the Internet. Traditionally, finance has had two core functions: to lower transaction costs and to improve asset pricing. The use of the Internet has undermined the first by enabling more direct transactions, and AI is now disrupting the second by improving the speed and accuracy of asset pricing. Threatened by this are services like asset allocation, investment advisory and insurance pricing, which affects not only banks, but also investment and insurance firms.
BGI, China’s biggest genetics company, offers genetic testing services around the world and did an IPO on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 2017. In 2016, the company recorded revenues of RMB 1.7 billion ($261 million), with a net profit of RMB 350 million ($54 million)–an increase of 28% over the previous year. However, in a country prone to market hype, there are those who view BGI’s dramatic stock performance with a dash of skepticism: The market valuation of BGI is high, mainly because there is room to imagine future developments in the genomics industry. BGI’s future success will hinge on its ability to lead the technology change, and that is no small challenge.
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.
The sharing economy exploded in China this year, with companies for all kinds of shareable objects taking part in this new business model. While there are businesses familiar to Westerners—shared offices, cars and rides—there are also ideas that seem a little kooky, such as shared basketballs and umbrellas. Although some call it innovative, many realize these companies are just “rental 2.0” companies, assisted by digital technology. As the concept reaches fever pitch, however, it is also facing a reality check, especially as many firms, ballooned by venture capital funds, start to show signs of failing.
“China is not known for greenness, but it is moving in that direction,” says Christian Haessler, Head of Innovation for Covestro in the Asia-Pacific region. An offshoot of the German pharmaceuticals and life sciences giant Bayer, Covestro was spun off in 2015 and today produces advanced raw materials for like the environmental friendly coatings and lightweight materials to be used in electric vehicles. In this interview with CKGSB Knowledge, Haessler explains what Covestro’s business is like in China as a behind-the-scenes firm and how it, with material technology, supports China’s sustainable development.
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.
Silicon Valley may hog the artificial intelligence (AI) limelight, but Chinese companies are catching up by implementing AI technologies in real life. According to a McKinsey Global Institute research report, China is one of the leading global hubs of AI development and its advantages include the vast population and a diverse industry mix that has the potential to generate huge volumes of the data needed to feed AI systems. That population not only provides an enormous market for AI-related products, but also, with the large number of internet users, about 731 million, China generates more data than most other countries—a key to AI innovation.
“Innovation” is difficult, yet the word itself is so overly used that the meaning of it has become hollow. Some people consider being “innovative” as being “lucky.” Yet for Clay Christensen, a business professor at Harvard, innovation is about finding the “jobs that need to be done” in our lives. In this interview with CKGSB Knowledge, he argues that companies should not take the task as akin to gambling. Instead, companies should adopt a more focused, process-oriented approach of finding the “jobs” that customers need to do in their lives, and then create products that make those jobs easier.