Chinese companies have often had the reputation of copying designs and models of famous foreign brands. They have been referred to as copycats, from individual stores such as KLG and KFG which are copies of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to the Blackberry-like Blockberry, to a Shenzhen-based financial leasing firm that calls itself Goldman Sachs.
However, some Chinese companies are breaking this mold by developing innovative ideas and services that revolutionize the industries in which they operate.
Our list of top 5 innovative Chinese companies
Hangzhou-based Alibaba has become a premier internet company. It broke the record of the biggest IPO of all time by raising $25 billion in 2014.
Founded in 1999 by Jack Ma, a former English teacher turned into an entrepreneur, the company grew to become the world’s largest e-commerce company. Alibaba seeks to connect users with users, consumers with merchants, and businesses with businesses, by providing a variety of services and products in one ecosystem.
One of the most popular platforms of Alibaba is China’s largest online shopping marketplace Taobao, a consumer to consumer (C2C) platform that offers hundreds of millions of products and services and by connecting buyers and sellers. Alibaba has also launched the hugely popular AliExpress, a retail platform that allows overseas consumers to buy from manufacturers and wholesalers in China.
The company also operates a business to consumer (B2C) platform called Tmall that connects brands and large providers to consumers. Tmall acts as an online storefront for international and Chinese brands. They collectively work to improve customer experience by providing good quality products in a market known for low quality and counterfeited goods.
Alibaba also provides a wholesale trading market for business to business (B2B) operations through its eponymous Alibaba.com. The site is the company’s massively global business that serves millions of traders around the globe. In addition to retail and wholesale businesses, Alibaba runs an online payment service called Alipay that allows users to pay their bills, send money to friends, and even book flight tickets. The company also operates a cloud computing and data management service called Alicloud.
Interestingly, Alibaba chooses to set itself apart from competitors by investing in non-tech fields such as entertainment and media. The company acquired the production company ChinaVision media group, today known as Alibaba Pictures, and ultimately seeks to produce 8 to 10 films per year. In early December, the company acquired Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post for $266 million.
Tencent is one of China’s largest internet companies. Founded in November 1998 by entrepreneur Ma Huateng, who is often called “Pony Ma”, the Shenzhen-based company provides a wide range of services, from online community platform Penyou.com made for university students to connect with each other, to Tenpay that lets users make online payments. The company also operates in a variety of fields including internet, mobile, online advertisement and telecommunication.
Tencent runs the popular instant messaging (IM) platform QQ as well as QQ Enterprise that allows businesses to communicate with users that are registered on the IM platform. According to Statista, the number of active QQ users in China topped 815.3 million in 2014.
Another segment of Tencent’s operations lies on providing real-time news and entertainment through its portal site QQ.com. However, the website is fully in Chinese, making its services less internationally oriented than those of other Chinese companies.
The internet giant is also known for developing China’s largest online Music platform QQ Music, online video streaming platform QQ Live, and the most widely used messaging app Weixin, known as WeChat. Initially, WeChat was an app that let the user send text, voice, video messages, and share photos and updates with their friends. The company has since improved the app by integrating a service called WeChat Wallet that allows the users make e-payments through their messaging app. After users link their bank account to their WeChat profile, users can transfer money to their friend or pay for taxi fares among other things. Today, Wechat has a huge influence on the way Chinese internet users communicate as well as on their lifestyle.
Established in 1984 by Liu Chuanzhi, Lenovo has grown quickly to become the world’s largest PC maker. Lenovo was little known internationally until 2005, when the company acquired IBM’s PC business, marking an important step in its global expansion. Today, the Beijing-based company designs, manufactures and markets tech products and services such as tablets, smartphones, laptops, workstations, servers, and desktops as well as cloud solutions.
The ThinkPad producer is looking to differentiate itself from competitors and improve the overall customer experience through innovation. Indeed, product and technology innovation is a core value of Lenovo’s business model, and the tech powerhouse currently runs 46 world-class labs, including research centers in China, Japan, and the United States.
Perhaps the most telling of Lenovo’s innovative ambitions is its drive to produce products and devices that operate in what they call the “PC Plus era”. According to Lenovo, the PC Plus era marks a time when the consumers still use PCs, but also want to seamlessly shift use between PCs, tablets, smartphones, and TVs.
To meet the daily digital needs of users during the PC Plus era, Lenovo has developed the popular Yoga, an ultrabook that can be used both as a laptop and tablet, and even a display monitor. Another innovative device that the company developed for the same goal is the tabletop PC Horizon, a multi-person machine that CEO Yang Yuanqing calls a “family entertainment center”, as it let friends and family interact as they enjoy gaming, entertainment, and education on a single device.
Founded in 2009 by its present CEO Wang Junyu, a former Google employee, Wandoujia has emerged as one of the largest app stores in China, where all Google services including the Google Play Store are blocked. There are currently over 200 app stores in China, but according to Fast Company, Wandoujia alone recorded more than 450 million users last year.
To set itself apart from hundreds of competitors, Wandoujia has focused on acting as an app and multimedia search engine rather than a simple app store. On the platform, users can search for apps, videos, e-books, games, wallpapers, music and themes. The app also allows users to search, watch, and download videos from top Chinese websites including Youku, iQiyi Sohu, and LeTV. Wandoujia also boasts an international version called SnapPea that allows the users to watch, download, and subscribe to YouTube and Vimeo directly from the app.
The uniqueness of the Beijing-based company won the attention of global investors. In 2014, Wandoujia raised $120 million in a Series B financing round by venture capital fund Softbank Capital, which includes Goldman Sachs among its investors.
Often called the “Chinese Google,” Baidu is China’s largest and most successful search engine. The internet giant was established in 2000 by Chinese entrepreneur Robin Li, and it allows users search news, multimedia, websites, and online documents. In addition, the Beijing-based company offers a wide variety of services ranging from online marketing for domestic and multinational companies to its food delivery service Baidu Waimai.
The firm has also made forays into deep learning and artificial intelligence. According to Baidu Chief Scientist Dr. Andrew Ng, “about 50% of web searches could be through speech and images rather than text inquiry” within five years. As such, the company is working on speech recognition technologies that use deep learning for more accurate results, which will allow customers to use speech functions even in noisy places. Dr. Ng adds that speech recognition technology will not only change the way users interact with their phones, but also with other tech devices such as television and even microwave.
These advances are ultimately expected to supplement Baidu’s advanced image-recognition technology that allows people to use their smartphone cameras to identify items and then search for them online.