Business / Companies

After riding Internet wave, top woman investor bets on hardware

(Agencies) Updated: 2015-08-28 11:04

Long before she became the first woman to figure in the top-10 on Forbes "Midas List" of leading venture capital investors this year, GGV Capital's Jenny Lee cut her teeth as an engineer on Singapore's fighter jets.

She went on to make millions of dollars betting on China's software and Internet boom - including buying into Xiaomi Corp five years ago when the company had only a prototype of the smartphones that have since catapulted it up the global rankings and turned it into a $45 billion enterprise.

Now, Lee, 43, is going back to her hardware roots, predicting a renaissance for startups as China boosts technology and skills at factories, potentially triggering a wave of new inventions - from drones and robots to smart cars and beyond.

"Finally, after 15 years of investment in China, we are starting to see the real 'makers' come to play," said Singapore-born Lee, who moved to China in 2005 to set up GGV's Shanghai office.

GGV, founded in 2000 as Granite Global Ventures, has nearly $2.7 billion across six funds, with early investments in e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, ride-hailing app Didi Kuaidi and Tujia, a Chinese vacation rental firm similar to Airbnb Inc.

The venture capital firm invested in Alibaba when Jack Ma's group was valued at just $200 million. It is now worth $171 billion. Lee also invested in UCWeb, which Alibaba bought for $4 billion last year in China's biggest Internet sector deal.

China's cabinet this year unveiled the "Internet Plus" and "Made in China 2025" plans to boost output through new investments and innovation as breakneck growth slows in the world's second-largest economy and labor costs rise.

Lee sees a particularly attractive opportunity in China with these sweeping plans to digitize and automate the economy.

"China reinvents itself every 10 years, and you can see this in their policies - from the migration from low-cost labor to software-based IT personnel in 2000-05, to now precision manufacturing and automation," said Lee, who worked briefly as a banker at Morgan Stanley.

Lee, a junior college doubles kayaking champion, recently invested in Chinese smart notebook startup Xiaoniu and EHang, a drone maker that specializes in flight control software and is looking to expand into agricultural and industrial applications.

She has also looked into electric cars and autonomous driving and flight technologies, as an extension of the investments in EHang and electric scooter NIU.

Together with Hans Tung, another managing partner at GGV, Lee has focused on hardware startups with a presence or founders in both China and the United States - firms better able to marry Chinese supply chain know-how with Western product design skills, Tung said.

Lee, a trailblazer in the male-dominated world of venture capital, says the industry is "gender agnostic", though she quips that she is as much at home with the guys on the golf course - "I drive 250 yards" - as she is having dinner with entrepreneurs at home with their family and kids.

Beyond crunching numbers on startup businesses, Lee says she works to simple metrics. "Have you invested? Have you helped companies? Have you made money for investors?"

"Startups are not an object. They are successful because of the people behind them. It is about understanding the motivation behind the person. When we talked to (Xiaomi founder) Lei Jun, it is not saying 'oh, are you making a phone? What's in it?' He has this passion, he has to win. That is very important."

Executives who have worked with Lee say she has strong analytical skills and a steely, decisive edge.

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