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China has a vibrant and booming startup ecosystem, second only to the U.S. in terms of the number of unicorns and the total amount of funding raised.
Though China has long been viewed by foreigners as a unique market with its own set of rules and intricate business culture, Chinese startups have been moving quickly to embrace cutting-edge technologies, adopt the best business models, and optimize organizational structures to position themselves for global growth.
One of the best-known examples of a Chinese startup finding success overseas is TikTok (known as Douyin in its home market and part of the Chinese startup giant Bytedance) which has reached over 2 billion global downloads and over 800 million monthly active users outside of China. But other Chinese startups are chasing the same success and have the potential to be in markets around the world.
We have compiled a list of five interesting Chinese startups that could soon be international phenomena. For this list, we focused on privately held companies that are eight years or younger, rather than China’s biggest or best-known startups. Additionally, these startups have a global presence outside of China or are planning to expand overseas.
Ximalaya FM, or Ximalaya, is the biggest audio platform in China, and even the world in terms of total number of users. With content covering a wide range of audio genres, including audio books, podcasts, training seminars, talk shows and audio dramas, Ximalaya attracts more than 600M users in China.
The company is also expanding into other regions of the world, and in early 2019, it established a U.S. foothold through a San Francisco-based podcasting venture called Himalaya.
Founded in 2012 by serial entrepreneurs Yu Jianjun and Chen Xiaoyu, Shanghai-based Ximalaya rose to the No. 1 position in China’s competitive audio platform landscape with its quality content and strong growth trajectory. But more importantly, it came up with a creative revenue model whereby millions of people in China are willing to pay to listen to various types of content from Ximalaya. The company says that it earns more from user fees than ad revenue. In contrast to music streaming services, the company has a broader range of audio content, which makes it hard to say whether Ximalaya is more like an "Alibaba in audio content" or a "Spotify in all genres.”
Ximalaya has closed several rounds of funding, including a $460M round in 2018 from top-tier investors such as Primavera Capital Group, Tencent, General Atlantic, and Goldman Sachs. The company is reportedly valued at more than $3 billion and considering an initial public offering in the U.S. this year.
Pony.ai was founded in 2016 by former Baidu autonomous driving sector leader James Peng, and Lou Tiancheng, a 10-year medalist of the TopCoder competitions and 2-time champion of the global programming competition Google Code Jam. This company has been a superstar since its beginning. Not only does it have a stellar founding team with almost all of the members receiving advanced degrees from top universities, the company has also been embraced by top-tier investors, including Sequoia Capital China, Eight Roads (Fidelity International Limited’s investment arm), and IDG Capital.
Pony.ai positions itself as the provider of the best technology in autonomous driving. The company rolled out China’s first fully self-driving fleet of vehicles in 2018, and became the first startup to secure a license to test autonomous vehicles in Beijing. In May, Pony.ai announced that it nabbed licenses to test passenger-carrying autonomous vehicles in China’s capital, an important next step towards broader commercialization of driverless cars.
Last November, Pony.ai was the first company to launch a public-facing robotaxi service in California in collaboration with Hyundai and ride-sharing company Via. This is in addition to Pony.ai’s internal employee robotaxi service, called PonyPilot, located at its headquarters in Fremont, CA. The company exceeded 1.5 million autonomous kilometers (or 932,056 miles) in 2019.
Investors’ appetite for autonomous vehicles remains strong with Pony.ai closing a $462M Series B funding round this February at a valuation of $3 billion led by Toyota. Pony.ai’s relationship with Toyota dates back to 2019 when the companies partnered on autonomous driving pilots in China using Pony.ai’s technology and Toyota’s vehicles.
Geek+, a global technology company specializing in smart logistics, is a rising star in China’s movement to boost automation and efficiency in all labor-intensive industries. Utilizing advanced robotics and artificial intelligence technology, the company offers solutions for warehouse and factory operations by solving problems in speed, product diversification, same-day delivery and safety.
Geek+ was founded in 2015 by Yong Zheng, Hongbo Li, Kai Liu, and Xi Chen to address the complex production and logistics challenges faced by warehouse and manufacturing operators amid the rise of e-commerce. The company’s smart logistics systems serve a wide range of industries with customers like Nike, Dell, DHL and Toyota. More than 10,000 logistics robots have been deployed by the company for a new generation of automated warehouses.
In February, Geek+ launched its U.S. operations establishing an office in San Diego. The company has over 800 employees and is headquartered in Beijing, with offices in Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S.
The expected strong growth potential in the robotics industry has led to plenty of funding from investors. Geek+ raised a $150M Series C1 round in 2019 led by GGV Capital, with participation from D1 Capital Partners, and Warburg Pincus. This follows the company’s $150M Series B round in November 2018 led by Warburg Pincus.
Agora.io aims to revolutionize how people interact globally. The company offers a real-time engagement platform that allows developers to easily embed voice, video and live interactive broadcasting APIs into any mobile, web or desktop application. The company’s industry-leading real-time communication network powers more than 40+ billion minutes of live communications per month.
With offices in Shanghai and Santa Clara, Agora.io has a global footprint serving both large and small companies, including many of the well-known names in the world of online entertainment. It is the most widely used Communications-Platform-as-a-Service around the world for companies in industries ranging from gaming, social and e-commerce to education, healthcare and more.
Agora.io debuted on the Nasdaq in June 2020 and surged in its first day of trading. The company closed at $50.50 on day one, up from its initial pricing of $20.
AIG (Asia Innovations Group)
AIG (Asia Innovations Group), a leading mobile social entertainment platform, was founded in 2013 by Andy Tian, a former Zynga China general manager and Google China executive, and Ouyang Yun, previously a Tencent strategist.
The company has been able to capitalize on the live entertainment boom in China, while also expanding cross-border with a mission to bring the best Chinese next generation mobile products, business models and technologies across social and online entertainment to the international market.
AIG has launched several entertainment apps around the globe gaining a foothold in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and North America. These apps include Uplive, Suprefans and L'amour, and encompass a range of short video, live streaming and dating formats. Life seems to be overwhelmingly fun in the world of AIG’s apps, as they cover almost all of the primary functions of online entertainment. Today, AIG’s app matrix has more than 100M users and more than 30M monthly active users from over 150 countries.
The company is headquartered in Beijing and has offices in 12 cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Tokyo, Jakarta and Cairo, and has raised several rounds of funding from leading global VCs such as Kleiner Perkins, Ventech, and Index Ventures.
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