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The Rise Of China’s Innovation Machine



China has long been the factory floor that churns out popular gadgets for companies world-wide, but the country’s own technology products were rarely viewed as leading edge.

Now, that is beginning to change.

Increasingly, China’s own technology companies are challenging market leaders and setting trends in telecommunications, mobile devices and online services.

Keeping better-known global competitors at bay in their massive home market, they are hiring Silicon Valley executives and expanding overseas with aggressive marketing campaigns featuring international sports stars and celebrities.

Lenovo Group
PCs and mobile devicesFOREIGN COUNTERPARTS:
PCs: Hewlett-Packard, Dell; Smartphones: Apple, Samsung

$33.9 billion

• Became world’s biggest PC maker in 2013
• Bought IBM’s PC business in 2005 for $1.25 billion
• Generates more than half of its revenue overseas

Chinese companies still face a perception problem among consumers in many parts of the world that their products aren’t as high-quality or reliable as others. Some foreign competitors have alleged that Beijing gives unfair advantages through subsidies, cheap financing and control over the currency market.

But, many executives at Chinese and Western companies contend, China’s technology sector is reaching a critical mass of expertise, talent and financial firepower that could realign the power structure of the global technology industry in the years ahead.

“Traditionally Chinese companies were fast followers, but we are starting to see true innovation,” said Colin Light, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The rise of China’s tech industry is fueled in part by its growing investment in research and development. According to a study released in December by U.S.-based Battelle Memorial Institute, R&D spending in China will likely reach $284 billion this year, up 22% from 2012. That compares with just 4% growth forecast in the U.S. to $465 billion for the same period. It forecasts China will surpass Europe in terms of R&D spending by 2018 and exceed the U.S. by 2022.

At Shenzhen-based Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s second-largest telecommunications-equipment supplier by revenue after Sweden’s Ericsson, annual R&D expenditures rose fourteenfold in a decade to $5.46 billion in 2013 from $389 million in 2003.

When Peter Zhou joined Huawei straight out of graduate school in 2000, the company’s Shanghai research center had a few hundred workers in a shared office. Every Wednesday night after work, Mr. Zhou and other young Chinese engineers gathered for study sessions, sometimes using university textbooks from the U.S.

“At that time, Huawei was not at the same level as Western companies,” Mr. Zhou, now an executive at Huawei’s wireless-equipment business, recalls.

“We were like students.”

But in the past decade, Huawei overtook Western rivals such as Nokia Corp. NOK1V.HE -0.51% and Alcatel-Lucent SA ALU.FR -1.10% in the telecom-gear market. Part of its success stemmed from Huawei engineers’ creative ways to upgrade wireless networks using software instead of a costly method of replacing all hardware components, according to Mr. Zhou.

Huawei now has an R&D center in Shanghai that employs more than 10,000 engineers, many of whom have computer-science degrees. As the mobile industry deploys faster fourth-generation networks, Huawei is already working on the technology for fifth-generation networks, which could be ready around 2020.

Huawei’s global expansion has met some skepticism. Last year, some European Union officials alleged that unfair subsidies from the Chinese government allowed Huawei to sell its gear at lower prices in Europe. Huawei denied those allegations.

In October, when Danish telecom carrier TDC TDC.KO -0.68% A/S announced a $700-million deal to replace its existing Ericsson equipment with Huawei’s gear, TDC Chief Executive Carsten Dilling said that he chose Huawei for its technical expertise, not its prices—adding that Huawei was “actually quite expensive.”

Glory Global Solutions Ltd., a U.K.-based global supplier of cash-handling machines used at banks, opened a research center in Shanghai in 2011. The center’s Chinese engineers are developing advanced sensor technology to identify various security features embedded in bank notes to detect counterfeit bills, combing software programming, hardware engineering and scientific methods like spectrometry.

Working on cutting-edge technology with Chinese engineers involves a risk of them leaving to set up local competitors, said its Chief Executive Paul Adams. Still, local engineers are bringing new ideas to Glory Global, he said.

China is also moving up the technological curve in sophisticated areas like mobile processor chips, where it used to be absent. U.S. competitors like Qualcomm Inc. QCOM +0.28% and Nvidia Corp. NVDA +0.31% are still far ahead, but China’s Fuzhou Rockchip Electronics Co. and Allwinner Technology Co. are increasing their presence in the fast-growing market for chips used in low-end smartphones and tablets. Last month, the Chinese government announced plans to spend almost $5 billion to create a fund to make investments in the country’s microchip industry.

