Alibaba wants to diversify Hong Kong and believes startups are the key

Jack Ma's HK$1 billion non-profit fund is branching out to bring diversity into Hong Kong.

Alibaba chief Jack Ma used HK$1 billion of his company's money to stand up a not-for-profit foundation in early 2015, aimed at boosting entrepreneurship among Hong Kong's younger population.

There are a handful of programs under the fund, including an investment program in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, which is supported by an NT$10 billion fund to support entrepreneurs in both markets; an internship program run in Hong Kong; and education initiatives, such as startup pitch-like events, that cover international ground.

The investment program is run like a VC fund, seeing the Chinese multinational investing into early stage startups that are either based in Hong Kong or have Hong Kong founders based locally or internationally, to give them capital to scale.

Speaking with ZDNet while in Australia seeing what the startup ecosystem down under had to offer, Cindy Chow, executive director of the Alibaba Entrepreneur Fund said the company also continues to provide support to the startups through its ecosystem to help them to grow.

As the fund is non-profit, if there's a return on investment, Chow said the cash gets ploughed back into the fund help the next batch of startups.

"So far we have invested into about 20 companies and most of our investment focus on the Series A investments, as this is where the funding gap is in Hong Kong," she explained, noting over 50 percent of the money spent by the fund has been on Series A rounds.

"The idea is to make the startup ecosystem in Hong Kong more robust and to diversify the economy -- hopefully."

The internship opportunities offered to Hong Kong students of tertiary institutions under the fund see selected candidates intern at Alibaba Group or one of its affiliate companies, touted as helping them develop skills for future career development.

As a result, the students gain exposure to emerging technology in the social commerce, cloud, mobile payments, and the logistics spaces.

Last year, the Alibaba Entrepreneur Fund hosted a pitch event for startups to showcase their ideas to large multinationals. This year, the initiative takes form under the name Jumpstarter, explained by Chow as a demo-day, providing a startup platform for entrepreneurs and young people -- from around the world -- to "jump start their dreams" in Hong Kong.

"We do need to bring in talent and ideas from overseas in order to boost the startup ecosystem because it's not enough to have just our own home-grown startups to make it robust," she said.

The Jumpstarter boasts a bunch of big names as sponsors, including CK Hutchison and HSBC. She said the corporates have highlighted they are more efficient when they bring in new ideas through startups instead of building it internally.

According to Chow, there has been a shift in the attitude of big corporates who were previously concerned startups were going to steal their customers from underneath them in an Uber-like fashion.

"When the fund started three years ago, when I talked to big corporates, very seldom did they embrace the idea of bringing in startups to help their business," Chow said. "But [this year], I got a very positive response from a lot of corporates -- some of the sponsors actually come to us to ask to be included in the next [startup initiative] ... they do see the potential and benefits they can get."

One of the winners from last year scooped up funding not only from Alibaba, but also from CLP, purely for having a concept the electricity giant was interested in after executives watched the startup pitch their idea.

"We do see a change in how big corporates embrace this new concept of working with startups -- I don't see any fear about startups disrupting their business," she continued.

Alibaba was founded in 1999 in Ma's apartment in Hangzhou. It has since become one of the biggest companies in the world, reporting quarterly revenues of $12.22 billion.

See also: Alibaba boss Jack Ma to step down

One of the reasons the billionaire decided to stand up the entrepreneurship program, Chow explained, was to help others launch their ideas and give back to Hong Kong.

"For the last few decades we have been very focused on being a financial and professional services centre -- a lot of people are lawyers, accountants," she said.

"A trend of straight A students is to go to medical school -- none of them go to engineering school ... It's about diversity and the spirit of being able to venture out and accept failure ... that's what we hope we can do for Hong Kong."

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