6 Quick Questions: Kai-Fu Lee

A year after Kai-Fu Lee co-founded the Beijing-based incubator Innovation Works, the chairman and CEO of the organization announced in China last month that it has launched a dozen startups.

Innovation Works kicked off last year with $115 million in backing from WI Harper Group (lead investor) and others, including Steve Chen (co-founder of YouTube) and Foundation Capital, according to the firm.

Lee, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, but raised in Oak Ridge, Tenn., says it’s hard to make predictions. However, he expects the organization to fund about 15 startups a year.

It is not surprising that the projects coming out of the IT incubator—which aims to create advancements targeted at the greater China market—have a Google-like feel, since Lee launched Innovation Works shortly after he resigned as head of Google China. Among the startups are Tapas, which has developed a smartphone operating system based on Android and tailored for Chinese users; Wonderpod, which has developed a software assistant for Android phones; and Photo Wonder, which has developed mobile phone software for enhancing and sharing photos.

VCJ Managing Editor Alastair Goldfisher caught up with Lee in a multi-part email exchange.

Just BusinessQ Are you fully funded with the $115 million in commitments?

A: I cannot comment on fund-raising due to SEC restrictions. Please do not assume I have or have not reached some target—$115 million was never the max.

Q: When you launched Innovation Works, you said it was your hope that most of the companies that it launched would be developed internally. Has that been the case?

A: We had planned for more internal projects. And four of our announced startups were developed internally. However, internal projects are complex because of (1) a heavy load on my team, (2) there’s a perceived conflict of interest since we are both investors and co-founders and (3) it’s hard to find external CEOs. Going forward, external projects will be the rule, and we may do very few internal projects on an exceptional basis only.

Q: Some of the people you’ve hired at Innovation Works include John Woo, who was formerly with Google, and Jerry Tsai, who is listed as chief evangelist. What are their responsibilities?A: John is among 10 Googlers who joined me. He is a brilliant designer who works on the user experience of our companies. He also led the design of our high-tech, but low-cost new facilities. Jerry is a geek celebrity in China. Most programmers read his book “Sleepless in Java” in college. He is our architect, whose job responsibilities are to advise our portfolio companies in technology issues. He is also our chief evangelist, spreading our message to the development community.

Just For FunQ: You went to high school in Tennessee. Do you ever get to revisit where you grew up?A: Not any more. When I was at Google China, I had to visit Google headquarters every one to two months. When I do go back now, it’s usually for business and usually in Silicon Valley or New York City.

Q: What do you like to eat when you come to the United States?

A:

Definitely steak.

Q: What book are you currently reading?A: A Chinese book on Chinese entrepreneurs. But I just ordered a bunch of English books and am waiting for them. They include “Googled,” “The Facebook Effect” and “Delivering Happiness.”