In consumer products, few Chinese brands have succeeded in becoming household names globally. But personal-computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd. 0992.HK -2.68% , which last year overtook Hewlett-Packard Co. HPQ +2.50% as the world’s largest PC maker by units sold, is setting a new precedent with its aggressive global expansion in smartphones. In the third quarter of last year, Lenovo ranked third in smartphone sales globally after Samsung Electronics Co. 005930.SE -0.15% and Apple Inc., AAPL -0.56% according to research firm Gartner.


Huawei spent $5.46 billion on research in 2013, up from $389 million in 2003. Above, a Huawei phone at CES. Associated Press

Lenovo, which bought International Business Machines Corp.’s IBM +0.54% PC business in 2005, released its first smartphone in China in 2010. At that time, its executives knew that the company lacked many of the resources necessary to compete globally in smartphones. Lenovo recruited many people from telecom and Internet industries to inject “new blood,” according to Chief Strategy Officer Zhou Qingtong.Around 2010, Lenovo also created a team of mobile-app developers. In mid-2013, it launched Qiezi, an app for both Apple’s iOS and Google Inc. GOOG +0.66% ‘s Android operating systems that enables two phones to instantly share photos and videos without an Internet connection. In four months after its debut, Qiezi gained more than 30 million users, according to Lenovo.

“We needed a game changer,” said J.D. Howard, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who joined Lenovo in early 2012 to head its overseas mobile device operations.

In 2012, Lenovo signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the U.S. National Football League that allowed it to use NFL trademarks in its marketing. Lenovo also hired National Basketball Association star Kobe Bryant for its smartphone ads in Asia and enlisted Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher in its latest marketing ploy in the U.S.

Since 2012, Lenovo has launched smartphones in overseas markets such as Indonesia, India and Russia. In Indonesia, it now takes up more than 10% of the local smartphone market.

“Apple is of course a cool brand, but I think Lenovo is cool too,” said Amalia Pulungan, a nonprofit worker in Jakarta who bought a Lenovo smartphone in October.

In late December, Lenovo opened its new hub for research, development and production of smartphones and tablets in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, after it spent $800 million to build the 200,000 square-meter facility.

“We definitely want to be number one in smartphones, but it will be a long journey,” said Lenovo Chief Executive Yang Yuanqing during an interview.

While Chinese companies have made big gains in hardware, many of them face a challenge that has plagued other Asian technology companies: developing software and user interfaces that appeal to a global audience.

Tencent Holdings Ltd. TCEHY +0.20% , which owns the WeChat smartphone application, is bucking that trend. Launched in late 2010, WeChat dominates China’s mobile messaging market and the majority of the app’s 272 million monthly active users are in China. But last year, it spent $200 million on overseas ad campaigns to push WeChat into many markets including India, South Africa, Spain and Italy. Tencent says the app has more than 100 million downloads abroad.

WeChat was ahead of competitors in offering an easy-to-use feature for sending recorded voice messages and it is challenging the dominance of Silicon Valley’s WhatsApp, which has more than 300 million monthly active users globally.

Mikey Mashila, an 18-year-old fashion designer in Johannesburg, downloaded WeChat last summer, after seeing the app’s TV ad featuring Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi.

“Everyone knows Messi in South Africa,” said Mr. Mashila, who invited his friends to join WeChat and now uses the app as often as WhatsApp.

“In handsets or laptops, Chinese tech companies’ global expansion has been much more of a hardware story so far, and I think what’s fascinating about Tencent is that it’s becoming a software and services story,” said Michael Reynal, a portfolio manager at San Francisco-based RS Investments, which has about $27 billion in total assets under management.

Tencent’s share price nearly doubled last year and its market capitalization of $123 billion isn’t far from Facebook Inc. FB -0.71% ‘s $139 billion market value.

Tencent isn’t alone. A basket of Chinese tech stocks rose 42% over the past six months, according to Reorient Financial Markets. Over the same period, the S&P North American Technology Sector Index rose 18%.

Behind the overseas expansion of Lenovo, Huawei and Tencent, the domestic startup scene is also becoming more vibrant. In China, where smartphones are sole Internet tools for many consumers, the behavior of local mobile users has at times presaged trends in the U.S.

Several years ago, Chinese entrepreneur Tang Yan researched his idea of a location-based mobile dating app that would connect strangers in close geographic proximity, and was surprised to find few examples of such services among major U.S. apps. “I thought if the idea is right, then it would get hot in America first,” said Mr. Tang, who is now chief executive of Beijing Momo Technology.

Mr. Tang launched Momo, a dating app, in China in 2011 and now has more than 35 million monthly active users. The most similar app in the U.S., Tinder, launched in September 2012.

“More Chinese players are beginning to realize that to survive in the long run and have sustainable growth, they really have to innovate,” said Bernard Kwok, a Beijing-based senior vice president of U.S. software maker Symantec Corp. SYMC +0.70%.

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Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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