The Top 25: Wei Liu, Baidu Ventures

China-based internet group Baidu hired Wei Liu in February 2017 as chief executive to run its then nascent $3bn corporate venturing unit, Baidu Ventures, formed a few months earlier in October 2016.

Baidu Ventures is an early-stage independent investment fund focused on deep technologies empowered by artificial intelligence (AI), for example, chips, sensors, cameras, communications and algorithmic innovations.

At its sister unit Baidu Capital, Wenjie “Jenny” Wu was hired from online travel agency Ctrip in November 2016 as a managing partner but left in November 2018 to join agribusiness conglomerate New Hope Group as a chief investment officer. Jinling Zhang, a former vice-president at smartphone producer Xiaomi, came on board in January 2017 as chief financial officer.

GCV’s Rising Star 2018 and 2019 Saman Farid joined Baidu Ventures in 2018 as a partner and head of the US team.

Robin Li, Baidu’s CEO who founded the company in 2000 and also acts as chairman of the fund, wrote a letter in January this year to his employees, saying: “Winter is coming,” signalling that an economic restructuring is “as cold and real as winter to every company” but affirmed this would be an opportunity for Baidu.

Li continued: “Only when the year grows cold, do we see the qualities of the pine and the cypress,” citing a Chinese proverb on evergreen plants. “It is high time that Baidu stepped forward as a platform company.”

It is Li’s firm belief that AI would be the most significant aspect to emphasise this year as it could help Baidu’s customers to decrease costs and that “historical transformation of AI is penetrating various industries, unleashing enormous growth potential and room for upgrade”.

Li added that Baidu had a 27% growth in its Q3 revenue in October to RMB28.2bn ($4.11bn) while its 2018 revenue had been more than RMB100bn ($14.6bn). Baidu in its annual results for last year said its “total other income was RMB11.8bn ($1.72bn), increasing 111% from 2017, mainly due to gains from the disposal of Du Xiaoman, (financial services), and fair value gains on private company investments”.

Under Liu’s leadership, Baidu Ventures made numerous investments in the AI, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies.

In March this year, it participated in a $14.5m series A round for US-based AI-equipped business automation technology developer Automation Hero and a seed round of undisclosed amount for China-based children’s education platform operator Proud Kids.

In February, Baidu Ventures participated in a series A round of eight-digit dollar sum for China-based computer vision technology developer Aqrose Technology and a $15m series A round for US-based robotics systems developer Veo Robotics.

In January, moreover, it was involved in a $10m series A round for China-based digital information encryption and decryption chip manufacturer Serica Integrated Circuits Technologies, a RMB100m series B round for China-based 3D optical technology developer Light Theto and led a $3m angel round for China-based AI-empowered unsupervised learning, interpretability, decision-making and anti-fraud technologies developer RealAI.

Before joining Baidu Ventures, Liu had been a partner for six years at Legend Star, a venture capital subsidiary of conglomerate Legend Holdings. He joined Legend Star in 2011 and in his time at the unit its investments included speech recognition technology developer AI Speech and educational app developer Knowbox.