Gateway to the East
A new €100m investment fund with China opens up some tantalising possibilities for technology companies – and for Ireland
Published 26/01/2014 | 02:30
Why is the Chinese state investing millions in a tiny island on the periphery of Europe? It could buy the whole gaff if it wanted to, and with the new Moody's rating that opens up Irish sovereign bonds to Asian funds, maybe it will.
For now, though, one of China's gigantic state investors is confining itself to backing Ireland through a €100m fund geared at helping Irish companies access Chinese markets and Chinese companies set up in Ireland to access Europe.
Three deals have been done and one source says that the Summit Bridge Capital China Ireland Technology Growth Capital Fund is already looking at raising more capital.
"It's not a cold start," insists Elaine Coughlan of Atlantic Bridge Capital, "we have been building up a pretty good pipeline."
She has been driving this project in a team-up between Atlantic and West Summit backed by Ireland's NPRF pension fund and Chinese sovereign wealth fund CIC.
It's thought that activity will be around 80 per cent engaged in aiding Irish companies launching into China and just 20 per cent going the other way. But the future possibilities in the opposite direction are what is tantalising.
On announcing the fund, West Summit Capital boss Raymond Yang underlined "Ireland's critical role as a major hub of activity connecting Europe with international markets and a centre of technology innovation in the region". Highly influential in China, West Summit is a Beijing and Silicon Valley fund partner led by high-calibre people who have brought companies to Nasdaq listing. This is its first joint-venture tech fund and its only JV with a European partner.
The CIC is the world's fifth largest sovereign wealth fund with €400bn under management.
"This is the first time CIC has done a fund focused on a particular country for technology," said Coughlan.
For the Chinese authorities to even sanction a public announcement like the one made this week is considered highly unusual – and possibly highly significant.
This fund has been a long time in gestation – the visit by the now Chinese President Xi Jinping to Ireland in 2012, the only European Union state he visited en route home from the US, is considered significant.
It has prompted suggestions that the wider possibility is Ireland becoming China's technology gateway into European markets in the way it has become the European base for Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and more, for Chinese equivalents that are rapidly going global, like Alibaba, Tencent and Weibo.
"I think that is the opportunity but obviously we have to build it and get successful companies in both directions," said Coughlan.
"They're interested in a whole suite of products and technologies they need. The combination of Ireland and China resonates with them. They're interested in the expansion of networks and relationships."
The same things that attract Facebook and Google and hundreds of other companies to locate their European operations here holds Chinese appeal – low corporate tax, the euro currency, an open economy, and an educated workforce and the world's largest single market on the doorstep.
It's believed that China is looking to exploit both technology partnerships and transfer pricing opportunities here.
"I think in coming months quite a few Chinese companies will be coming here," said Coughlan.
"There's a pipeline there, the IDA are very focused on it. They will move slowly, look for the talent and technology to scale a business out of Ireland.
"They're not looking to be Chinese companies, they want to be global businesses. That's the opportunity. The first generation of entrepreneurs was in China, the next is looking West," Coughlan said.
Some of China's major technology giants are training more serious focus on Europe, having had a bruising time of trying to execute their global expansion through the United States, where there has been a festering resistance to their presence and acquisitions there.
The US government has refused to do business with Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei on cyber-security grounds with a US congressional intelligence committee saying the company and other Chinese tech firms were a threat to national security, causing Huawei to pull back from the US market and focus more on Europe.
Last year, Huawei set up a research and development centre, co-located in Cork and Dublin and employing 50 high-skill research staff.
Beyond that, the Chinese presence here has been muted – but that could be changing.
For companies going the other way, China is one of the biggest and quickest growing markets in the world for technology products and services.
The investments to be made by Summit Bridge will be in tech in the very broadest sense – in technology-related food, agriculture, industrial and cleantech ventures.
More than 110 Irish companies have invested over €500m in 241 projects in China; investment the other way is at around €110m.
Food exports to China grew by over 40 per cent, with values trebling over the last three years to reach €390m in 2013, with food tech opportunity forming part of this.
With the end of milk quotas for the first time in three decades, dairy farmers can produce as much milk as they like, enhancing the Irish opportunity in China.
"The Irish companies we invest in won't just get capital, it's knowledge and network access and ability to scale," says Coughlan of what Summit Bridge will do for client companies.
"The next wave of globally successful tech companies is coming out of China, and that's a huge opportunity for Irish companies.
"There are already around 250 Irish companies in China but they struggle without a strategic partner or knowledge."