BEIJING, China — Microsoft Research Asia. The Uber of China. Tsinghua University. And, some incredible Peking duck.
It’s been a busy past few days in Beijing, where I arrived late Sunday night after riding for five hours on a 186 MPH bullet train from Shanghai.
This week, I’ve been hopping around the nation’s capital during the second part of my GeekWire China trip, which started last week in Shanghai and took me to places like Alibaba and some awesome dumpling joints.
In Beijing, I’ve been fortunate to interview some of the top minds and innovators in this city — people like Microsoft Research Asia Managing Director Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon, a 20-year veteran of the tech giant who leads Microsoft’s strategy for research and development in the Asia-Pacific region.
Or, people like Dr. Shi Yuanchun and Dr. Qing-Shan Jia, two accomplished professors at one of China’s top universities that are leading the charge for the Global Innovation Exchange Institute (GIX), a new technology institute based in Bellevue, Wash., created by Seattle’s University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University with the initial help of $40 million from Microsoft.
Or, people like Bob Zhang, the founding CTO of Didi Kuaidi, China’s largest ride-hailing company that recently invested $100 million in Lyft and is headquartered in a Silicon Valley-like area of Beijing.
My mind is swirling with all the fascinating and inspiring conversations I’ve had over the past week.
I’ll have more details from each of my interviews and meetings in the coming days, but for now, here’s a quick recap of the past five days here in China, including my experience with some of the food options and transportation services here. You can also hear about my travels in this latest GeekWire podcast.
Friday, Nov. 13
Before I arrived in Beijing, I spent a good chunk of Friday at the first-ever University of Washington Innovation Summit, a four-hour long event at a hotel in downtown Shanghai that included a conference and breakout sessions featuring presentations and discussions with some of the UW’s top innovators.
There was an impressive list of speakers from both China and Seattle, all of which had some connection to the UW. As a Husky alum myself, it was cool to be around so many accomplished Huskies — in Shanghai of all places.
The event itself was all about innovations — many of which are coming out of the University of Washington — and how those are helping solve the world’s problems. It was also a time to celebrate GIX, which is all about using a curriculum specifically designed to educate future entrepreneurs and innovators.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce and former Washington governor (and UW graduate) Christine Gregoire made opening remarks, and Microsoft’s China President Ralph Haupter also gave a short talk on how the tech giant is helping encourage more innovation, particularly with its support of GIX.
Other speakers included people well-known in the Seattle startup community with ties to the UW like computer science professor Shwetak Patel, a former GeekWire Newsmaker of the Year and co-founder of connected home startup SNUPI, and Adina Mangubat, a two-time nominee for GeekWire Young Entrepreneur of the Year and CEO of Spiral Genetics. Both talked about their work and research.
Also at the event were Gina Neff, an associate professor of communication who spoke about “data empathy,” and Ben Waters, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and CEO of WiBotic Inc. who discussed his work with wireless technology.
Saturday, Nov. 14
I spent most of Saturday at the first-ever regular season basketball game — NBA or NCAA — to be played in China. The UW ended up beating Texas, 77-71, in a game that was not only exciting, but historic.
See more photos and read my recap of the game here.
After the game, I had a chance to check out the incredible view from The Bund in Shanghai and try some street food.
Sunday, Nov. 15
Sunday was mostly a travel day, as I took a speedy bullet train 750 miles north to Beijing. But before leaving, I met up with my roommate from freshman year, Victor, who happened to be traveling in Shanghai on business at the exact same time — so random, but so awesome.
After eating some soup and dumplings, Victor and I ventured into one of Shanghai’s “fake” markets where you can buy brand-name watches, purses, basketball jerseys, suitcases, shoes, and a whole lot more that look real on the outside but are actually not authentic.
There was even fake software being sold.
My bullet train ride was smooth and I sat next to a neurologist who was in Shanghai for the weekend doing work. Having spent a year at the University of British Columbia, her English was pretty good and we talked all about the differences between the U.S. and China. To stay in touch, we exchanged contact info on — of course — WeChat.
Five hours later, I arrived in Beijing. Immediately, I noticed how much cooler it was than in Shanghai. I took a few subway rides and eventually arrived at my hotel, ready to explore a new city in China.
Monday, Nov. 16
Monday was all about Tsinghua University and Microsoft Research.
After grabbing a quick bite at my hotel, I jumped on a few subway lines and made it to the Wudaokou area of Beijing where Tsinghua’s campus is located.
As I made the 15-minute walk to the university, I noticed that my eyes were starting to get dry and that more mucus was in my throat than usual. Perhaps I was getting a little sick, but the more likely cause was the air quality in Beijing, which is worse than in Shanghai.
However, I’ve been told that this week has been pretty good for Beijing pollution standards. Still, you can’t see much beyond a mile in this city.
On my way to Tsinghua, street food vendors were cooking up a storm for those looking to eat breakfast on-the-go.
I also noticed Google’s office on my walk.
I finally arrived at Tsinghua’s massive campus and found the “Future Internet Technology Research Center.” Inside a small office, I met with Dr. Shi Yuanchun, a top computer science professor and the dean of GIX, as well as Dr. Qing-Shan Jia, a PhD who is helping create the curriculum and coordinate the framework of GIX.
