Red-hot Asia: Aspirational spirit, innovation make Asia top destination for venture capital

Ele.me is an online food delivery startup launched by two friends at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University that recently won $1 billion in venture capital funding. Its name roughly translates as “Hungry Now?”

Founders Mark Zhang and Jack Kang symbolise the insatiable hunger of young Asian entrepreneurs – combined with global investment appetite to bet on their ambition – that explain why Asia surpassed the US in total deal value for the first time in the second quarter of this year.

The numbers are staggering. For every dollar invested globally, 45 cents went to Asian companies, according to the report by CB Insights and PwC that tracked Asia’s VC funding coup.

China’s Didi Chuxing led the pack with $5.5 billion. India’s One97 Communications raised $1.4 billion. Indonesia’s GO-JEK $1.2 billion. China’s Bytedance $1 billion. Ele.me rounded off the top five with its unicorn deal.

A convergence of factors makes Asia the region where VC dollars are gravitating today. This is a massive market with a rapidly emerging leisure class eager to enjoy high-tech breakthroughs seen in the West, but tailored to Asian needs and tastes. That creates huge opportunities for social media apps such as China’s Sina Weibo, a microblogging site, or online shopping-malls such as India’s Snapdeal.

But the narrative is no longer about adapting Western innovation. Increasingly, the world’s disruptive technologies are themselves being dreamed up by Asia’s best young minds, from new ways to make mobile payments and buy insurance online (part of a fintech revolution driven from China) to the artificial intelligence systems that will revolutionise healthcare and smart manufacturing.

Stellar education standards combined with aspirational optimism – a sense that Asia’s time has come – are a potent cocktail for generating the technologies that will change our world. And risk is not so frightening for many young entrepreneurs from Jakarta to Shenzhen who possess top-flight skills – but still feel they have less to lose than Western counterparts.

Asia’s dynamism and the global funding it draws generates a virtuous circle of innovation. Tech incubators and startup campuses are sprouting up from Seoul to Singapore, nurturing talent. And outstanding minds that left for the West’s finest universities are increasingly being lured back home by opportunity – proceeding to spread the world-class research knowledge they acquired: from brain drain to brain re-gain.

China and India are attracting most of the media attention with landmark deals such as Didi Chuxing’s. But increasingly Southeast Asia is emerging as a rival player for VC dollars – as Singapore becomes a leading global startup hub. That means that even as China’s and India’s VC markets approach saturation point, Asia still has a deep well of untapped investment potential in Southeast Asia. It is a relatively young region of more than 600 million people – with a growing army of tech-savvy youths leading an explosion in innovation.

Moreover, an attractive lifestyle boasting modern infrastructure and exciting culture is attracting – and retaining – global tech talent. As Singapore is viewed as the new hot tech destination, San Francisco seems more and more an impossibly expensive establishment player whose time may have peaked.

Hunger defines the dynamism one sees in Asia today, in much the same way it defined America’s 20th century. When Zhang and Kang launched their business, most restaurants in their Shanghai neighbourhood didn’t even have computers. The friends spent the next two years providing restaurants with online equipment and teaching them how to use it. And they delivered the food themselves on their motorbikes. Today, they have tens of thousands of bike delivery staff across China – connecting consumers to 1 million restaurants and shops in more than 1,000 cities.

Asia is hungry now. It is impatient to invent the next big things that will change our world. Global investors are feeding its entrepreneurs the funds to make their dreams come true.