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Top Chinese VC Says 2018 Will Be All About Replacing the Phone

  • Sequoia China’s Neil Shen gauges the post-smartphone era
  • China itself is in the race to develop future technologies

Neil Shen, the Sequoia Capital China co-founder who backed Alibaba when it was still a scrappy startup, thinks the search for the next big platform will be a key focus for investors in 2018.

The priority for venture capital and technology firms next year will be finding and developing candidates to help usher in the post-smartphone era, said Shen, who’s regarded as one of the country’s most influential startup investors. Smart digital assistants, driverless cars, virtual reality or Internet of Things devices are some of the areas that will draw interest, he added.

Investors and industry players are rushing to identify and back new technologies that will become the new go-to platform for accessing services and information, the way the iPhone ignited the modern smartphone era for billions around the globe.

“What we are looking for is from mobile internet toward the next big platform,” said Shen, who co-founded Ctrip.com International Ltd. and helped seed some of the world’s largest startups, including Meituan Dianping and Jinri Toutiao. “I don’t think anyone can just point it out to you and be a so-called predictor.”

That future could well be shaped from China. Boosting technology and research spending has become a core priority for the country, whose central government has declared its plan to become a world leader in vital sciences such as artificial intelligence by 2030. The largest internet firms, Baidu Inc., Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., are already pumping billions into AI research.

Shen himself is a patron of the Future Science Prize alongside Baidu founder Robin Li and Tencent’s Pony Ma, dishing out annual cash awards to three laureates for contributions to the fields of life sciences, physics or mathematics in China.

“If you’re looking at the income statements of many Chinese corporates I think the R&D portion of that is probably still relatively small compared to U.S. companies,” he said. “The very big companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu have all put a lot of effort into this spending. It could mean a reduced net income in the short term but it could mean you have good potential.”

In addition to research spending, the trio are also investing in startups involved in an array of fields. Their buying spree spans everything from consumer shopping apps to ride-sharing services and more advanced technologies. That’s pushed up valuations -- six of the world’s 15 biggest privately backed startups are Chinese. Globally, investors continue to ponder whether tech startups have outpaced their true valuations.

“For the last ten years, people always complain from time to time that the valuations are high but as a matter of fact the market will adjust itself,” Shen said. “If it’s getting too bubblish then it’s going to be adjusted.”

— With assistance by David Ramli

Neil Shen Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

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