The top 25: Quinn Li, Qualcomm Ventures

After the departure of Qualcomm Ventures’ head, Nagraj Kashyap, to Microsoft, swiftly followed by Israel-based star investor Mony Hassid, it should have been a challenging time for US-listed chip maker Qualcomm.

But, while Quinn Li’s promotion to the top corporate venturing role in 2016 came at an interesting time for the company, he has cemented his reputation as a leader in the venture community with a string of deals and initiatives and stepped up to co-chairman the Global Corporate Venturing and Innovation Summit in Monterey in January.

One exit, Qualcomm’s early investment in autonomous driving startup Cruise, was a high-profile win when General Motors bought it for $1bn. Another two portfolio companies, agricultural technology developer Strider and ride hailing service 99, were acquired from Qualcomm Ventures’ Latin America portfolio headed by Carlos Kokron.

At the start of the year, Qualcomm Ventures transferred Kokron from head of Latin America to head of North America following these sales.

In an in-house interview last month, Kokron (known as CK) said: “Savvy entrepreneurs in both the US and LatAm are striving to build big businesses which would translate to significant value creation, and with a lot of sweat and some luck this yields to great exits for all involved. If you look at the Qualcomm Ventures experience, we have a strong track record of seven $1bn-plus exits in the last eight years.”

99’s sale to China-based Didi Chuxing was Brazil’s largest for a VC-backed company, and Qualcomm is anticipating another big exit with the planned flotation of China-based Xiaomi at a valuation of up to $100bn – set to be the largest venture-backed initial public offering since 2014 – later this year.

And while there has been some further turnover in personnel with the departure of Gareth Keane to VC firm Promus Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures also hired Alexandre Villela from fellow corporate venturing unit Intel Capital, where he was an investment director, in February as its managing director for LatAm.

For last year’s GCV Powerlist profile, Li effectively summed up its overall strategy. He said: “We invest in companies that are building highly disruptive technologies.”

At last year’s Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit in California, Li told interviewer Jordan Herman, partner at law firm Baker Botts, these disruptive technologies were often in the internet of things (IoT) and automotive, as well as virtual reality, but not in startups that compete with the parent’s business of computing chips.

Perhaps one of the most interesting deals has been Qualcomm’s reported decision to commit $1bn to SoftBank’s planned $100bn Vision Fund. The two know each, with SoftBank having acquired chip designer ARM last year.

And Qualcomm-backed OneWeb is set to merge with its corporate venturing investor Intelsat in a $13bn deal, with SoftBank paying $1.7bn for a 39.9% stake in the combined entity.

Selected as a GCV Rising Star in January 2016, when he was head of North America, before his promotion to overall head of Qualcomm Ventures was announced, Li said the ability to make investments with a strong financial return while helping drive forward Qualcomm’s strategic objectives was one of the reasons he was drawn to corporate venturing. He also takes pleasure in helping portfolio firms grow through leveraging Qualcomm’s resources.

Li, who joined Qualcomm Ventures in 2005 after roles at IBM, Broadcom and Lucent following completion of his electrical engineering PhD at Washington University in St. Louis, said some of the biggest challenges he has had to overcome along the way have involved finding the balance between strategic and financial objectives, while building the right team with sufficiently diverse experience to expand investments into new areas.