China's $6 Billion Tech Funding Boom Signals Flight to Quality

  • Ant Financial raising record amount of at least $3.5 billion
  • Didi Kuaidi, Homelink also tapping into new venture funding

If the startup funding party is finally breaking up, somebody forgot to tell China.

The second-largest economy is avoiding the pitfalls affecting venture capital elsewhere, as investors around the world rein things in after an unprecedented technology financing boom. Ride-hailing app Didi Kuaidi, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s finance affiliate and online property service Homelink are close to raising at least $6 billion, people familiar with the separate deals say. The operator of Alipay, Alibaba’s affiliate, is targeting more than $3.5 billion alone, which would mark the technology industry’s largest single round of financing.

QuickTake Unicorns

All those numbers emerged over the space of just three days last week. In China, larger startups like them are attracting major backers and garnering the lion’s share of the money even as smaller operators are left to struggle. The frenetic pace is remarkable at a time venture investment globally is plateauing: there were fewer U.S. deals in the first three months than at any time in the past four years, according to research firm PitchBook Data.

“China’s VC market is becoming very polarized," said Jarod Ji, an analyst at Beijing-based research firm Zero2IPO. “There’s not a lack of money in the market, but investors do feel that there’s a lack of good projects and that’s why companies like Didi are getting so much money.”

The top 20 percent of Chinese startups could get 80 percent of the funding, he added.

Worrying About Bubbles

A sharp global decline in venture deals in the fourth quarter fueled questions about a bubble in tech investing, particularly when investors wrote down the value of stakes in high-profile startups such as Snapchat Inc. and India’s Flipkart Pvt.

But venture capital investments in China surged about 50 percent to $12.2 billion in the first quarter, recovering from the downturn of late last year, according to London consultancy Preqin Ltd. That helped drive the value of deals reached worldwide to about $34 billion, compared with about $27 billion the previous three months. Chinese venture capital firms raised 139.6 billion yuan ($21.6 billion) in 2015, more than double the previous year, according to Zero2IPO.

That money’s being put to work. Didi Kuaidi -- Uber Technologies Inc.’s biggest rival in China -- is raising more than $1.5 billion and property-lister Beijing Homelink Real Estate Brokerage Co. is shooting for about $1 billion, the people said. That’s on top of the money being raised by Zhejiang Ant Small & Micro Financial Services Group Co., which is controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

It’s not just private money either.

Government Money

Chinese government-backed venture funds raised about 1.5 trillion yuan in 2015, tripling the amount under management in a single year to 2.2 trillion yuan, according to Zero2IPO data. The money’s in what are known as government guidance funds, where local and central agencies play some role.

“The industry is sitting on a lot of dry powder, so we expect deal volume to pick up,” Felice Egidio, Head of Venture Capital at London-based consultancy Preqin, said in an e-mail, referring to the global picture.

Didi is tapping new funding too as it bankrolls an aggressive program for recruiting drivers and keeping fares competitive in its battle with Uber. Its new funding target of more than $1.5 billion is up from initial plans to seek $1 billion.

Ant Financial increased the amount it’s raising to at least $3.5 billion and gained the support of powerful state-backed investors, people familiar with the matter said. China Investment Corp., the country’s sovereign wealth fund, and an investment vehicle of China Construction Bank Corp. are leading the round, the people said.

An Internet Triumvirate

China’s three largest Internet companies -- Baidu Inc., Alibaba and Tencent Holdings Ltd. -- have themselves been a font of capital.

Homelink, which focuses on rental and second-hand real estate transactions, has attracted funding from Tencent and Baidu, the people familiar with the matter said. If the funding goes through, it would gain a valuation of about $6.2 billion, surpassing ride-sharing service Lyft Inc. and ranking just below Indian online marketplace Snapdeal.

The boom in marquee investments however still leaves smaller operators facing a squeeze, with industry executives and investors fearing a looming shakeout as copycat apps spring up to offer everything from manicures and grocery deliveries to online financing.

“The VCs themselves are channeling money to the more established leaders in terms of scale, whereas nobody’s funding the smaller versions of these companies,” Chi Tsang, an analyst at HSBC Holdings Plc. said. “It might be hard for some investors to justify valuations.”

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