Former Google China head reveals his secret projects

Former Google China head reveals his secret projects

After a year of mystery and concealment, Kai-Fu Lee lifts the veil on some of the exciting new projects being developed under his new company, Innovation Works
Innovation Works
Innovation Works new offices were open for a first public viewing on September 6, 2010.

For the past year, the companies and the products they have been developing within the offices of Incubation Works, an investment and incubation firm founded in 2009 by Kai-Fu Lee, have been shrouded in secrecy.

This week, the veil was at least partially lifted as Lee, the former head of Googleʼs operations in China, revealed five of the 12 start-ups and the technologies they are launching for the countryʼs 400 million Internet users and 700 mobile phone users. 

Reporters were invited for a tour of the new offices Innovation Works will move into later this month, and the announcement and tour were held in conjunction with the celebration of the companyʼs first anniversary.

Lee and the Big Three

Kai-Fu LeeKai-Fu Lee, the man behind Innovation Works.Originally from Taiwan and educated at prestigious American universities, including Columbia in New York and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg, Lee worked for Apple before moving to China in the late 1990s to head up Microsoftʼs research division here. In 2005, he joined Google to spearhead the companyʼs Chinese search operations.

Lee left the California-based company to start his own venture: Innovation Works.

According to Lee, the aim of Innovation Works is to provide young Chinese entrepreneurs with financial and other support they might not otherwise be able to find in order to get their start-ups off the ground.

“We want to attract great ideas, great entrepreneurs and great engineers and help matchmake them into great companies,” Lee says. “Chinese entrepreneurs donʼt have a whole lot of experience, and the ones who chose to come here want mentorship.”

Top talent and secrecy

The incubator has received 100,000 resumes, reviewed 500 business plans and garnered around $115 million from investors since it was launched last September, according to Lee. Innovation Works has also recruited top talent from big Internet companies, including Google, the Chinese search giant Baidu and the online shopping portal Alibaba.

Lee says he has intentionally kept who he has hired and the projects they are working on from the public, out of concern that outsiders will copy the concepts and launch them first. (Publicly, he has disclosed the venture is investing heavily in projects focused on the mobile Internet, e-commerce and cloud computing.)

The strategy has resulted in much anticipation coupled with skepticism about what, exactly, Incubation Works has been up to for the past 12 months and whether its projects will be successful in the market. 

Those who are familiar with the start-ups, mainly investors who are interested in funding the new companies, say, so far, they are impressed with the products Innovation Works is developing. 

“All of the projects they are working on are fairly interesting,” says one investor who declined to be identified due to his firmʼs ties with Innovation Works. “Whether they can be commercialized is a different thing but from what I see, I am very interested in getting closer with them to see if there is a chance we can go in for [the next round of funding].” 

Others have expressed concern that Lee does not have enough experience to run such a venture here.

Innovation Works officeInside the Innovation Works office.Not everyone convinced

“He does not have a track record of entrepreneurialism himself,” says another investor who also declined to be identified for similar reasons. “He has not built a company or product and successfully sold it and made a lot of money.”

For now, making a lot of money does not seem to be the top priority for Lee, who says he is more concerned with supporting young entrepreneurs while creating a new climate of innovation within a country known more for copying concepts rather than creating them.

“I think we will be very proud of the work we do, but donʼt expect a Google or an iPhone,” Lee says. “This is not possible at the first iteration.”

As for the second iteration, Lee says he will unveil that later, perhaps on the companyʼs second anniversary. For now, here is what we know about the start-ups Incubation Works is incubating and the secret projects they have been working on.

Incubation Works companies and projects

Tapas: Android-based Mobile Phone Operating System

Aimed at China’s growing number of young mobile Internet users who are buying smartphones, which are increasingly becoming cheaper in the country, this operating system is based on Google’s Android and includes features tailored to Chinese users. 

Such features include contact lists that sync with social networks, software that detects what cities subscribers are calling to or from, a music player that displays lyrics for karaoke fans and e-book reader, which is crucially important here as many Chinese have long read books and other content on handsets.

WonderPod: “iTunes+” for All Smart Phones

For Chinese mobile users, entertainment is a crucially important part of their handset experience.

As 3G access spreads and smartphone penetration increases across the country, more users will inevitably be downloading music, videos and games on their phones.

The problem is third-generation access remains expensive in China and also as more users convert to 3G, there is a risk networks will be clogged with data-heavy content sought by subscribers. This solution (called Wandoujia in Chinese) provides a PC program to manage mobile content.

Users can download videos, music and e-books via a USB cable, helping to alleviate the high cost of downloading data via 3G networks.

Umeng: Mobile Analytics

While it is becoming increasingly easier to track user behavior, demographics and other data from Internet users, figuring out exactly what people are doing on their mobile phones is another story.

This solution is aimed at giving developers a better understanding of who is using the applications they are creating, on what type of phones and identifying whether or not their programs have glitches across different mobile platforms.

It offers a special “Mobile Metrics Report” featuring information about users and the overall market based on data retrieved from more than 1 million phones. Other features include analytics tools enabling app developers to identify the user trends and behavior analytics of around 1 million end users.

PhotoWonder: Fun Photo App for Generation Y

It’s no secret that Chinese like to take photos of themselves, their friends, in fact everything. This is an application that enables China’s young mobile users (its target is particularly young girls) not only to take photos with their phones but also edit them with a Photoshop-like software that is installed right on the handset.

The software allows users to lighten skin color, enlarge eyes, even remove acne. Special designs and stickers can also be added to the photos. The application has been released in simplified and traditional Chinese and is also already proving to be highly popular outside of China, particularly in South Korea where it has also been released. 

Ascending Cloud Technologies: Global Web & Social Game Platform

Once a developer creates an application, the complicated task of tailoring it to different mobile platforms and also distributing it in different markets must be completed. Ascending Cloud is intended to make this process easier.

The game publishing software, which is built on proprietary technology for developing and publishing social and Web games, enables publishing in over 30 countries, thus lowering the cost of multi-country game development and publishing. It will help developers reach more diverse markets, especially in smaller countries where there is high demand for games but few developers to create them for local demographics.


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Originally from Hot Springs, Arkansas, Lara moved to Shanghai to work as a journalist in 2008. Before that, she wrote for CNN International in London.
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