Hello from the plane as we fly back to Vancouver from Shanghai. I’m the CEO and founder of Curiate, a big data company that analyzes what TV viewers are interested in and provides that data to the media industry. My CTO, Darren Stone, and I are returning from a two week trip, after being hosted by Silicon Valley’s HanHai Investment to visit key technology areas in China: Tianjin, Huizhou, Hangzhou, Huzhou, Zhenhai, Ningbo, and Shaoxing and to attend the 2016 Alibaba Cloud Computing Conference as VIP guests.
HanHai’s parent company is a technology conglomerate that owns and operates over 3.2 million square feet of science and technology parks in Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Chengdu, Tianjin, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, and Munich. The China Canada Cleantech Innovation Centre (CCCIC) at VentureLabs® in Vancouver and HanHai Investment in Silicon Valley are two of HanHai’s international incubators.
The purpose of the trip was for HanHai to introduce North American companies to potential strategic partners and investors in order to help with market-entry. Everyone knows that China is a huge market opportunity, but it’s challenging for a North American company to accurately assess the market, establish a local presence, and find strategic partners there.
For many startups, it’s a chicken and egg problem of needing to have feet-on-the-ground in China in order to understand the market, but also needing an understanding of the market in order to decide whether to invest in feet-on-the-ground. HanHai has relationships and influence with key decision makers, technology parks, and incubators in China – they’re able to help founders navigate and better understand the market there via a 10 day guided roadshow, so that bigger decisions can be made more easily after the tour. We were extremely fortunate to be invited by HanHai after Curiate took third place at the North American Aliyun Cloud Startup Competition in Silicon Valley. CCCIC has a similar roadshow program at VentureLabs.
The days have been long, but huge in scope and opportunity. Typical days start between 5 and 6 am to practice our pitch in Mandarin and English, breakfast buffet, then pitch with investors and influencers at key innovation centres, break for lunch (Chinese round table, endless dishes of amazing food), hop on the bus to go to another tech centre or city for an afternoon pitch or tour of major tech companies. Then massive dinner with more endless dishes, official activities end between 9 pm to 11 pm. Unless you decide to go out for karaoke (“KTV”) until the wee hours like we did. Then fly, train, or bus to another city… lather, rinse, repeat. ? HanHai understands that it’s a huge investment for founders to leave their startups for 10 days, so they pack in as much as possible to make it as worthwhile as possible.
China does things big and they do it quickly. We’ve all heard about how fast China is evolving, but to see it in action is eye-opening. Billions of dollars pumped into the tech sector by the government and private companies, massive technology zones that surpass Silicon Valley in many ways, huge subsidies for foreign and local companies that have educated talent, and, of course, a massive market opportunity. The progress I’ve seen since I was here six years ago is incredible – things are much more sophisticated now, from industrial design to urban planning.
A lot of smart North American companies are bringing their technology there and combining it with Chinese money and market. As China shifts from manufacturing on behalf of other countries to developing their own innovation, the amount of knock-offs/stealing of ideas is starting to decline, similar to Japan’s evolution.
My feeling is that North American companies currently have the opportunity to enter the market and be very competitive because we may bring a more sophisticated approach. But that window will close as China evolves – I think that Chinese companies will quickly fill the gaps that international companies don’t take. It was a common opinion in China that “if you don’t do it, someone else will”. My encouragement to Canadian founders who are thinking about entering China is to go now and take a quick look even if you’re not ready to enter the market immediately. The perspective will help you start paving a path of contacts so that it’s ready when you’re ready.
One outcome from our trip is an introduction to Wasu Media, a digital media provider that Netflix is working with to enter the China market. For Curiate, they are the perfect strategic partner and/or investor – we are in discussion with their head of investment.
The other benefit of the trip is forming close relationships with other founders – on our trip, they were from Silicon Valley, other areas of California, Boston, Chicago, and Indiana. There were early stage startups founded by new university grads, to companies backed by MIT and Purdue, to companies founded by seasoned industry experts. The first and second prize winners from the global competition at the Alibaba conference were in our group. So the opportunity to see what other companies are doing and to learn from other founders is invaluable. With the long days and the foreignness of everything, comradeship is easy to build.
It’s been a big investment in time and resources for Darren and I to be here for two weeks. To be honest, we had some significant hesitation about going, but we went because we felt the opportunity would be greater than the risk. So in answer to the big question or whether this trip was worthwhile, the answer is a resounding yes.
I feel very fortunate for the opportunities we’re receiving and excited about what the future will bring, both in North America and China.
Many thanks to VentureLabs® for creating our opportunity with HanHai, and to HanHai for hosting us so generously.