Daar zijn ze weer de Chinezen. Dit keer met een elektrische scooter, de Niu, die na China nu ook Europa moet veroveren. Initiatiefnemer Li Yinan is geen kleine jongen. Hij had eerder topfuncties bij het netwerkbedrijf Huawei en zoekmachine Baidu.
Li Yinan, a former chief technology officer at China’s largest Internet search-engine, has started a company developing electric scooters with plans to export them to Europe.
Li says the scooter, often seen in China as a poor man’s ride, is ripe for a high-tech luxury makeover. Called Niu, after the Chinese word for buffalo, Li’s offering has a design that evokes comparisons to the Vespa and will be powered by the same lithium-ion batteries that go into the Tesla Model S. It will also come loaded with features such as remote monitoring of battery levels and anti-theft location services.
“Our ancestors worked on the backs of buffaloes,” Li said in an interview at his office in Beijing, near the 798 art district. “Now we want to have young people get back on ‘Niu’ and see it as a cool icon.”
A premium, Interent-connected e-scooter remains an untested concept in China, where Li estimates about 35 million electric bicycles and scooters are sold each year. Saying only that it will be pegged at the top end of the market, Li will be competing with dozens of cheaper brands. At roadside stalls in many cities, bicycle shops fabricate electric rides out of inexpensive lead-acid batteries and small motors.
“It looks chic to ride for fun and leisure,” Han Weiqi, an analyst at CSC International Holdings Ltd. in Shanghai, said of the Niu scooter. “But the success of the product will hinge on whether people are willing to pay for high-tech content for what’s traditionally seen as a low-end product.”
Li, now 45, is often described as a former prodigy in Chinese media because he entered university at the age of 15 and became chief engineer, and later the youngest vice president, at network-equipment maker Huawei Technologies Co. He was seen as apotential successor to founder Ren Zhengfei before he left to set up his own company, which he later sold to Huawei.
He joined Baidu Inc. in 2008 as chief technology officer to lead the development of the company’s next-generation search engine, before leaving to spearhead an e-commerce website operated by China Mobile Ltd.
Since 2011, Li has been a partner at GSR Ventures, a Beijing-based early-stage venture capital firm, where he specializes in wireless technology and Internet companies. He has backed game developer 51Play and personally invested in dudumeijia.com, a startup providing door-to-door manicures.
Li says making a difference in society matters as much as making a profit in his decision to start Niu. Electrified two-wheelers are helping cut carbon emissions by 42 million tons a year, or the equivalent of planting 7 billion trees, he said.
He invested $3 million of his own money into the venture and has completed a round of financing that raised $50 million in total. He declined to say how much the company is valued at. Manufacturing takes places in a former welding equipment plant in the city of Changzhou, about 100 miles northwest of Shanghai.
“I am all in on this, and I told my kid I can do it in a different way,” he said. “This is the last company I start up from scratch, and I want to make it right and create value for other people.”