Innovation is a precarious word in China, especially when it comes to technology.
There are those who say Chinese companies lack innovation, only copying ideas for Internet or mobile services from the West. Others say China’s localization of services, like Twitter and Facebook, into Chinese versions, reflects homegrown ingenuity while critics call them nothing more than copycats.
ChinaMode Awards was held in Beijing to recognize Chinese start-ups and the work they are doing to push the boundaries of innovation.
Either way, there are a number of small start-ups in China often overshadowed by the country’s big Internet companies. These start-ups are developing technologies and applications that could be the next big thing in China, and even beyond.
Earlier this week, an awards ceremony called the ChinaMode Awards was held in Beijing to recognize Chinese start-ups and the work they are doing to push the boundaries of innovation in a country where the perception, at least by outsiders, is that innovation simply does not exist.
The event was held on the fifth floor of Tango, a night club complete with luxurious karaoke rooms, a bar called Mango with golden elevators and a giant white statue of a panther and flat screen TVs blasting music videos of Lady Gaga.
Throughout the afternoon, executives from top tech companies, including Google China, HTC, Nokia and RenRen (the Chinese version of Facebook), took part in panel discussions ranging from social media in China to the standardization of mobile devices.
That evening, an awards ceremony recognized dozens of small companies for the work they are doing to build a technological landscape in China that is original, creative, even groundbreaking.
Over 11,000 companies were nominated for the awards. Several dozen were selected as winners. Below we profile some of those who made it to the top and what they’re up to in China’s ever-changing Internet space.
In the age when all the rage is digital publishing on smartphones and tablet computers, one Beijing-based start-up has discovered that people, thousands of people, in fact, still have a yearning to hold that old-fashioned, now seemingly antiquated technology called a book.
Combine this with the fact that there are few public libraries in China, and that books, especially those in English, are difficult to find and expensive, and you have the birth of a company called Booksfly.com
Founded by Chris Zhang in 2008, Booksfly is essentially a Netflix for books. Members can order up to 10 books at a time, and they are delivered to homes in a cute, little red bag. Customers can keep the books as long as they want, return them, and then order more. Membership fees range from RMB 280 per year to RMB 1,800 for an annual subscription.
Zhang, who once worked in the telecommunication industry, says he is not turning a profit yet but already has 10,000 customers who lease the more than 200,000 books the company stores in a warehouse outside of Beijing.
Among the most popular titles are children’s books in English. Most of the clientele are Chinese. Zhang says he already has requests to launch the service in other cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan.
The mobile phone has long been a symbol of status in China. Which means in the day and age when showing off one’s social status, especially wealth, is paramount, many Chinese consumers frequently switch their mobile phones for the next, glitzy model that comes out.
A Nokia E71 for a Blackberry Pearl for an iPhone 3 for an iPhone 4. You get the picture.
Within the phone-switching frenzy, there is one problem: synchronizing contacts between different devices with different operating systems. One company called Hozom has come up with a solution for this.
Hozom, founded by a young Chinese entrepreneur named Zi Yang in 2008, has created an application that enables handset users to manage and keep up with all of their contacts, no matter what device is being used.
Users first create a profile on Hozom.com and upload their personal information as well as information about their contacts from different devices into the company’s cloud.
Additional information about contacts can be included, such as photos, their jobs, hobbies or other interests (like a miniature Facebook profile).
Users then download Hozom’s application onto their handset, which includes all of the contact information of friends they have stored online. When friends who also have an account on Hozom change their contact details or other information, the software will automatically update the new information on a handset device.
Hozom’s technology is also capable of identifying mutual friends among its users and connecting them to each other’s address book.
The technology also allows users to organize contacts into different categories, like family, friends, classmates or workmates.
Over 600,000 people are using the mobile application and more than 33 million people have registered profiles on the site.
Lashou is the Chinese version of Groupon, the popular U.S.-based website that notifies its subscribers one shopping deal a day based on their location and profile.
Groupon has been called the fastest-growing company ever.
And Lashou could be called the fastest-growing Chinese Groupon clone ever.
Founded by Wu Bo in 2010, the company has rapidly expanded to 200 Chinese cities and now has over 1,500 employees. The site receives 1.5 million unique visitors everyday.
In December alone, the company generated RMB 11.5 million (about $1.8 million) in revenue.
Lashou is planning a public offering sometime in the next two years, according to Wu who once ran Chinese real estate websites.
The company is not exactly a direct copycat of its U.S. counterpart. Executives have incorporated a number of localized features for the China market.
Users, for example, can create profiles on the site, buy coupons to go to a movie or out to dinner, and invite friends or random strangers to go with them.
Sometimes, according to Wu, attractive Chinese women use the service as a means to find a date. The feature, launched around a month ago, already has 50,000 profiles.
Lashou also offers subscribers multiple deals everyday in cities, instead of only one deal, like the original Groupon.
The site has a special cosmetic/beauty section, which is an especially popular consumer category among Chinese women.
It incorporates location-based services as well. Special maps, for example, will show customers deals at spas or hotels in the area where the customer is located.
Lin Jian Cong, founder of Taotaosou, a company that has developed an image-based search engine now being tested by Taobao, the largest e-commerce site in China.
In 2009, Taobao, the popular e-commerce site in China, held a competition for software applications.
Four thousand developers entered the contest.
The winner was a guy named Lin Jian Cong. He developed an application that allows users to use a search engine with pictures instead of words. It is called image-based search.
After winning the competition, Lin received a strategic investment from Alibaba, the owner of Taobao, and launched www.taotaosou.com, the image-based search engine.
Taobao is also testing a special site that incorporates Lin’s search technology. The site enables shoppers to paste pictures of clothing items into a search bar and locate hundreds of similar garments in varying materials, styles and prices.
The biggest potential for Taotaosou and its technology is, in fact, e-commerce.
As Lin puts it, it is often hard for consumers to describe in words the exact style of coat or dress they are looking for: “Image-based search helps people find what they are looking for but cannot exactly describe,” Lin says.
For now, Lin says his company will continue to develop its core search technology as well as expanding its partnership with Taobao — and with Taobao on board, the future certainly looks bright for Taotaosou.com.
One of the coveted start-up companies being incubated within the pristine offices of Innovation Works, the investment and incubation company founded by Lee Kai-fu, the former head of Google China, is WonderPod.
More specifically, the company has grown to around a dozen employees and is the first to leave the comfy confines of Innovation Works’ offices for a workspace of its own in Beijing.
Founded last year by Wang Junyu, WonderPod (called Wandoujia in Chinese) bills its technology as an iTunes-like solution for mobiles running Google’s Android operating system, which company executives project will make a big splash in the Chinese handset market.
The problem is, the Android market is fragmented, which means it is hard to formulate a standard for downloading music, video and other content onto Android phones.
WonderPod is a solution for that. The software runs on the desktop of PCs and offers users a selection of music, videos, applications and other entertainment for free (there are no copyright issues with the content, the company says).
Users can use WonderPod to download the content to mobile devices over a USB cable rather than relying on costly mobile bandwidth. Executives say they already have “hundreds of thousands” of users but are not making any money … yet.
To see more winners, visit the ChinaMode website.