The top 25: Jennifer Li, Baidu

The name Baidu derives from the last line of a poem, Green Jade Table in the Lantern Festival, written 800 years ago meaning “persistent search for the ideal” and last month the China-based internet group Baidu expanded its investment team by naming its chief financial officer, Jennifer Li, CEO of Baidu Capital, its $3bn corporate venturing unit announced in October.

Robin Li, CEO at Baidu and chairman of Baidu Capital, said: “Jennifer’s leadership and expertise have been instrumental to Baidu’s growth over the past nine years. I am grateful to Jennifer for putting in place a talented finance organisation and robust systems that lay the groundwork for Baidu’s next stage of growth. Bringing artificial intelligence (AI) to real-world applications is crucial in the AI era and I look forward to working with Jennifer in her new role to grow Baidu’s ecosystem.”

Before Baidu, Li worked at car maker General Motors as its China chief financial officer, and was later appointed as the financial manager for North America. Li holds an MBA degree from University of British Columbia in Canada.

Li joins Wenjie (Jenny) Wu, who was hired from online travel agency Ctrip in November as a managing partner, with Simeon Shi moving over from Ctrip a few months later to be a director, while Zhang Jinling, a vice-president at smartphone producer Xiaomi, came on board as chief financial officer in January.

Baidu Capital intends to invest between $50m and $100m at a time in AI, machine learning and virtual and augmented reality technology, and raise most of its money from third parties. Its money will come from large insurance funds, securities companies, and others, and investment institutions with a state background have also expressed interest in participating, the company said.

Baidu Capital’s first deal came in March when it led an investment round into green car startup NextEV, which local media reported the overall funding round at up to $600m. NextEV already has the backing of tech giant Tencent and investment firm Hillhouse Capital.

For earlier-stage deals, Baidu in September formed the $200m Baidu Ventures unit and hired Liu Wei to Baidu Ventures, as chief executive. Liu was previously a partner at Legend Star, a venture capital subsidiary of conglomerate Legend Holdings that has made nearly 100 angel investments.

He joined Legend Star in 2011 and in his time at the unit its investments included speech recognition technology developer AI Speech and educational app developer Knowbox.

It is the first area that particular attracts Liu’s Baidu Ventures it seems. A few weeks after joining Baidu, Liu partnered with Comet Labs, a San Francisco, California-based fund specialising in machine intelligence. Comet Labs provides capital, technical resources and mentoring to its AI startups and Liu was part of the founding team at Comet Labs before he became a corporate venturer.

“Baidu founded Baidu Ventures to build an ecosystem around AI technology and do investment to help AI startups with money, technology and connections to industrial players,” Liu told news provider TechCrunch.

Baidu Ventures will now be Comet’s main partner in China, helping connect portfolio companies with other strategic partners and a large market.

Separately, Yimin (Peter) Fang remains senior director of corporate development at Baidu leading investments and acquisitions.

Fang, last year’s GCV Powerlist winner, is senior director of corporate development at Baidu leading investments and acquisitions. He used to work for US search engine peer Google’s first China president, Kai-Fu Lee, as chief technologist and an investment director at Lee’s early-stage company-building platform Innovation Works.

He joined Baidu in 2014 after a few months at Fidelity’s Asian corporate venturing unit in order to cover strategic investments and mergers and acquisitions, with a focus on “core technology – adtech, big data, mapping, fintech, deep learning and so on – mobile services, financial services, and enterprise services”, according to his LinkedIn account.

In addition to China, Fang also covers international investments, including those in the US, Europe and Israel, as Baidu plans to earn half its revenue outside China by 2020, according to a MIT Technology Review article, although its revenue growth has slowed compared with its tech peers, Tencent and Alibaba, leading to questions about its future “relevance”, according to an article in the Economist last month.

Baidu’s backers have included legendary US venture capitalist Tim Draper from DFJ and storied corporate venturer Hugo Shong from IDG Capital Partners.

Draper said for last year’s Powerlist: “I have made it my practice to spread venture capital and entrepreneurship throughout the world. I have trained hundreds of VCs. Our enthusiasm for startups must have rubbed off [on Baidu]. Corporate VC is different though. It often is not run for the long term. Robin is a long-term player. I believe if he goes after VC, he will rival Intel Capital as one of the top corporate VC players.”

When asked about how China’s highly competitive internet scene might be forcing or shaping a unique venture market, Draper added: “I think it is all wonderful and good for the Chinese economy. I believe VC is potentially the highest and best use of capital in the world.”

Fang’s experience is certainly broad as it covers electronic payments, gaming and communication during stints from before 2011 to the mid-1990s at 99Bill, NetEase and Edelman, respectively.

According to Wikipedia, Li has said the company’s name was chosen as the poem, Green Jade Table in the Lantern Festival, compared the search for a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour with the search for one’s dream while confronted by life’s many obstacles.