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  • 02.09.15

The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative of 2015 Companies in China

From Alibaba to Microsoft (seriously!), the companies remaking the Chinese economy.

The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative of 2015 Companies in China
[Photo: Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read]

1. Alibaba

For helping consumers save as well as spend. The West has a simplistic understanding of Alibaba: mega–IPO for the Chinese eBay-Amazon-PayPal hydra. But in China, the company run by CEO Jack Ma is far more interesting. Last year, it began targeting and remaking some of the country’s most moneyed industries, including banking and entertainment. Its Internet finance services look to have the earliest impact: Customers of its Yu’eBao can also invest in a money market fund that usually nets higher returns than state-run banks’ interest rates. Starved for investment options, the masses have responded in droves, putting in $86 billion in the first year. Ma also made growing one’s nest egg even sexier with his next offering, Yu Le Bao, a crowdsourced film-investment fund that lets ordinary folks become movie producers—with much less risk than that would normally entail.
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2. Apricot Forest

For seeking a cure to what ails Chinese health care. Apricot Forest offers a suite of three apps that aim to fix some of the core inefficiencies in China’s medical system. (About those inefficiencies: Most physicians in China work for state-run hospitals, where entry-level doctor wages are about $500 a month, on par with a taxi driver’s earnings. They routinely juggle caseloads of 50 to 60 patients a day, which means patients must wait an excruciatingly long time before being seen.) Twenty-five percent of China’s 2.5 million doctors now use at least one of Apricot Forest’s apps, as do about 2,000 new physicians every day. The primary app is MedClip, an all-in-one patient service system. Doctors can photograph, store, and organize patient records; dictate notes directly into a patient’s chart; send patients reminders and educational materials via China’s popular Weixin (aka WeChat) messaging system; and consult with other doctors on difficult cases. The second, e-Pocket, contains reference materials, such as drug formularies and specialized calculators. And the third, Medical Journals, helps doctors stay up-to-date on the latest research literature.
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3. Wandoujia

For solving China’s mobile-app problem. Android is the most popular mobile operating system in China, but everything else associated with Google is liable to be blocked by the government. Former Googler Junyu Wang cofounded Wandoujia to design a reliable app store for China’s Android users, and although he has literally hundreds of competitors, Wandoujia has outflanked them all by evolving into a multimedia marketplace designed for Chinese needs. Smartphone owners in China crave music and videos, but many are cost-conscious and can’t afford to stream content all day long. So the company developed a robust media search engine, and helps users avoid massive data charges by conveniently downloading movies, videos, and other large files via Wi-Fi or syncing with a desktop. Wandoujia can also help users compress videos they already own. Wandoujia charges developers for prominent promotion in the store—and then splits in-app revenue. More than 450 million users have downloaded 1.6 billion apps to date.
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4. Baidu

For doubling down on artificial intelligence and deep learning. The era of big data promises next-level apps and services—and tech company profits. But harnessing that info and making it useful requires smarts and cash. Chinese search giant Baidu has set up a Silicon Valley beachhead and landed big brains—Stanford AI lab’s Andrew Ng and Adam Coates—to supercharge a new generation of products. Baidu already has impressive image-recognition capabilities that enable smartphone cameras to identify everything including plants, clothes, and books, then helps users find and buy those items online. Its concept Baidu Eye hardware aims to make the process seamless, “seeing” a user’s environment and offering information and suggestions. But visual data isn’t everything. Baidu is also pushing hard on speech recognition, in part to make the Internet more accessible to older or less educated people who find it easier to talk than type. Other Baidu hardware ideas, like “smart” chopsticks that sense rancid oil and bikes that plan and track your route, illustrate the company’s determination to enhance everyday items.

5. Wanda

For integrating culture into Chinese property development. China’s urbanization and exploding middle class have created a property boom, with developers throwing up massive residential apartment blocks, mind-boggling skyscrapers, and hordes of hotels and megamalls. Lost in the sheer scale of many projects is any sense of humanity. Property giant Wanda sees art as an antidote (and a money-maker too). It’s creating a new film festival and movie-production facility to anchor a residential-commercial development in Qingdao. In Wuhan, it’s commissioned Franco Dragone, director of Cirque du Soleil’s O and Mystere productions in Las Vegas, to create a “Han show” rooted in Chinese history. And the company is countering cookie-cutter architecture with visually interesting buildings. Mark Fisher —the late Brit who made spectacular sets for U2, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd tours—designed both the “Han show” theater and a new Wanda theme park in the city; the theater resembles a giant red lantern, while the theme park’s shell was inspired by ancient Chinese bells.