I came away from our interview feeling somewhat inspired, having just spoken with some of the smartest people at one of the top research universities not only in China, but the world. We talked about why Tsinghua partnered with the UW and how it plans to educate tomorrow’s innovators at GIX to create companies that really help fix problems and make a real impact on the world. I’ll post more from our conversation later on GeekWire.
Afterward, I spent an hour or so walking around Tsinghua’s campus, which is really beautiful. It reminded me a lot of the UW — there are many tranquil areas where you can enjoy nature and meditate, but just a stone’s throw away, you’re weaving your way around packs of university students scurrying to their next class or back to their dormitories. I’ll post more photos from the campus in the coming days, but here’s a sneak peek:
I also noticed this Amazon delivery driver on campus.
After racking up several hundred steps at Tsinghua — I set a new record on Monday with 39,000-plus steps — I hopped on the subway again for yet another inspiring and interesting visit, this time at the headquarters of Microsoft Research Asia.
I spent a good three hours at the building, located in one of Beijing’s more high-tech neighborhoods. Founded in 1998, Microsoft Research Asia is the company’s main research facility in the Asia Pacific region and houses more than 250 researchers and developers, along with thousands of other Microsoft employees.
There is a bevy of Microsoft research conducted in Beijing, ranging from topics like natural user interfaces, next-generation multimedia, data-intensive computing, search and online advertising, and computer science fundamentals. More than 360 technologies from the lab have been transferred to Microsoft products, including Office, Windows, Azure, Bing, Visual Studio, Xbox Kinect, Windows Phone, Cortana and Skype Translator.
I sat down with Microsoft Research Asia Managing Director Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon, a corporate vice president of Microsoft and chairman of Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific R&D Group. Hon discussed everything from how his team has changed focus since Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took over, to Xiaoice, a new artificial intelligence product that Microsoft has rolled out in China and Japan.
Hon has been with Microsoft for 20 years, so it was really cool to hear all the insights he had to share, including those on the future of China’s technology ecosystem. Definitely look forward to our conversation on GeekWire soon.
After our chat, I visited Microsoft’s new visitor center, where the company invites government employees, business partners, university researchers, and many more to learn more about new innovations that Microsoft is developing. I was shown everything from smart refrigerators to new technology that helps curb pollution and traffic in big cities.
Before the day ended, I spent a fun couple of hours with Matt Conger, the CEO of a new startup that provides interpreters on demand called SeekPanda. We stopped at a few bars that were embedded in skinny alleyways, a common theme of Beijing, which feels a lot more of traditional China than Shanghai, which felt more like an international metropolis — though, Beijing is very much an international city, too.
We also ran into the Chinese version of Trader Joe’s.
Tuesday, Nov. 17
On Tuesday, I started my day meeting up with Hunter Lin, CEO and co-founder of an interesting real estate startup called BeiMeiGouFang, also known as North America Real Estate Investment Group Inc.
NAREIG connects high-net-worth real estate investors in China who are interested in buying U.S.-based properties. Lin described the company as somewhat like Seattle-based Redfin, given that the startup features listings on its own site and has its own agents in four U.S. cities that help Chinese people invest in real estate abroad.
After meeting Lin, I spent a few hours at the headquarters of Didi Kuaidi, one of the fastest-growing technology companies in China valued at $15 billion that helps connect taxis and private cars with those needing a ride.
While there I met with Bob Zhang, the founding CTO of Didi. We covered a number of topics and discussed how Didi is competing with Uber, why the company invested $100 million in Lyft, and what it was like merging with Kuadi after founding Didi just three years prior.
The last topic is an interesting case study into mergers, particularly since Didi and Kuadi were previously direct competitors and both were founded less than five years ago.
Part of the incentive to team up is undoubtedly because both companies — which count Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent as investors — feel pressure from other competitors. Though Didi Kuaidi may be considered the “Uber of China,” it is now facing competition from Uber itself, which is not operating in nearly as many cities, but is nonetheless expanding rapidly throughout China.
In a recent Forbes story, the business news site described Uber as Didi Kuaidi’s “mortal enemy.” It will be interesting to watch the two companies battle over market share in China. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has made it pretty clear that the country is an important priority for his company.
“You’re not going to find a country with 80-plus cities over five million people anywhere else,” Kalanick told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “The vastness of the opportunities really isn’t matched in any other market.”
I also noticed another Amazon delivery driver outside of Didi’s office.
For dinner on Tuesday, I enjoyed one of my favorite meals of this trip, and actually one of my favorite meals of all-time, probably. I met up with a friend who recommended I try Peking Duck, a famous duck dish in Beijing.
While we had a number of other mouth-watering dishes, including beef, shrimp, and pork, the duck was the highlight. It’s cooked a very specific way in Beijing and specially sliced right near your table by the cook. You can prepare your own “duck-wraps” using a thin pancake as the wrap that holds together an excellent combination of cucumbers, scallions, plum sauce, and more — with, of course, the succulent duck meat. You can also take the duck skin and lather it with sugar before experiencing a flavor explosion in your mouth.
The restaurant also sat right next to Beijing’s Forbidden City.
I’ve got a few more meetings scheduled in Beijing and will try to sightsee a bit before returning back to Seattle later this week. It has been an amazing trip to China that has given me an incredible amount of perspective, both related to technology and innovation in this country, as well as the culture itself. I’ll be posting more in-depth pieces from my conversations here, so look forward to those.