Q&A: Executive of 500 Startups Early-Stage Investment Fund on Taiwan and China Startup Scenes

Rui Ma, Partner, Greater China, 500 Startups

VR World: What do you recommend the Taiwanese government do to foster a stronger startup culture in Taiwan?

Rui Ma: They are already taking some positive measures. This year, the National Development Council [The Cabinet’s economic planning ministry] announced a $400 million development fund to be invested in startups. It’s going to be used at the seed capital stage. The government is choosing teams of advisers and managers to select projects and work with VCs. The National Development Council is also turning a large flower park in downtown Taipei into a startup space.

VR World: Which Taiwanese startups have 500 Startups invested in so far?

Rui Ma: We have invested in Cubie Messenger, a mobile messaging app used to create drawings and share photos and videos; Roam and Wander, a children’s entertainment brand; Bounty Hunter, a design contest platform; POP, an app prototype creator; and PicCollage, which lets you use photos, stickers, frames and text to create collages.

VR World: Did local Taiwanese found all of these companies?

Rui Ma: Pic Collage has Taiwanese Americans on the team and a long-time American resident of Taiwan founded Roam and Wander. The other teams are local Taiwanese.

VR World: Why did you choose to invest in them?

Rui Ma: Generally, we look for companies that have already launched and have some traction, usually revenue-generating customers. But not all businesses are immediately revenue generating and we understand that. But there should be pretty strong growth. There should be strong user engagement.

We look for companies that have a global distribution strategy or at least regional. While the Taiwanese startups we have invested in are at different stages, the one thing they all have in common is that they were international in their distribution from day one.

For example, Cubie Messenger, which launched in March 2012 and joined 500 Startups in October of that year, focused on the Southeast Asia market early, before other mobile messaging apps. And it grew very fast.

Roam and Wander was primarily distributing in Asia and wanted to build up its US presence. We advised them to come to our accelerator because we are a good gateway to the US. The founder, Jason Warren, is experienced – he previously worked in Silicon Valley – and the company is innovative. It produces a talking stuffed rabbit named TuTu. You activate the talking function by downloading an app from Apple’s app store on your iPhone and then inserting the device into the head of the rabbit. TuTu won the award for Best New Toy at the Hong Kong Game and Toy Fair in January. Roam and Wander also now has retail partnerships with Amazon, Toys “R” Us, FNAC [French retailer] and Studio A, Apple’s reseller in Taiwan.

VR World: Overall, how would you evaluate the prospects for Taiwanese startups?

Rui Ma: We are optimistic, but we are realistic in that it’s still relatively early. There is a strong developer community here, but it’s not as big as it could be. You have a highly educated workforce, so if it becomes more culturally acceptable to launch a startup, you have one of the most important ingredients right there. It feels like there is more of a talent supply than demand. Taiwan also has a lot of hardware know-how.

We are happy that we got here early. One of the co-founders of Cubie left and she is working for us now here in Taiwan. She just came on board last month. We are appreciative of what the government is doing. There are many parts of the ecosystem that need to come together for it to really catch fire though.

Photo credit: Matthew Fulco