6. Tencent

For turning its messaging app into a dynamic e-commerce tool. Weixin (better known in America for its international version, WeChat) was addictive even before Tencent put a wallet in it. Now, its 400 million-plus active Chinese users rarely need to leave the social media app to get their business done. With their bank card linked to their profile, they can send money to friends, pay bills, hail taxis, pay for parking, buy movie tickets, and book flights. Tencent is pushing for partnerships with businesses outside of China too, so international users of WeChat can enjoy a similar experience. Next, Tencent wants to further bridge the online-offline gap; the company recently teamed up with Wanda and Baidu. The trio aims to let Weixin users seamlessly search for products—and spend—at Wanda’s 100-plus shopping malls.

7. Xiaomi

For rapidly scaling up—and going global—with its high-design, low-price phone and smart TV business. Not even five years old, China’s answer to Apple has become the cool tech brand for Chinese youth, selling more than 60 million phones last year. Its latest smartphone, the Mi4, pays attention to both fun and function: Its 8-megapixel camera with a 1.8 aperture is ideal for high-quality selfies, and its quad core 2.5 Ghz Snapdragon CPU and 3GB of RAM means performance is very competitive with flagship smartphones from Samsung and Apple. And the Mi4 starts at $327, almost half of what competitors charge for a phone with similar specs. Now, Xiaomi has borrowed $1 billion to fund further international expansion, with its eye on populous but cost-conscious markets like Indonesia, India, Brazil, Russia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Hugo Barra, Google’s former head of Android mobile-product management, has come aboard the Xiaomi ship to make that happen. Xiaomi has pledged another $1 billion to its Chinese smart TV and set-top box business, hiring the former chief editor of Sina, Tong Chen, to oversee content creation and acquisition.

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8. S.F. Express, STO Express, Zhongtong Courier, Shanghai Yunda Express, and the rest of China’s courier army

For making China’s online shopping boom possible. Companies like Alibaba and rival Jingdong (aka JD.com) typically get credit for engineering China’s e-commerce explosion. But when Alibaba introduced its now-ubiquitous Taobao platform in 2003, the country had nothing like FedEx or UPS to support it. Back then, China had only 10,000 express deliverymen. Now, more than 1 million people work for the 8,000-plus companies that have sprung up to fill the void, including SF Express, Shentong Express, Zhongtong Courier and Shanghai Yunda. Though China’s highway network is only about one-fourth as large as the United States’, couriers find a way to deliver more than 9 billion items a year, often using three-wheeled motorcycle carts or subways, and even by hiking up mountains. A package that travels over 1,400 miles from Beijing to Guangzhou takes just 48 hours on average and costs $2. When Alibaba went public last year, it paid tribute: A courier from Beijing was among the bell-ringers at the New York Stock Exchange.

9. Microsoft

For localizing products and empowering Chinese partners. Outside of Redmond, Washington, Beijing is Microsoft’s biggest R+D center, with more than 3,500 staff focusing on everything including machine learning, haptics, and tailoring products to the Chinese market. Microsoft not only made its Cortana smartphone personal assistant available in Mandarin, but it also added a sassy companion called “Little Ice” whose flirty Chinese banter has proven a hit. Other teams are working on teaching the company’s Kinect motion sensor to watch someone communicating using Chinese sign language—then translate that into Mandarin and other languages. Traffic and air-quality forecasts are other local-focused projects. Besides creating compelling services on its own for Chinese users, Microsoft is pushing hard for partners, boosting bargain tablet makers like Cube and Vido by giving away free Windows licenses for devices under 9 inches. And Microsoft’s Beijing accelerator program is providing financial and technical support to dozens of startups annually.

10. Scoutbots

For building a boat for all occasions. This Hong Kong-based startup makes autonomous sailing robots. And because the ocean can be an unpredictable place, the Scoutbots boats shape-shift: Their hulls are made in bendable segments, which can adjust to better catch the wind. So, what are self-sailing robots good for? That’s why Scoutbots is also open-source: Creator Cesar Harada, formerly of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, wants the technology to be accessible to all, and fit unexpected ocean needs. The boats, for example, could be deployed to clean up oil spills, to collect data for scientists, or even transport items from shore to larger boats. Its small boats already exist and cost only a few hundred dollars, and Scoutbots’ larger boats are on the way soon.

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