As a graduate student in nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, Lip-Bu Tan thought he had a clear career path ahead of him in nuclear power. Then the Three Mile Island accident happened, and America's nuclear-power industry shut down with it. So Tan dropped out of his PhD program and headed to Silicon Valley. After getting an MBA from the University of San Francisco, the Malaysian-born Tan set up his own venture-capital firm with a focus on tech startups in Asia.
At the time, few mainstream Silicon Valley VCs paid much attention to the region, so it wasn't hard for Tan to decide on a name for his firm: Walden International, named after the pond made famous by 19th-century American essayist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was known as a nonconformist; Tan's goal was to be "contrarian, rather than just following the trend."
Tan, 44, certainly has bucked the VC establishment, and profited handsomely. Among the companies that Walden has backed are some of the region's top tech names, including Creative Technology Ltd. (CREAF ), the Singapore-based producer of sound cards used in PCs; Sina Corp., the world's leading Chinese-language Web portal; and -- the biggest deal of all -- Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMI ), a Shanghai-based chipmaker that went public in a $1.8 billion NASDAQ initial public offering in March.
Not all of Tan's deals are SMIC-style blockbusters, of course. His latest coup was more modest: Leadis Technology Inc. (LDIS ), a chip-design company with headquarters in the Valley and research and development operations in South Korea that raised $78 million in a mid-June NASDAQ listing. In addition, Tan sits on several boards, including that of Flextronics (FLEX ), the world's largest outsourcer of electronic equipment.
As Walden's chairman, Tan is still based in San Francisco, a prime listening post given the close ties between Silicon Valley and Asia. But his firm has 15 partners, $1.5 billion under management, and offices from Japan to India. About half of Walden's portfolio companies are Asian. Two-thirds of the rest have strong Asian sales or R&D operations. Tan himself travels to Asia about 10 times a year. He recalls that as an Asia VC pioneer, "it was very hard to find co-investors who shared our vision to invest in the early stage of tech companies."
Not anymore. With China now the world's second-largest Web market and India the world's fastest-growing cell-phone market, "there's a golden opportunity there," he says. Other VCs finally see the value of an Asian focus. "Now it's not as lonely," he says. It's also more competitive. But Tan is confident he'll keep his edge.